The trials and tribulations of toddler tantrums

parenting parenting toddler tantrums

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions it is our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” L.R. Knost

It’s happened to us all. You’re pushing a trolley through the supermarket, your little 2-year old nugget of joy toddling along beside you, being cute and precious. Then suddenly they spot something. Something they want. Something they can’t live without. Something that you have no intention of buying. It could be a toy, it could be sweets, it could be toilet cleaner, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they want it and they want it now. The minute you refuse to give it to them all hell breaks loose. Your little ray of sunshine starts to do a passable impression of a hell demon. They scream, they cry, they bite, they kick, they lie on the floor and wail. Nothing you say or do seems to help. You try reasoning, you try scolding, you even try pleading, but they sense your weakness and they just get louder. Now people are looking, older women are offering to help, younger women are judging, there’s some men in the background tutting. You can feel the embarrassment rising off you in waves.  What do you do?

Well first of all, let’s stop for a minute. The one thing you need to understand about tantrums is that they are normal. Absolutely, completely normal. Every child has a temper tantrum at some stage. Yes, some children are more inclined to them, but if a mother tells you that her little angel has never, ever thrown a wobbler, she is lying.

Young children, usually from around the age of two (they are called the terrible twos for a reason) get frustrated easily. It could be because they want something and they don’t understand why they can’t have it, it could be because they are having trouble communicating their needs or it could be because they can’t figure something out. If your child is hungry or tired, his threshold for becoming frustrated is lower, so he is more likely to have an outburst, (in fairness, we all know what it’s like to be hangry). A tantrum isn’t your child’s way of embarrassing you, it’s his way of expressing himself.

So how can you stop tantrums? There’s no fool proof way to ensure that your child never has a tantrum, but there are measures you can take to avoid them and there are ways of dealing with them when they happen.

To reduce the amount or severity of tantrums, try to encourage good behaviour in your child from a young age. Reward and praise the behaviour that you want, so that your child understands how you would like them to act.

A steady routine can help to keep your child from getting overly hungry or tired, which can help to keep tantrums at bay. Work around this routine, in other words delay your shopping trip until after your child has eaten or had their nap.

Give your child a sense of control. Everyone likes to have some power in their life. So allow your child to make simple decisions themselves. Let them choose the shirt they want to wear or which type of fruit they want to eat. Keep the options simple; a or b, so that they don’t get confused, but allow them to choose for themselves.

Avoid triggers. If your child always has a tantrum in a certain shop, then avoid bringing them there, if they act up in restaurants, maybe wait until they are older before bringing them out to dinner. Ensure that toys and tasks are age appropriate, so that your child doesn’t get frustrated by being unable to do something. 

If you find yourself in a situation where a tantrum is imminent, and you can see it starting, try to head it off by acknowledging your child’s emotion and distracting them. “Yes I know that you are feeling angry because you want to have that toy. But you have one just like it at home. Why don’t we play with that toy when we get back?”

Once a tantrum begins, there isn’t much you can do except wait it out. Stay close to your child, so that they feel secure and safe, but let them scream and shout. When they are in full “melt down” don’t try to reason or distract them, it’s too late and the more you argue or try to reason, the longer they’ll go on.  

Remember to stay calm (even if you’re not) if you let your emotions become raised it will only exacerbate the situation. Speak quietly and slowly and don’t argue or lose your temper.

It is very important that you don’t give in. Do not give in to your child just to stop the tantrum. If screaming in a shop gets them what they want, they’ll do it the next time they want something. Your child must understand that no means no. Consistency is key, react the same way every time so that your child knows the consequences of his actions. If your child’s tantrum involves running away or becoming aggressive then it might be best to remove them from the situation, take them somewhere quiet and safe where they can have their tantrum and you can keep your cool. (You wouldn’t be the first mom to carry her child out of a supermarket and leave her full trolley behind, and trust me, you won’t be the last.)

“Ellen had long ago stopped being embarrassed by temper tantrums. She flipped it and wore it like a badge of honor. A temper tantrum was a sign that a mom said no when it counted.”  - Lisa Scottoline

The key thing to remember about tantrums is that they are not a reflection on your parenting. They are normal and they happen whether you’re a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, whether you breast fed or bottle fed, whether your baby slept in a cot or in your bed. It makes no difference, every parent has gone through it and they know exactly how it feels to be in your situation. Tantrums are your child’s way of expressing himself and they are nothing that you should be ashamed of. So next time your little angel shows his devilish side, take a breath and remember that strong willed children become strong adults, which is exactly what we want our children to grow up to be.