When kids test their boundaries by throwing a hissy fit, it can test your patience. So what are parents to do when these common but trying experiences happen?
While toddler temper tantrums are all too common, many parents aren’t quite sure how to deal with them. Getting to know the meaning behind tantrums is a good place to start. Like a lot of behavior, temper tantrums are communicating something about your child’s wants and needs. Consider babies- crying lets their parents know that they are in need of food or comfort. When your toddler throws a temper tantrum, think about what they are telling you. Are they tired, hungry, stressed? Is there a particular trigger? Are they feeling a strong emotion?
Toddlers are just beginning to discover their words, emotions, and growing independence. Critical language skills are being developed during this time that are important for self-expression and self-understanding. Just because they haven’t yet learned the words to express complex emotional states, doesn’t mean those big feelings aren’t there. This is important to keep in mind as you determine how to deal with toddler temper tantrums.
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Frustration and raising your voice are natural responses to a tantruming toddler, but they aren’t necessarily helpful. You may even be tempted to give in to the tantrum if it occurs publicly or causes embarrassment, but that just encourages a pattern of tantruming. Instead, try approaching the tantrum in a calm, intentional way. Going low and slow can de-escalate the energetic state of your toddler. Acknowledging your toddler’s feelings lets them know you got the message they’re sending, and you’re trying to understand how they are feeling. It also serves as a great model for emotional language skills. “I can tell you are feeling upset because you didn’t get to play with that toy.”
With toddlers, you can also defuse the situation with some humor or distraction. Taking a light-hearted approach in the right situation can feel good for both of you. Give yourself permission to be silly. Life is full of bumps, and this can help teach your kids not to sweat the small stuff. On the other hand, for bigger tantrums, it’s okay to be firm and set clear boundaries. Just try not to be angry, and take a moment if you need it. Your response should match the level of the tantrum. Kids can gauge their behavior based off your response.
There are also things you can do to make tantrums less likely. Try praising good behavior often and ignoring undesirable behaviors like whining. Having conversations about emotions, and helping your child to name their feelings will also lay the groundwork for emotional regulation. Of course, there are times when you will need to take charge, especially if safety is a concern. And if your child’s tantrums are extreme, or excessive, you may want to consult your pediatrician or a behavior specialist for support.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Be patient with yourself and your child. Getting through tantrums can be difficult. But finding ways to acknowledge one another’s feelings and engage in cooperative self-calming will have long-lasting benefits for the entire family.