How to Handle Tantrums

Most parents are familiar with the dreadful tantrum–it can happen to the most mild-mannered of children. When your toddler is engaged in a full-tilt meltdown, it can be easy to feel like you’re spiraling out of control as well. So how can you bring some much-needed sanity to the situation? Below are some tips to help you handle those toddler tantrums without throwing one of your own.

1. Determine the source of the problem.

Tantrums can surface for a number of different reasons. It could be that your child is hungry, or tired, or uncomfortable. Maybe they really want to have something that you’ve told them is off-limits. Or, it’s possible that they’re upset or frustrated about something, but they might not know the proper way to express how they’re feeling. One of the most helpful things you can do right off the bat is to recognize what the potential source of the tantrum might be; this will give you a better understanding of the situation, so you won’t feel completely lost when your kid is turning on the waterworks.

2. Be as consistent as possible with discipline and boundaries.

Scores of studies suggest that a “loosey-goosey” approach to boundaries and discipline actually produces anxiety in young children. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, children actually crave boundaries. When they don’t feel that sense of structure, they’ll test the limits by throwing tantrums, but many times it’s just an attempt to find out where the buck stops. If the buck stops in different places each time, they’ll take that as an open invitation to get whatever they want by simply throwing more tantrums. Establish consistent routines for bedtime, naptime, running errands, etc., so that they’ll have a sense of structure that will be easy to recognize and follow.

3. Stand your ground.

This isn’t always a popular stance, but it gets the job done. If your child wants the latest doodad that has been strategically placed on the end cap at the supermarket, they might fuss, whine, and cry to get it. If you’ve already determined that you’re not going to buy it (because they already have 15 other doodads just like it at home), stick with your decision and be willing to endure the stress, frustration, and possible embarrassment of their tantrum just to stand your ground. If you give in to your child’s demands out of exasperation, they’ll know exactly what they need to do in order to get what they want the next time–throw another tantrum. It’s simple: When you stand your ground, you stay in control; if you yield to the pressure of the moment, you have forfeited your parental authority.

4. Praise and reward good behavior.

If your child asks for something politely, that’s something to recognize and reward. Lavish the praise on them for being respectful and calm. That doesn’t mean that you give them every single thing they politely ask for, but you should definitely make a distinction between those times and the times when they try to get their way through throwing tantrums.

5. Utilize the “out of sight, out of mind” principle.

Smaller children in particular have a penchant for wanting whatever is right in front of them, no matter what it may be. Learn the art of “strategic distraction,” where you redirect your child’s attention to something else while you remove or hide the forbidden item. You can either replace it with something else, or just start engaging in an entirely different activity. You can also change the child’s environment to help them get their mind off whatever they’re fixated upon at the time. Kids have short attention spans, so often all it takes is a quick trip outside (or to a different room) to take their mind (and attitude) in a different direction.

Although it would be nice, unfortunately there’s no 100% foolproof way to prevent toddler tantrums. You can, however, use the tips outlined above to help you minimize those meltdowns and put the odds in your favor as much as possible.