Tantrums are normal for toddlers, even legendary. Toddlers feel so passionately about everything, and they simply don't yet have enough frontal cortex capacity to control themselves when they're upset.
That said, you'll be glad to know that many tantrums are avoidable. Since a good number of tantrums result from feeling powerless, toddlers who feel they have some control over their lives have fewer tantrums. And since toddlers who are tired and hungry don't have the inner resources to handle frustration, managing your toddler's life so he isn't asked to cope when he's hungry or tired will reduce tantrums. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Here's how to tame those toddler tantrums:
Stay calm and reconnect.
Remember that once your toddler is upset, her brain isn't capable of calming her down. She needs a calm adult to soothe her so she can re-regulate. So when she feels disconnected or overwhelmed, your priority is to calm yourself, and reconnect with her.
Try to handle upsets so they don’t escalate.
It's amazing how acknowledging your child's anger can stop a brewing tantrum in its tracks. Before you set a limit, acknowledge what your child wants.
"You wish you could have more juice, you love that juice, right?"
(Look, he's already nodding yes!) Then set the limit:
"You need to eat some eggs, too. We'll have more juice later."
(As you move his cup out of sight.) If he responds with anger, acknowledge it:
"That makes you so mad. You really want the juice."
Remember to keep your words pared down. It's hard for toddlers to follow language when they're upset.
"You are so mad!"
Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead.
Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation — all of which replenish your toddler's internal resources — prevent most tantrums. These steps also reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no — to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand. Don't drag a hungry or tired kid to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.
“I guess we can’t do a big shop today. We’ll just get the milk and bread and go home. And here’s a cheese stick to eat while we wait in line.”
Make sure your child has a full reservoir of your love and attention.
Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum. If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect with some roughhousing and laughter before you try to shop for dinner.
Sidestep power struggles.
You don't have to prove you're right. Your child is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health or other peoples' rights.
When your child gets angry, remember that anger is a defense against more uncomfortable feelings, such as vulnerability, fear, hurt, grief.
If you can help your child to notice those more vulnerable underlying feelings, the anger won't be needed as a defense, and will dissipate.
"You're mad! I hear that you wish we could stay at the playground... It's sad that we have to go now."
Think about what you feel like when you’re swept with exhaustion, rage and hopelessness. If you do lose it, you want someone to understand. You don't want them to get upset too. You don't want them to try to talk you out of your feelings. You want someone stronger to hold everything else together, reassuring you and helping you get yourself under control — but only after you've had a good cry.
So when your child gets so upset that they erupt into a full-blown tantrum, don't try to talk them out of it. Just stay close, even if he won't let you touch him. He needs to know you're there, and still love him. Be calm and reassuring. Don’t try to reason with him. Your goal is just to create safety, so he can let all those feelings come up. Once he gets a chance to show you his upset feelings, he'll feel, and act, a lot better.
After the tantrum
First, take some “cozy time” together to reconnect and reassure. (No, you're not "rewarding" the tantrum. She needed this connection with you or she wouldn't have had the tantrum to begin with! And of course, make sure that your child gets enough “cozy time” with you that she doesn’t have to tantrum to get it.)
Second, tell the story of what happened, so that your child can understand and reflect, which builds the pre-frontal cortex:
"You were having such a good time playing at the playground ... you didn't want to go home. When I said it was time to go, you were sad and mad. You yelled NO and hit me. Right? I said "No hitting!" and you cried and cried. I stayed right here with you and when you were ready we had a big, big hug ... Now you feel better. It's hard to leave the playground when you're having fun. It's okay to feel sad. You can tell me "SAD!" and I will understand. But no hitting; hitting hurts. And you know what? We can go to the playground again tomorrow and have fun. There is always more fun for us!"
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aha Parenting, and was republished with permission.