How to Tame Toddler Tantrums

A pediatrician at Henry Ford Health and fellow parent offers tips on how to tame toddler tantrums without losing your cool.

We’ve all been there. You’re out and about with your toddler and they have a complete meltdown. It’s common to feel shame, embarrassment and plain old frustration, but take heart, says Henry Ford Health pediatrician and mom, Dr. Stacy Leatherwood Cannon. Toddler tantrums are part of life and learning to work through them is part of being a parent.

In a blog post on the Henry Ford Health website, Dr. Cannon assures parents that it’s not a reflection of you when your toddler loses it, whether at the mall or during a family gathering. 

“Young children don’t have the language or developmental skills to express themselves,” says Dr. Cannon. “Most importantly, they can’t meet their own basic needs. Add it all together and it’s the perfect storm for tantrums.”

Holidays, special occasions and special events all can put parents on high alert for the dreaded toddler tantrum. For example, standing in line to see Santa or visiting a house full of family members. Even taking a family photo can put pressure on your toddler’s capacity to cope.

Dr. Cannon points out that for kids under age 2, tantrums arise because little ones can’t communicate clearly what they think, feel or need. For example, they might be thirsty, tired, scared, hungry, need a diaper change – or all of the above.

The answer? Be prepared, Dr. Cannon advises on the Henry Ford Health blog. “Tantrums are essentially a developmental milestone,” she says. “If you prepare in advance – and develop a plan for how to handle them – both you and your child will benefit.”

More tips for dealing with toddler tantrums:

Understand your child and their triggers.

Usually, parents can identify one or two things that are going to be major button-pushers for their child. For some kids, it’s being overtired or hungry. For others, the overstimulation of certain activities is enough to push them into the tantrum zone. The more you get to know your child, the easier it will be for you to know their specific triggers.

Dr. Cannon suggests dealing with this by having the antidote at the ready. For example, pack a snack, make sure your child has a nap before attending an activity and limit your time at a busy event that may overstimulate them.

Adopt an attitude of calm – and practice it.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when dealing with a child who is losing their temper, especially out in public. The key to diffusing the situation is calm, says Dr. Cannon.

“Instead of engaging with them or trying to calm them, speak slowly and calmly,” she says. Another tip is to ask them to speak calmly to you when they are ready and then don’t say anything else. “Just wait,” suggests Dr. Cannon. “Not only will you be modeling appropriate behavior for your child, but you will also be better equipped to get their attention – and respect.”

Speak to your child on their level.

If you sense trouble coming, Dr. Cannon recommends that you get down to your child’s eye level to talk to them. “Explain what lies ahead,” she says. “Kids who know what to expect tend to do better than those who are caught off guard.”

Don’t give in to pressure from your child.

It’s important to be consistent, says Dr. Cannon: “Your ‘no’ should remain a ‘no’ and your ‘yes’ should stay a ‘yes.’” 

Toddlers may pull out all the stops in an attempt to get their way, so don’t be swayed. 

“If you give in just to sidestep a tantrum, your child will learn that if they cry, scream, kick and flail, you will eventually give them what they want.” 

Consistency is key, says Dr. Cannon. Make sure any other parents or caregivers stick to the same rules.

Quote from Henry Ford Health doctor about toddler tantrums

It’s OK to use a little leverage.

We don’t live in a perfect world so your child is not always going to be at their best when you need to take them somewhere. Dr. Cannon has a trick she uses.

“When I go to the grocery store with my 3-year-old son, or if I know he’s not well rested, I use a 99-cent toy car as leverage to encourage good behavior. He gets to play with it in the cart and I get to shop tantrum-free. It’s a win-win for both of us,” she says.

Have zero tolerance for harmful behaviors.

Kicking, hitting, biting, throwing toys or other aggressive behaviors can get people hurt. Dr. Cannon says that you need to show your child that this type of behavior is not acceptable. 

“Whether that means a brief time out, or leaving a park or a restaurant or wherever you are isn’t important. It’s the consistency of the message that really matters.”

Is there a way to minimize the number of toddler tantrums?

Dr. Cannon says that sometimes tantrums are an indicator that the child is not receiving enough positive attention. 

“Notice when your child is doing something good and shower them with praise,” says Dr. Cannon. “Reward children with your words and actions – not always with a toy or treat.” 

When to get help:

While toddler tantrums are a normal developmental phase, Dr. Cannon says to contact your pediatrician if the outbursts are increasing in frequency and/or lasting longer than 20-30 minutes. Likewise, if your child is harming themself or others, ask your doctor for help.

For more health advice, please visit henryford.com. To explore more topics about children’s health visit metroparent.com/top-kids-health-questions.

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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