Toddler Tantrums: Parent Survival Tips


There may be no apparent reason for a tantrum and toddlers seem to have super-human strength and endurance during an episode.

By Jackie Saulmon Ramirez | May 20, 2015

Toddlers can sometimes require the patience of a saint and the wisdom of the Dali Lama to find healthy solutions.

When Chelsey was born I spent months dreading the terrible twos. I had heard two-year-olds spent sometimes a year or more lying flat on their backs, screaming and kicking and more often than not, it would happen in public where there was no place to hide. I was mortified because of my uncontrollable anger issues and I was truly worried for Chelsey as well as myself.

As the terrible twos hit full force, I was still not ready and did not find a Parents Anonymous meeting for another five years. Whatever I did do, my goal was not to hurt Chelsey so that meant putting space between the two of us, usually in the form of a child gate or door. Today I might have done things differently, but looking back, I think I did the right thing. Twenty years in the field has taught me things that may help others.

First of all, parents need to understand a few simple things:

• Terrible twos are not forever; it is a normal stage of development that can only be remedied with the passing of time.
• There may be no apparent reason for a tantrum and toddlers seem to have super-human strength and endurance during an episode.
• Toddlers do not manipulate parents even though it may seem that way.
• Toddlers get frustrated easily in part because they have not gained the vocabulary and cognition to express those feelings.
• Toddlers can be upset because their physical abilities have not met desires.
• Toddlers do not tantrum because they dislike their parents.
• Toddlers do not set out to ‘push parent’s buttons’ or to ‘get parents upset.’
• If a toddler is having tantrums it means they are healthy and on schedule developmentally.
• Toddlers are all about their own wants and needs.
• It is normal to get anxious, upset or angry during a child’s tantrum. The sounds are part of the reason tantrums are so upsetting: Screaming, shrieking and crying.

Toddlers are just beginning to explore their world and learn how it reacts to them. Toddlers often become frustrated when they cannot communicate or physically do something and a tantrum results. As their vocabulary and physical abilities grow, the tantrums will usually diminish.

Toddlers tend to whine and demand attention so that in time, parents may question if they will ever be able to go to the bathroom or shower alone. Toddler behavior is unpredictable and their moods can change quickly; they may seem happy one moment and then quite fearful the next. Toddlers can also be very negative, annoying and often overuse the word ‘no.’ They tend to use words they do know best and then no matter what you say, their reply will be ‘no.’ Parents should not worry; by the time they have figured their child out they will have moved into the next stage in development.

TIP: Rephrase communications to say ‘yes’ more often and limit the word ‘no.’ Instead of ‘no you cannot have the knife’ say ‘yes you can play with ladles and spatulas.’

Toddlers also have an enormous capacity to be adorable and display affection. Another Parents Anonymous member once said that the more difficult time a parent has at the terrible-twos stage, the easier they would have it with them as a teenager. True or not, it helps to think of the positive aspects of this age.

At Home

Redirecting is a good way to head off a tantrum in the early stages. Instead of focusing on the child, you can pay attention to something else like a box or other item while encouraging your child to come to you. If you have a small box (a cereal box, gift box, etc.) you can look inside and then close the box quickly, with or without a surprise inside. Open the box again then looking into the box, look surprised, then close it again. By now you have piqued their interest and successfully changed your child’s mood from frustration to curiosity.

When beginning to tantrum, if a child is at risk of hurting themselves, parents can pick them up and hold them on their lap for a short time. I do not recommend this if parents are upset, frustrated or angry and could lose control. If they are kicking the parent, it is a good idea to put them gently on the floor, move away to allow ample room and then let the tantrum run its course.

Whispering or talking in a very soft voice can sometimes defuse a child’s tantrum in the same way that screaming or yelling back at the child can fuel a tantrum. I cannot say this enough; yelling or threatening does not help! Yelling or spanking only serves to vent a parent’s anger and can only make matters worse. Yelling or hitting teaches children to hit and can damage a healthy relationship between parent and child. A parent screaming is frightening to a child and could damage the child’s hearing and the parent’s vocal cords. Interacting with your child during a tantrum by yelling, screaming or hitting gives negative attention to a child and may increase the duration and number of tantrums.

If parents feel they are at risk of losing control then they should put space between them and their child. Parents can go to the bathroom or bedroom and close the door and then listen or watch to make sure the child is safe. Using a child gate can give the parent and child space and parents can easily see that the child is safe.

Parents can call another parent who has experienced toddler tantrums to talk for a few minute to compare notes; perhaps they can discover what triggered the outburst and devise a plan to offset the next one or a way to successfully handle it. Parents can ask to call that parent again when they need support. Better yet; go to a Parents Anonymous meeting and discuss tantrums and other issues with other parents that understand what the parent is experiencing. Parents would get many practical tips and suggestions for the next tantrum event.

Parents can call a 1-800 helpline or ‘warm-line’ in their area— in New Jersey the Helpline number is: 1-800-843-5437 or 1-800-THE-KIDS. Put the number in speed-dial or in your cell phone for quick access.

Outside New Jersey, parents can call the National Parent Helpline to get emotional support from a trained Advocate in their area and become an empowered and a stronger parent: 1-855- 4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736) 10:00 a.m. PST to 7:00 p.m.

The Screaming

The sound of screaming sends alarm signals to our brains and as it continues our heart rate and respiration rate increase. These signals indicate danger or the fight-or-flight response. Understanding our physical response to noise may help parents remain calm. To offset a child’s screaming it may help for parents to put earplugs in their ears or to listen to a portable music player like an iPod or Walkman to drown out the noise. Increase the volume only enough to counter the screaming being careful not to damage hearing. There are hearing protectors available for purchase from about $3 for foam inserts to $10 and up for earmuffs.

Here is a link to an article about noise in the home with helpful resources:

What’s the Volume of Your Home?

In Public

Parents should plan a trip out for shopping, errands, appointments, and so on, when children are well-rested and well-fed. Make sure the child is not sick, check for a fever and look for any clues they may not feel well. Parents can make children aware of the itinerary, where they are going, how long they will be there and when they will leave. Young children have little concept of time so introducing a timer or watch may or may not help. Parents can give the child a job to do like ‘look for the color blue’ or ‘look for the cereal’ to keep them occupied. Parents in my Parents Anonymous group gave children a shopping list (pictures cut out of a magazine and pasted onto 3” x 5” cards) so they feel like they are helping – something toddlers love to do.

Parents should be aware of ‘escape routes’ or where they will go if your child begins a tantrum. When children begin to tantrum it is a good idea to take them out of the immediate area by temporarily moving to a quiet, low-traffic area of the store or a restroom. If parents cannot move them out of the area then they should remain calm and stay nearby. If all else fails, parents may prefer to leave the store and take the child home. Cause and effect: If the shopping trip ends before it is completed then parents will not have the treats or other items. Children will eventually understand this and develop more self-control.

In public we have added pressure of an audience. Follow through on what you know has worked in the past. Ignore unkind people who say things like “We knew how to fix that!” or “That child needs a good beating!”

• Avoid places that may encourage a tantrum (candy or toy aisle, amusements).
• Bring a snack and something to drink (water is preferred over sugary juices).
• Bring a toy or two that toddlers only play with while parents shop.
• Limit the amount of time the child is out; shopping for hours on end is asking too much of a toddler.
• Arrange appointments when the child will not be tired or hungry.

Self-control is a process; congratulate the child when they are (finally) able to get control of themselves and calm down.

Mealtime Maniacs

If a toddler begins a tantrum during a meal and throws food on the floor or at others, parents should not take it personally. Parents might assume the child is either telling them they are not hungry, do not like the taste, temperature or texture of the food. End the meal for the toddler; parents can cover and refrigerate the remaining food to have at the next mealtime. Do not offer food prior to the next mealtime. Parents would want to see that there are no snacks or sweets available during this time. Limit sugar-laden juices in favor of water only or watered-down juice. A 75 to 25 percent water to juice ratio is preferable to all juice brands; natural sugars are still sugar.

As for the food thrown on the floor, toddlers cannot clean up food messes as punishment because they have not developed those fine motor skills just yet. Instead of using a smooth, scooping and wiping motion, the toddler is more likely to use a back-and-forth motion which may actually spread the mess farther. Parents will need to clean up the mess to make sure there are no slippery, greasy spots or food remaining. Parents can teach toddlers how to begin cleaning up by starting with books and toys. As the child grows parents can add other chores, not as a punishment, but as an active member of the family.

Final thoughts:

Congratulate the child when they are (finally) able to get control of themselves and calm down.
(It’s hard being a kid.)

Remember who the adult is with the ability to control themselves.
(Fake it till you make it.)

Parents should not negotiate with a child; parents are the adult.
(If you ever pay a ransom, each time the ransom will increase.)

Parents should not let children ‘win’ during a tantrum by losing control themselves.
(Always follow the rules.)

Parents should never threaten what they cannot or will not follow through on.
(Meaningless threats weaken a parent’s authority.)

Never let them see you sweat.
(Appear completely uninterested.)

Parents should model the behavior they want their child to emulate.
(Parents should pat themselves on the back for keeping calm.)

“No” should always mean “no.”
(Kids catch on quick to the “no” sometimes meaning “maybe.”)

Yelling louder does not help a young child understand.
(That also goes for aliens from planet Zargamuk too.)

First and last, remain calm.
(Do not get upset and do not take frustration out on a child.)

Revised from May 16, 2013

PHOTO: Courtesy of Christine Szeto Under Flicker/CC License.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Justin Henry Under Flicker/CC License.

Copyright © 2014 Jackie Saulmon Ramirez. All Rights Reserved.

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About Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

Jackie has volunteered extensively for more than twenty years in children's and families' issues with Parents Anonymous. Currently she writes for parents in the "Reminder" and the Soup to Nuts blog and "Parent Rap - Soup to Nuts" Facebook page. If you are interested in receiving the "Reminder," send her a message.
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