Toddler Tantrum Dos and Don’ts

Tips on how to put a stop to your little one's temper tantrums and public meltdowns – or prevent them from happening.

We’ve all faced it – demands, pleading, whining, raised voices, crying, screaming – maybe even head-butting. They’re examples of how toddlers misbehave, sometimes in public.

Toddlers are in the “I want it” stage, seeking independence and mastery over their world. Developmentally, this is what toddlers should be doing. Still, when a toddler tantrum strikes, here’s what to do – and not do.

The dos

Do: Take stock before you go out. Is your child tired, hungry or uncomfortable? If the answer is “yes,” rethink. You are setting you and your child up for a less-than-stellar public experience. If you feel you need to go out and take your child with you, try to make sure he has had a nap or is rested, and make sure he’s had something to eat and drink.

Do: Have the “magic” bag with you, or a large purse. Those diaper bags come in handy long after your kids are out of diapers. Diaper bags hold myriad wonderful items, from sippy cups and snacks to wipes and an array of toys that distract. Take advantage of the magic bag, and occasionally replenish it.

Do: Go over expectations and practice when opportunities present themselves at home. Review what behavior you want to see in your child before going out. Ask your child to repeat what you told him – i.e., “We are getting cat food for Sassy only.” This way you know your toddler both heard and understood you.

Do: Be clear and follow through. Expectations are most effective when you are consistent with your message and with its delivery. You must follow through, too. For example, if you say, “If you throw a fit, we will not go to the park” and your child does have a meltdown, you do not go to the park.

Do: Remember to take DEEP breaths. Are you tired, hungry or short on patience? If you must go out, be aware of how you are feeling. Remember that your emotions only serve to fuel your toddler. He can smell it, and he reacts to it. If you trigger, your toddler will also react. A child learns his self-regulation through parental regulation.

Do: Respond quickly if your child begins to meltdown. The quicker you respond, the better. Toddlers have short fuses. Sometimes a child can regain his composure if you address his behavior immediately. If your child becomes more manipulative or implodes, vacate, calmly. Shopping? Leave the cart.

The don’ts

Don’t: Ignore your toddler. Engage him and be attuned to how he is feeling in public. Your engagement with your child can go a long way to stopping a tantrum before it even begins, because he has your attention. Is your toddler calm or does he appear to be overwhelmed by his surroundings (think loud, bright big box store or a shopping mall)?

Don’t: Reward your child for undesirable behavior or bribe him. Negotiating allows your tyke to savor the first sweet tastes of successful manipulation. A reward of this nature only encourages a child to misbehave again.

Don’t: Worry about other people surrounding you. Many of them are parents and have had similar experiences. Focus on your child and his behavior.

Illustration by Mino Watanabe

This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2016.

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