Young children often throw tantrums. Though this is challenging for parents, it’s a normal part of development for children between the ages of one and four.
I love this definition of tantrums from the Mayo Clinic:
“A tantrum is the expression of a young child’s frustration with the challenges of the moment.”
I’ve found this definition to be very accurate. Sometimes my toddler is frustrated because she wants something and I’ve told her “no.” Sometimes she’s frustrated because she feels tired. Sometimes she’s frustrated because she feels a challenging emotion like disappointment, fear, or confusion and she doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. She may manifest any of these frustrations through a tantrum.
It’s probably impossible to prevent tantrums completely, but I’ve found that there are a number of things my husband and I can do to reduce their frequency and severity.
Ways to prevent and mitigate tantrums in toddlers
- Have snacks available. The first time I heard the term “hangry” (irritability caused by hunger), it was in a conversation about adults. However, this concept is very applicable to toddlers! When my toddler gets hungry, it’s nearly impossible to get her to focus on a task or be congenial. I’ve found that it is important for me to make sure she’s eating enough at meals and to have nutritious snacks available at regular intervals between meals, especially if we’re going to be out and about. Getting food in her when she begins showing signs of being hangry has prevented dozens of tantrums!
- Maintain a regular routine that includes adequate periods of sleep. Being tired and being uncertain of what to expect are both conditions that leave toddlers prone to tantrums. In my household, the easiest way to alleviate these conditions is to have a regular routine—one that includes consistent naptimes and bedtimes—so our toddler has had adequate rest and knows what to expect throughout the day.
- Provide warnings before changing activities or taking part in new experiences. As I noted above, toddlers like predictability and knowing what to expect. Consequently, it is really helpful to give them a heads up before changing activities or doing something new. When we’re going to leave the park or go inside after playing outdoors, I give my daughter warnings each minute of the five minutes before we leave (i.e., “We’re going to go home in __ minutes”). When we’re going to have a new experience (e.g., going to the dentist, visiting a friend in the hospital, staying at a hotel), I try to talk about it for days in advance and read books to her about the experience (if I can find then at our library) so she is more familiar with it.
- Hand over some control. I believe one frustration that sometimes triggers tantrums in toddlers is their sense that they have no control. Though they are growing in independence, their parents and other caregivers make most decisions for them (e.g., what they eat, what they wear, when they go to bed, when and if they can watch a TV show). It’s good and right for us to make many of these decisions, but it’s beneficial for our toddlers’ growth and may reduce the frequency of their tantrums if we allow then to help make decisions. I do this by letting my toddler select one snack from among two or three options, allowing her to select which socks she wears, asking her to choose a book for us to read, etc.
- Model better methods of coping. Our toddlers typically don’t have the ability to identify what it is they are feeling, much less cope with these feelings in constructive manners. We have these abilities, though, so we can assist our toddlers in naming and coping with their frustrations. For example, when my toddler threw a fit because she asked for a snack just a few minutes before I was going to serve dinner, I gave her words to describe what she was feeling (e.g., “It sounds like you are upset because you have to wait a few minutes to eat”) and I helped her cope with this feeling in a constructive way (e.g., “Please put these forks on the table and then climb into your seat so we’ll be ready to eat once I serve our food”).
- Think carefully about how our surroundings and activities will impact our toddlers. When we consider our surroundings and activities from our toddlers’ perspectives, we can be prepared for their responses and perhaps ward off a few fits. Here are two aspects of this:
- Be mentally prepared. We were on a trip a couple of weeks ago and my toddler had good behavior for the first day and a half, but then her behavior began to worsen. You’re probably not surprised to hear this. Being away from home and out of our normal routine was taking a toll. Because I anticipated that my toddler might have more frustrations than normal, I was mentally prepared; I knew I needed to be extra patient and have extra grace for her. Being prepared like this is critical because it keeps us from joining our toddlers in throwing tantrums!
- Avoid situations that will trigger tantrums. We can’t (nor should we) avoid any and all situations that might trigger tantrums. At some point, our toddlers do have to learn that there are some things they can’t have or do. However, we can exercise common sense in order to avoid some situations that will almost certainly spark tantrums. For example, it’s a good idea to avoid window shopping in a candy store at 5:00pm if we haven’t eaten dinner yet. Likewise, it’s wise to avoid taking a tired and hungry toddler into a setting where he or she will be expected to sit still and be quiet (e.g., a museum, a fancy restaurant).
Though tantrums are usually a way that toddlers express frustration, they can easily become a learned behavior if we reward our kiddos for their fits (e.g., if we give into their demands or give them special treats in order to get them to stop). Therefore, it is important that we use strategies like those mentioned here to help our toddlers learn to understand and manage their frustrations without rewarding the behavior itself.
Does your toddler throw tantrums? What strategies help you prevent or mitigate these?
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