Tantrums can be frustrating, but toddlers actually don’t have control of these tantrums.
Learn psychologist-backed ways to respond to tantrums, and other tips for surviving these moments of toddlerhood.
Every parent’s been there. Your toddler is sweet and gentle one moment, and then it happens. Out of nowhere, they break into a tantrum. They might cry, scream, hit, stomp, throw something, thrash, or otherwise express strong emotions forcefully. And often, that happens at the most inconvenient moment for you.
You may feel frustrated or embarrassed, especially if this happens in public. What should you do about the tantrum?
According to psychologists, the answer might not be what you expect. This is because tantrums aren't actually something that your little one has control over. And get this – they are completely normal.
Today, we'll go over psychologist-backed ways to respond to tantrums, and other tips for surviving these moments of toddlerhood.
1. Keep in mind that tantrums are normal for toddlers
As Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of The Tantrum Survival Guide, shares, tantrums are a normal – and developmentally appropriate – part of toddlerhood.
They are a natural response when something overwhelms or frustrates a toddler, but they don’t know the right words to express their feelings. And they can’t help that their body wants to respond this way.
Says Dr. Schrag Hershberg in an episode of the Psychologists Off the Clock Podcast, “Tantrums are developmentally appropriate, even healthy…parents [should be] aware that there's nothing wrong with their child, or wrong with their parenting if their children are having tantrums, which generally children do at these ages.”
2. Understand what's going on in your little one's mind
Toddlers have tantrums when they experience strong emotions because their prefrontal cortex is only just starting to develop.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that regulates impulses and controls reasoning and development. When they become overwhelmed by emotions, a toddler can’t use their prefrontal cortex to reason their way out.
In other words, toddlers don’t have the same brain development as adults like you – and that’s to be expected.
So, the key isn’t stopping toddler tantrums completely. It’s about surviving them – knowing how to respond and help lessen their length.
3. Know what could trigger the strong emotions
Sometimes, knowing the situations that can lead to a tantrum can help you be ready. These include:
- Wanting something they can't have
- Something they've enjoyed has come to an end
- Struggling to communicate some other strong need or emotion
4. Model the calm
The most important thing to do during a toddler tantrum is to remain calm and show your child that you’re there for them.
By “modeling” the calm, you let them borrow your own emotional regulation skills, and help them out of the tantrum.
Sit with your child, acknowledge their emotions, and remind them of your love and presence.
You might also hug them, hold their hand, or put your hand on their shoulder.
5. Know when to direct attention away
It's also okay to do something else during the tantrum (say, look at something on your phone) as long as you emphasize that you're there if your child needs you.
This strategy works well if you think your little one is consistently having tantrums because they seek attention.
If you use this strategy, don't shame your child or frame walking away as a punishment. Instead, be calm and simply state the task you're going to complete. Also, reassure them that their body can be calm, and tell them you're ready to come back when they calm down.
6. Show empathy
Even if it seems like your child is throwing a tantrum over a "silly" thing, it's important to acknowledge how they feel. Again, something triggered their strong emotions and they need your help to move past them.
7. Set limits in an understanding way
Empathy doesn't always mean giving your child what they want when they're having a tantrum. It's still important to set limits. But do so kindly and calmly.
For instance, if your toddler wants to keep playing at the park more when you've said it's time to leave, you could tell them, "I know you want to stay. I wish playtime could last forever."
As Dr. Schrag Hershberg explains, this sets a limit without firmly saying no: "You're not just saying, no, you can't have more. You're joining with them in a connected, emotional way. They need to feel like you get it."
8. Play along
If your child starts to have a tantrum, another way to show empathy is to respond in a playful, fantastical way. This both distracts your child and shows you understand how they feel.
Take this example of a fantastical response from Dr. Schrag Hershberg: "It was 8:30 in the morning and [my little one] started screaming for a snack. We had just had breakfast… We were in the car. I said, I don't want a snack. What I want is for a chocolate cake to come down from the ceiling of the car with a fork that could automatically feed me while I was driving. And then he paused [his tantrum]."
9. Get your own emotions in check
We get it – tantrums can be frustrating. But take a deep breath and remember that your little one isn't doing anything wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with your parenting either. Your child needs you to model the calm.
If you need to step away and take a moment to reset, take that time. Use calming music, breathing techniques, visualizing when you held your little one for the first time, or whatever works best for you. Then, come back to your child when you've calmed down.
It might also help to explain how you were feeling to your little one.
For more tips on surviving toddler tantrums, learn more from Lovevery and positive discipline and Montessori expert Jody Malterre:
10. Don’t punish with a timeout
Putting your little one in timeout isn’t the best way to respond to a tantrum. After all, tantrums are normal emotional expressions. Your little one can’t control their tantrum, and isn’t able to regulate their emotions on their own in that moment.
It just doesn't make sense to punish them for an emotional response they have no control over. They need care and assistance in their tantrum moments, not a punishment.
11. Remove your child if they’re showing unsafe behavior
What if your child hurts someone else in the room – or themself? Or, what if your child’s emotional response puts a family member, friend, or pet in danger?
Just like any other unsafe situation, carry your child out of the space so there won’t be any further harm. Be firm and mention that what they did isn't okay. But at the same time, show kindness.
Once you've moved into the different space, focus on modeling the calm and showing empathy (as you should do in any other tantrum situation).
12. Teach your toddler ways to self-calm outside of tantrum times
Even though it's important to model the calm during a tantrum, it's helpful to teach your little one self-calming techniques at other times. These tips will better register when your little one isn't emotionally overwhelmed.
For example, model slow and deep breathing, or give your child a fidget toy to play with.
13. Recognize calm responses
When your little one keeps their body and voice calm, recognize their success and give them a high-five or hug. This applies whether they've calmed down right after a tantrum, or they've simply stayed calm in everyday life.
14. Give yourself grace
Remember that, even in the rough tantrum moments, you and your child are still doing your best. It's okay if you need to step out and regroup, especially if your little one has already had several tantrums within the day.
As your little one's brain matures, they'll eventually move past the tantrum stage. But for now, recognize tantrums are normal for your toddler.
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