Doctor’s Tips for Taming Toddler Tantrums

Toddler crying at grocery store

It’s the moment every toddler parent dreads … the blood-chilling wail that means a tantum has begun. The next thought—if one can even think with all that screaming—is “How do I get this to stop?” While many call them the “terrible twos,” Julia Pederson, MD, shares some ways to make your toddler’s next meltdown a little less terrible.

As a physician with the Pediatric Group of Monterey with Stanford Children’s Health, as well as a mom to a young toddler, Dr. Pederson is an expert in navigating the unpredictable demands of a 2-year-old.

While they can be frustrating for parents and kids alike, Dr. Pederson says, tantrums are normal, and unavoidable, for toddlers between 15 months and 3 years of age.

“They’re inevitable, and you just have to weather the storm. You want to do it in a way that feels good to you, and you want to do it in a way that respects your child so that they can, over time, learn how to help regulate their emotions,” she says.

As frustrating as they are, those wild outbursts are simply a young child’s way of processing all the new, big emotions going on in his or her developing brain.

“Oftentimes, toddlers don’t always have the words to express what they’re feeling,” Dr. Pederson says. “Transitions can put toddlers in newer, different situations that cause a little bit of stress and can lead to those bigger feelings and emotions,” she explains.

When a tantrum rears its angry head, Dr. Pederson encourages parents to take a moment to stop, take a deep breath, and evaluate the best way to respond.

“It’s our role as parents to set boundaries and guidelines for them to develop into a functioning human being that can be part of society. … We have to remember that these are real emotions that the children are having, and we have to be adaptable and flexible.”

Start by getting down to your child’s eye level so you are face-to-face rather than yelling from above. Another thing you can do is narrate the situation. By gently explaining to your child what is going on, you can help them find the words for their feelings. For example, you could say, “You feel pretty frustrated right now, don’t you?” or “Yeah, this line is taking a long time, isn’t it?”

However, Dr. Pederson recommends not using this time to lecture your child. “A tantrum is not a teachable moment. It’s not the time to lecture,” she says. “It is not the time to explain to them why they can’t have sugary things at lunch every day. In the moment, you just want to recognize what’s going on. Acknowledge how they’re feeling, and calm things down.”

Afterward, you can ask them to talk about what they were feeling and what happened. It’s important to let them know it’s OK to have a hard time. It’s also a good time to reflect on your own response. Dr. Pederson says that modeling active reflection and even apologizing to the child can be very meaningful.

“We want to teach children how to deal with their emotions and regulate their emotions. One of the best ways to do that is by naming emotions and working through them, both for them and for you. None of us are perfect, and I think those are really good ways of providing an example for them to follow.”

She also suggests a few things to avoid during a tantrum. While saying no may feel like a natural response, it usually only makes the child more upset. Also, avoid physical punishment. A hands-off approach is best unless you must restrain your child to prevent them from hurting themselves.

One of the best ways to deal with tantrums is to head them off before they start. Look for triggers or patterns, and think of ways to intervene before your kid has a meltdown. Dr. Pederson offers a few things to consider: “Are we sleeping well? Is our nutrition good? Do we have stressors in our life? Are we getting enough physical activity?” A tired or hungry child is more likely to throw a fit than a rested and fed one.

As your child gets older and can communicate better, tantrums should be less frequent. “I often find that when children are old enough to articulate, ‘I’m mad, Mommy. I wanted my blue cup,’ then they have a lot less physical symptoms of the tantrum because they’re able to articulate that,” Dr. Pederson says.

Dr. Pederson recommends consulting your pediatrician if your child is still having tantrums over the age or 4, or if he or she has severe tantrums. “It’s never the wrong decision to talk to your pediatrician about it,” she says.

The tantrum phase can be challenging, but it will end. What does last is the effect of how we responded to them. If we show them respect and kindness, eventually that is what they will reflect to us. “What’s so fascinating to me is my daughter’s finally at the age now where she’ll still have her tantrums, but maybe an hour or two later, every once in a while, she’ll be like, ‘Mommy, I’m sorry that I threw the book today,’” Dr. Pederson says. “I’m already seeing her learn that emotional regulation and recognition and understanding how we impact each other.”

To read more about tantrums and parenting your 2-year-old, visit Temper Tantrums or Your 2-Year-Old Child.

For more advice from Dr. Pederson, check out the article Getting Kids Ready for School in Person.  

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