Toddlers are notorious for throwing tantrums, whether they’re justified or seemingly not so.
They can throw fits over stolen toys or sandwiches cut at the wrong angle or being offered the wrong shirt.
Maybe your toddler screams or cries or throws herself to the ground or hits or bites.
Maybe you become the most noticeable people in the grocery store.
It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating. And it can feel hopeless.
But there are ways to bring your toddler back from the ledge.
Your toddler is an emotional creature.
It helps to remember, first, that your toddler is experiencing huge emotions that he has no idea how to handle. To you, it’s not a big deal that the red block isn’t staying attached to the blue one, but to him, he’s trying something and failing. He’s realizing that things don’t always magically happen the way he wants them, and that’s a big concept for a small person.
I know–easier said than done, especially when you’re in public and feeling embarrassed or overwhelmed. But your child is dealing with something, and she needs your help. Not your frustration. Take a breath. Remember how very little your toddler is. Know that every parent has been where you are now (so they have no place to judge or complain). Fake it ’til you make it–put on your best “I swear I’m calm” face, use your most soothing voice, and take a pause whenever you feel like blowing up.
1. Get down on your toddler’s level.
Physically bend down eye-to-eye whenever possible. Don’t force your child to look into your eyes, though. Ask him to look at you, but if he’s too upset, let him calm down until he’s ready to face you directly.
2. Use gentle contact.
Place a hand on her shoulder, lightly; hold his hand if he’ll let you; allow her to sit in your lap. If your toddler responds well to it, show her that you are right here to help.
3. Get him thinking and/or moving.
The best way to distract a toddler from a tantrum is to offer up a mental challenge. If your toddler knows how to count, ask her to count with you (while you guide her to each number). If he knows the ABCs, start with A. Ask her to name what’s on her shirt (or yours). Ask him to blow big breaths and “blow up” an invisible balloon. Ask her to jump four times; or reach up high and then down low; or touch her nose and then her knee and then her elbow.
Use what works. Sometimes one method works and sometimes another does, but, generally, if you can find a physical or mental task your toddler enjoys, he’s going to snap out of full-blown tantrum mode pretty quickly.
4. Explain (and validate) the feeling.
Your toddler might not know the emotion he’s feeling every time he’s upset. Guide him to those words that will help him identify and deal with them in the future. “I see that made you feel mad.” “You’re feeling frustrated.” “I know that makes you feel sad.” “That noise scared you.”
The biggest key now is the phrase: “…and that’s okay.” It really is okay that she’s angry that the dog won’t follow her. She’s allowed to have those feelings. (She just needs to be shown how to channel them instead of acting on them.)
5. Use an “I know, but” statement.
“I know that you wanted to play with the Elsa doll, but right now it is Kinley’s turn.”
Keep it simple. These statements might go over your toddler’s head in the beginning, and they might be ignored, but they help explain the situation to your child. After hearing them enough, your toddler will probably start understanding what you’re saying, and start responding to them.
6. Repeat yourself.
Even with the most level-headed toddler (that’s a paradox, if I ever heard one), your tantrum probably won’t be resolved the first time around. Try rearranging your explanation until things click (or your fickle toddler moves on–because that’s okay, too!).
“I know you feel angry being in the shopping cart, and that’s okay, but mommy needs to get some groceries.”
Once your toddler is calm and/or understanding the situation and/or you see eyes start glazing over, it’s time to direct your child’s attention elsewhere. Offer up a choice–“would you like to play with your kitchen or read a book?” Play a game–“I spy with my little eye…” Draw your toddler’s attention away from whatever was causing a meltdown in the first place (because toddlers can sometimes be goldfish and relive things over again).
And that should (usually) do it!
If your toddler gets violent…
Especially if your toddler gets violent. In that case, make sure you state (again, in simple terms) 1. That it’s okay to be upset, but that it’s not okay to use her hands/feet. 2. That doing so hurts people.
Toddlers are naturally very egocentric still, so don’t expect an immediate change. But continuing to explain again and again about the consequences of his actions will eventually click for him.
Remember to pick your battles–it’s not worth fighting an emotional toddler over everything–but don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
Like anything in parenting, these methods might not work for every child–just like they won’t work every time for even the right child. It’s all about trial and error, being patient, and being persistent.
You’ve got this.
Let me know if these or other methods have worked for you!