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How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums: Tips From an Expert

Stay calm, don’t give in and try to refocus their attention

Child crying and screaming, with caregiver handing over a lollipop, with another caregiver with hands on head, stressed

Have you had to console your 2-year-old angel because they’re flipping out in the middle of the grocery store — again? How about when your 3-year-old starts having a meltdown at a birthday party because they see another kid opening presents and not them?

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Some of us have to deal with toddler temper tantrums more often than we want. Temper tantrums are common between ages 1 and 4, and while these temper tantrums are tough on the toddler, they can be tougher on the parents and caregivers.

A temper tantrum can include the following behaviors:

  • Screaming.
  • Yelling.
  • Crying.
  • Biting.
  • Hitting.

And while the phase won’t last forever, it sometimes can feel like it will never end. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to have some strategies for handling your toddler’s unruly behavior.

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Pediatrician Svetlana Pomeranets, MD, shares how to deal with toddler tantrums and when it may be time to seek help.

Strategies for dealing with toddler tantrums

For every child who seems to skip the meltdown stage altogether, there’s another whose phase seems to last for years. The toddler years are a time of rapid growth — physically, mentally and socially. During this time, most toddlers develop their sense of self and start to want to do things for themselves.

“When a toddler’s desire to do something doesn’t align with their ability, frustration is often the result,” shares Dr. Pomeranets. “To further compound things, toddlers typically don’t have the language skills to ask for help if things don’t go smoothly.”

This gap between desire and ability can cause frustration, unruly behavior and tantrums. Dr. Pomeranets offers tips on how to handle toddler tantrums.

1. Redirect your toddler’s focus

It may help to distract your child by changing topics or focusing their attention on something else. But if you can’t redirect a child before a tantrum begins, let it play out.

“Trying to address the trigger in the midst of a tantrum will only make it last longer,” says Dr. Pomeranets. “Offering choices or asking, ‘Why are you acting this way?’ can make tantrums grow in intensity, like stoking the ashes of a smoldering fire.”

Attempting to discuss your child’s feelings in the heat of the moment may positively reinforce negative behavior. When your child misbehaves, it’s tempting to explain why the behavior isn’t OK. Instead of offering a lengthy explanation — which your child may struggle to understand — try to redirect your child either verbally or physically to help them focus on something else.

2. Keep calm

Although it’s not easy, strive for patience during a toddler tantrum.

“Offering a calming physical presence, without speaking, can go a long way,” encourages Dr. Pomeranets. “Gently putting your hand on the child’s shoulder or back can be very helpful.”

Of course, you can’t ignore throwing, kicking, hitting or unsafe behaviors. Make sure your child understands you won’t tolerate this behavior and what they’re doing hurts. But adult histrionics only add to the problem and yelling is as fruitless as talking.

“The goal is to ignore the behavior while providing safety,” she adds.

Consistency is key. At home, it’s best to let your child work through their tantrum. It can be embarrassing if your child has a meltdown in public and can make it harder for you to stay calm. If this happens, remove your child from the situation as quickly as possible. Take a deep breath, respond calmly and don’t give in to demands.

3. Don’t give in

It can be tempting to just give in and let your toddler have their way, especially if all you want is peace and quiet. Don’t cave in.

“You don’t want to give in just to make the tantrum stop,” says Dr. Pomeranets. “That sends the wrong message.”

If you give in when your child throws a tantrum about the candy/toy/whatever they want, it will only be harder next time. Head off tantrums over the long run by standing firm with your child.

“When you say ‘no,’ it should be absolute and not soft,” advises Dr. Pomeranets. “Don’t change your mind once you’ve said no just to end the seemingly never-ending tantrum, either. This will signal to your toddler that they’ll get what they want.”

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4. Talk about their emotions

Once their tantrum is over, then you should talk to your toddler about their behavior and their emotions. It can help to give them the words to describe how they’re feeling: “I understand you’re angry or upset.”

It can be helpful to talk about other ways they could voice or share their feelings. But the biggest thing is to show some empathy and show you understand how they feel.

Preventing tantrums

It’s good to know how to deal with a tantrum while your child is in the midst of one, but is there anything you can do to prevent temper tantrums?

Dr. Pomeranets says doing the following may make temper tantrums less likely:

  • Identify triggers. Recognizing trigger situations will allow you to redirect your child with choices before the tantrum ensues. Talk to your child about potential triggers before entering a store, for example. Let your child know they’re not allowed to have a candy bar, but if they’re good at the store, then they can have a treat afterward.
  • Be consistent. Staying on schedule and having a routine can be a lifesaver, especially when it comes to meals and naps. Plan outings at times when your child won’t be hungry and for longer trips, pack healthy snacks and drinks so your child has something to nibble on, if needed. Try to plan outings or errands around nap time when your child is less likely to feel irritable.
  • Let them choose. Giving your toddler options and letting them be a part of making decisions can help them feel in control. For example, let them choose between two snacks or decide between two different outfits to wear.
  • Head off boredom. Sometimes, it all comes down to boredom. Have you noticed that your child is bored? Cure it by thinking of some out-of-the-box activities. “Instead of harping on a child who is acting up out of boredom, try to come up with creative, socially acceptable ways to keep them occupied,” recommends Dr. Pomeranets.
  • Talk about transitions. Often, your toddler is thrown off by transitions such as something as simple as leaving the house, to bigger changes like welcoming a new sibling. It’s best to give them advance warning or notice that a change is about to occur so they can feel prepared.
  • Focus on their needs. Lack of sleep and/or an unbalanced diet can cause irritability, which can lead to a meltdown. If you notice, their sleep or nutrition is off, it’s worth getting those back on track.

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When to seek help

Tantrums can last up to 15 minutes and may happen up to three times a day. Parents are the typical targets. The rest of the time, you can expect your toddler to act appropriately for their age, learning, speaking and interacting normally with other children.

The good news is that by age 4​, your child’s temper tantrums should markedly diminish.

“However, there are ‘normal tantrums’ and there are ‘problem tantrums,’” notes Dr. Pomeranets. “A toddler shouldn’t be attacking others or injuring themselves severely during a tantrum.”

When misbehavior strikes, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you aren’t alone.

“Your child won’t still be going through this phase when they go off to college,” she adds. “If you’re concerned that your child may be having problem tantrums, ask your pediatrician for help. They will evaluate your child and offer guidance and support.”

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Toddler Developmental Milestones & Safety

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