Taming the Toddler Tantrum – How to Turn Drama into Cooperation


This morning we had one of those toddler melt-downs. She was sitting on my lap at the computer looking at a picture of a baby flash across the screen. I needed to get up; she wanted to look at that baby some more. She had already decided what she wanted (to look at the picture) and how she wanted it (on my lap) and there was literally nothing I could do to change her mind. We melted.

The truth is that these things will happen when you have a toddler around. They're working so hard to become independent people; but they do not have the life experience and skills to do what they want to do. What a frustrating time for them – and us! The good news is that there are some simple ways to minimize the fuss and maximize the fun as your toddler works to develop those skills that he needs to be a successful human being.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is this: every tantrum has a real reason behind it and it's up to us as parents to look behind the melt-down and find the root cause. Usually it's one of the following: hunger, exhaustion, frustration or fear. When your toddler melts, it's up to you to address the root cause, not necessarily the behavior itself. Telling a screaming toddler to "stop it or you'll be in trouble" does absolutely nothing to mitigate the true cause of the tantrum. If anything, that kind of attitude only adds to your child's frustration.

Here are some ways to avoid tantrums and some ideas on how to tame the tantrums that do occur:

o Keep to your schedule. Being on a regular schedule helps a toddler to feel secure. Having that security gives her the space to make new ventures in her little world. Also, being on a regular schedule means that you will limit the number of melt-downs that occur because of hunger and exhaustion. Here's what a toddler schedule could look like: Wake up. Change diaper. Eat breakfast. Have play time with care-giver. Have snack. Have nap (if on a two-nap schedule) or more play-time (if on a one-nap schedule). Change diaper. Have lunch. Have reading time with care-giver. Have nap. Change diaper. Have play time with care-giver. Have snack. Have play time with care-giver. Change diaper. Have dinner. Have play time with family. Change diaper. Go to bed. And, for you stay-at-home parents who are wondering how to get your chores done … Toddlers love to help around the house! "Play time" could be sorting laundry, shopping, washing windows, gardening, sweeping, doing the dishes and cooking! As long as it does not include power tools, include your toddler in your day. Also, keep nap-times sacred to (gasp!) ME-time. Read, nap, meditate, garden, write, paint – use this time every day to feed your soul. This will keep adult-tantrums to a minimum.

o Be sensitive about transitions. Many tantrums happen because the child is not being prepared to switch tasks: he's simply expected to stop what he's doing and move on to the next thing. Imagine being in his world: one minute you're happily stacking blocks then someone walks in and drags you to the car to go shopping without warning. How rude! Keeping to your schedule means that your toddler will be prepared to make smooth transitions from one activity to the next. But sometimes things happen and we have to be more flexible. Give your child a catch-phrase that you use during the day when it's almost time to switch to something else. For our family, we give a five-minute warning. "Faith, in five minutes it will be time for nap." Another phrase that works well for some families is, "We're almost done with _______, and next we'll be doing _______." I've noticed that first-borns especially like to be well-informed on what's going to happen next. Giving a warning helps your toddler to end one task so she can move on to the next gracefully.

o "Me do it!" Nothing makes a toddler angrier than when his care-givers will not let him do things for himself. Create opportunities for him to have the independence he so desperately needs.

  • Make sure he has clothing that is simple to put on. Minimize buttons, snaps and over-alls. Make sure he has shoes that he can slip on himself.
  • Get him a set of toddler-sized house-cleaning tools. If he has the tools, he will use them!
  • Make sure he has stools at sinks so he can wash his hands and "help" with the dishes.
  • When he's trying tasks that are beyond his skills and strength, help him tactfully. "How about if I just hold this part of the box and you hold that part and we'll carry it together?"
  • Sometimes, it's okay to let him try and fail. How will he know what he can do if he's not allowed to try the limits of his potential?

o Keep your sense of humor and an open mind! One evening at tooth-brushing time, my daughter decided that she simply was not going to brush her teeth. We tried everything: we put on her favorite toothpaste (toddler toothpaste – without fluoride), we let her start by herself, we tried comparing her to let us help, we tried joking with her and tickling her to get her to open her mouth, we tried singing with our mouths wide open so we could trick her into opening up. Nothing worked. She went from stubborn to giggling to frustrated back to stubborn. Finally I remembered watching her try to spit in the sink after she'd seen her dad spit. I said, "Faith, do you need to spit?" Immediately, she got back in the game. She spat then she let me brush some more so she could spit again. We kept up this cycle of brushing and spitting until her teeth were clean. Enrolling cooperation is much more effective than forcing your will onto your toddler. I've become the master of marketing – to my children any way. I've learned how to manipulate their prejudices and preferences to get them to do what I want them to do, like try new foods, take showers and even brush their teeth. You know your children inside and out. Use that knowledge and your creativity to help tame the tantrums.

o Remember the four things to look for then your toddler does melt down. Is he hungry? Tired? Frustrated? Afraid? Your toddler is too young to control his emotions and he is just learning how to have in situations. His behavior is a reaction to some internal event. Dig down and address that internal cause. Let him feel understood and loved as you help him to learn appropriate ways to handle his emotions.

Remember to keep cool in the heat of the moment. There's no point in getting angry or embarrassed. Simply address the root cause of the tantrum in a loving, peaceful way. She's not misbehaving; she's just reacting in a totally appropriate toddler fashion to something that is very real for her. Love her, guide her and watch her blossom!

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Shelly Walker


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