Surviving Your Toddler’s Temper Tantrums

What are temper tantrums?

Temper tantrums are bursts of anger and frustration that are common among toddlers ages one to three years old. Some refer to this period of time as the “terrible twos,” because unpredictable mood swings may occur more frequently around this age. During a temper tantrum, children may scream, cry, and refuse to listen. If children get too worked up they may become violent by kicking, biting, hitting, or throwing things. In some cases children can become so upset that they hyperventilate or vomit. The whole experience of a temper tantrum can be upsetting for both parents and children. 

Why do toddlers have temper tantrums?

Around 12 to 18 months, toddlers become more interested in asserting their independence and exploring their environment. They may more aggressively test limits, like climbing on furniture or reaching for dangerous objects. This requires you to step in and stop their behavior, causing your child to become angry and frustrated (just think how you feel when you’re told to stop doing something). By this age most children have hit significant physical milestones, like walking and picking up objects. Despite their advanced physical development, toddlers lack the verbal and emotional skills to voice their feelings. A temper tantrum allows children to express themselves to you so that you can understand how they feel. Tantrums are actually a normal and healthy developmental stage because they allow your children the opportunity to learn how to express themselves more appropriately. 

Tantrums are common among toddlers because of their limited social and emotional skills.

What can I do to help my child during a temper tantrum?

Remain calm yourself.

It is normal to feel anxious, annoyed, and even angry when your child has a temper tantrum, but as a parent you can help your child by modeling calm behavior. So before you intervene on your child’s tantrum, take a few deep breaths yourself.

Briefly state the command.

For young toddlers who are not yet verbal, give instructions in as few words as possible, such as “Get down” rather than “Get down off the table, because you could fall and hurt yourself.” For older children you can explain why you are setting a limit while validating their emotions. For example, “You are angry that we need to leave the park, but we must go to the doctor’s.” By stating what your child is feeling (such as sad, angry, or afraid), you are teaching them how to label and express their emotions, which is a necessary skill as they get older. 

Ignore bad behavior that isn’t dangerous.

If you frequently give your child attention when he or she behaves well, then you can try ignoring bad behavior by not responding or making eye contact with your child. Once the bad behavior ends, point this out to them. For example, “You calmed down so now we can continue playing.” If your child is engaging in anything dangerous, don’t ignore the behavior and take appropriate action to stop them immediately. 

How can I help my child develop social and emotional skills so that tantrums happen less frequently?

Enter your child’s world through play.

Spending quality time with your children doing the things they like provides them with the positive attention that they crave. Try to allow them to lead the play by choosing the toy or activity. Consistent positive attention in this way is valuable for your little one’s social and emotional development. 

Pay attention to good behavior.

Parents often pay the most attention to children when they are misbehaving, but attention is a type of positive reinforcement for children. Children tend to repeat the behavior that brings the most attention. Giving attention when a child misbehaves sends the message that continuing to misbehave brings more attention. A more effective approach is to give children lots of attention when they show good behavior. For example, “You listened to mommy when she asked you to stop! Great job!” 

Don’t sneak away.

When you have to separate from your child, it can be tempting to leave them with another caretaker when they are distracted to keep them from crying. Unfortunately this practice leads children to feel more anxious in the long run. A better approach is to say goodbye and assure them that you will return later. Your child may still cry and protest, but he or she will learn that you always come back. When you do return, give your child a big hello and a warm welcome. 

Allow your child to practice independence with reasonable limits.

Toddlers are eager to explore their world and benefit from the opportunity to do so. Try to give children the chance to play freely and practice caring for themselves. When your child does try to master a skill, such as dressing or feeding himself, be sure to praise his efforts. However, if he is putting himself or others in harms’ way then you must set limits and stop the behavior. 

Model good behavior for your child.

Teaching a child to behave appropriately involves not just telling them how to behave, but showing them. This is especially true when it comes to coping with anger and frustration. Act as an example for your child of how you’d like them to handle negative feelings. If you find yourself getting aggravated, use it as a teaching opportunity. For example, “Daddy is getting frustrated right now so I’m going to take a few deep breaths to calm down.”

How can I cope with the terrible twos?

Give yourself a break.

If you find yourself feeling frustrated by your tot’s behavior, know that these feelings are normal and do not make you a bad parent. Make sure you have outlets to release these emotions, such as through exercise, mindfulness, talking to a spouse, family member, or friend, and participating in positive activities that you enjoy. 

Don’t take it personally.

Your child’s temper tantrums are a normal and healthy developmental stage. It is helpful to remind yourself that your child is not doing it purposely. It’s simply that he or she isn’t able to manage anger and other negative emotions at this age.

Practice acceptance and patience.

As a parent you can try your best to raise healthy and happy children, but some parts of it are outside of your control and require you to simply accept. For example, your child may feel overtired, hungry, or just have an “off” day. Changing a child’s behavior and teaching social and emotional skills takes time and won’t happen overnight. 

Try to let go of other people’s judgments.

If you receive negative looks or feedback from others, do your best to not let it get to you. Other people may not understand the complexity of child development and incorrectly assume that a child’s temper tantrums at this age are a reflection of you as a parent. You can choose to either completely ignore their judgements or come up with a simple statement to say to intruders, such as “Thank you for the advice, but I have it under control. We’re working on learning how to deal with anger, so I’d rather you let me handle it.” 

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Bring out the best in your children.

Shelov, S. P., Altmann, T. R., Hannemann, R. E., & Trubo, R. (2014). Caring for your baby and young child: Birth to age 5. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 

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