When Toddler Tantrums Test Your Patience: 5 Dos and Don’ts

Are you fanning a tantrum's flames or cooling it down?

Your 2-year-old angel is flipping out in the middle of the grocery store because you won’t buy Lucky Charms®. Your sweet 3-year-old goes ballistic at his own birthday party when he can’t break the piñata.

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Sound familiar? Temper tantrums are common between ages 1 and about 3 or 4. While temper tantrums are tough on the toddler, they can be tougher on mom and dad.

These dos and don’ts from our pediatricians should help you cope.

1. Do notice the triggers

Do tantrums strike when your child is hungry or thirsty? Or very tired? Or not feeling well? Or perhaps you noticed an uptick in tantrums at a time of transition, like welcoming a new baby into the family.

“You can expect to see more tantrums in these situations. But anticipation and prevention can minimize them,” says Svetlana Pomeranets, MD.

Adds Edward Gaydos, DO, “Recognizing trigger situations will allow you to redirect your child with choices before the tantrum ensues.”

In fact, it’s wise to allow toddlers to make small choices on a frequent basis, Dr. Pomeranets suggests.

2. Don’t try to stop tantrums in progress

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. Gaydos. “Offering choices or asking ‘Why are you acting this way?’ can make tantrums grow in intensity, like stoking the ashes of a smoldering fire.”

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Attempting to discuss your child’s feelings in the heat of the moment may positively reinforce a negative behavior, he adds.

The time for talking is after the tantrum, when your child has regained composure.

3. Do keep calm and carry on

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

“Offering a calming physical presence, without speaking, can go a long way,” says Dr. Gaydos. “And 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. But adult histrionics only add to the problem. Yelling is as fruitless as talking.

“The goal is to ignore the behavior while providing safety,” says Dr. Pomeranets.

4. Don’t give in to stop a tantrum

To bring peace to the household, it may be tempting to let a toddler have his or her way.

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

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Instead, be caring but firm. “When you say ‘no,’ it should be absolute and not soft,” Dr. Pomeranets advises.

5. Do seek help for problem tantrums

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 his or her 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 should not be attacking others or injuring himself severely during a tantrum.”

If you’re concerned that your child may be having problem tantrums, ask your pediatrician for help. He or she will evaluate your child, and offer guidance and support.

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