Taming Toddler Tantrums – without having a ‘grown-up’ meltdown.

If you have ever watched a desperate mother trying to round up flailing arms and legs as she wipes her child’s snot off her arms in the middle of a shopping centre and vowed that your own sweet baby will never carry on like that incompetent mother’s brat, think again. Tantrums are a normal fact of toddler life. It can help to think of a tantrum as an intense storm of emotion that a toddler isn’t equipped to handle, rather than an attempt to wield power over everyone around him, especially you – his poor, embarrassed parents.

Tantrums are often an expression of emotional distress (to your child, that is – you are the big person here) and can be triggered by frustration, loss, disappointment (no, you can’t watch one more Wiggles DVD), feeling misunderstood or a need to discharge an accumulation of stress. Of course, some tantrums are about pushing boundaries, perhaps to get the biscuit or toy that isn’t allowed and these ‘tiny tanties’ are usually fairly easily diverted or will blow over if they are ignored (with you close by). We do though, need to also consider whether the ‘broken biscuit’ tantrum is actually the straw that has broken the camel’s back – for instance, is your child’s seemingly massive reaction to a broken biscuit really about the biscuit or an accumulation of minor but stressful events that have happened throughout the day (a spilt drink at breakfast, her brother knocked over her block tower, she had to wait for lunch while mummy settled the crying baby and now she is grumpy because she is hungry and her blood sugar is low – and her rice cracker broke)?

By trying to see things from your child’s perspective, it is much easier not to take tantrums personally and it will be much easier to help your little one grow through this stage relatively smoothly than if you turn every outburst into a power struggle. And each time you help your child deal with his intense emotions, please try and console yourself that you are sculpting stress regulating mechanisms in his tiny brain. This will enable him to deal with frustration and rage in later life: According to Uk Psychologist Margot Sunderland,author of ‘The Science of Parenting’, the too-good child who does not have tantrums may have learned early on that when he expressed big feelings, he elicited a frightening parental response, and the price of parental love is total compliance. Dr Sunderland says, The too-good child misses out on vital brain sculpting, meaning that when he faces frustration in later life, he may respond with angry outbursts or struggle to be assertive.

Taming tantrums

You can reduce tantrums and help your child (and you) cope better with stressful situations by using some simple strategies and sensible planning:

  • Fill your little one’s emotional tank

When you have a baby, you naturally attend and fill that tiny emotional tank throughout the day with cuddles, eye contact and loving interactions. As your helpless baby becomes a toddler, it’s easy to get busy while he explores and amuses himself. You aren’t quite as connected, then as his ’emotional tank’ becomes empty, he can become overwhelmed with emotions that are too big for him. You can help to rebalance his calming chemistry and reduce meltdowns by checking in regularly. You don’t need to hover, just make small comments, notice what he’s doing and mirror back to him; make eye contact as you talk to him – this will boost levels of beta endorphins; and check in with touch – to boost his levels of oxytocin, a calming hormone. Give hugs, gentle tickle games (round and round the garden) or a two minute ‘pizza massage’ on his back (Would you like a pizza massage on your back? What would you like on your pizza? Then make up strokes according to the ingredients he chooses – chopping, sprinkling, patting – then a firm rub to ‘cook’ the pizza before slicing and ‘gobbling’ it up).

  • Eliminate frustration beyond your toddler’s limits

Challenges are necessary for children to develop, but try to step in before a challenge becomes a frustration by offering help. Guide gently, but don’t take over. For instance, gently turn the puzzle piece so he can put it in by himself. When you sense your tot is reaching the brink, create a diversion towards a calming, soothing activity – a different place, a toy, a hug, a story, a song or perhaps a snack.

  • Look for triggers

Look for common tantrum triggers. Do they seem to happen mostly when your tot is tired? hungry? rushed? Are there situations he finds difficult to handle such as playgroup, shopping or being strapped in a car seat? Keeping a tantrum diary might help you understand triggers. Try to think ahead and limit overwhelming situations. For instance, plan short shopping trips when he isn’t tired, take nutritious snacks and water to drink whenever you go out and don’t wait for difficult behaviour before you offer food or it can seem like a reward.

  • Cut out junk food

Some foods can make little angels morph into complete rascals: sweets can trigger blood sugar variations that cause mood swings, caffeine in ‘coke’ drinks can hype kids up for hours ( and that goes for diet coke too), so they are literally unable to sit still, let alone fall asleep, and additives or chemicals, even in foods that are normally considered healthy, can affect some sensitive tots. A tantrum diary might shed light on food triggers.

  • Listen respectfully

Imagine the frustration of a little child who can’t express what he is trying to tell you. Is it any wonder he ‘loses it’ when he doesn’t feel heard by the important people in his life – you would too, wouldn’t you? Try to tune in and listen carefully to what your toddler is trying to say, just as you would with another adult. Reflect back your child’s feelings so that he feels heard and understood: Say, “you look angry that your block tower crashed.” Or, “I get angry too, when I can’t have what I want.”

  • Choose your battles

‘Don’t sweat the small things’ is a good rule for parents. Save your energy for the things that really matter and avoid power struggles (it really doesn’t matter if your child insists on having her cereal in the pink bowl or wears gumboots with her party dress: this too shall pass, honest! My own little ‘gumboot girl’ has an expensive shoe fetish these days!). Allowing her a little ‘independence’ on small things can help your little one feel in control and she may be more flexible on the things that really matter. Rules like seatbelts and holding hands near roads are not negotiable, but a balance between health and safety and a happy day can benefit family relationships (and sanity). So take a peak at things from your child’s perspective (imagine how you would feel if somebody bigger than you told you how to dress or messed up your morning ritual –do you like your coffee in the big mug?), childproof your home (and buy cute gumboots) and keep rules for really important things.

  • Say “No” and mean it:

It’s far better to say “yes” initially than to change your mind after your child has exploded. (Remember “maybe” means yes to a child). Rewarding genuinely uncontrollable tantrums can encourage tots to use (semi)deliberate tantrums to get what they want.

  • Please don’t give in to embarrassment (yours or your child’s)

It can be difficult to consider your child’s feelings when he performs a tantrum in public but whatever you do, don’t yell back, don’t smack and don’t resort to giving in because you feel embarrassed. And please, don’t walk away from an out of control tot in places like shopping centres. It is scary enough to be out of control without also feeling abandoned. Often, the best thing you can do here is scoop up your child and leave.

  • Offer comfort

Because you know your child best, you’ll know whether this is a ‘tiny tanty’ or a major blow-out and whether he is better letting off steam by himself (with you nearby) or whether he needs to be removed from an overwhelming situation and held firmly but calmly. If your child is thrashing wildly and at risk of hurting himself or others, you can help him regulate his out of control emotions by a technique known as ‘holding’. This will only work if you can keep yourself calm – the idea isn’t to restrain your child, but to help him feel secure and ‘emotionally held’: Sit against a wall if possible to support your own back; breathe deeply to calm yourself – infant mental health specialist, psychotherapist, Dr Margot Sunderland advises, “visualise yourself as a lovely warm, calm blanket.” Now envelope your child by holding him with his back to you (if he kicks, he will be kicking away from you) and folding your arms over his – if he is a bigger toddler, take an arm in each of your hands and cross his arms. You can also cross your legs over his to contain his legs and prevent kicking. Hold him calmly and use a gentle tone to say soothing words (‘it’s alright, I am going to hold you until you calm down’), allowing him to release his angry feelings. He won’t be in any space to reason with and will in any case not be able to activate the ‘reasoning’ part of his brain while he is distressed. As your tot calms, let him lie in your arms and cuddle until he is over his ‘blowout’. Then offer him reassurance and a different (but preferably quiet) activity.

If you find walking away works for your child during a fairly ‘mild’ tantrum, return when he settles, hug him and say “I’m still here and I love you.” Giving reassurance is not giving in. Just as adults need comfort when they feel upset or overwhelmed, toddlers need to know they are loved, even when their behaviour isn’t loveable and by hugging him when he is calm you are rewarding him for settling down ( the positive behaviour). By showing your child that you are in charge, he will feel secure and safe enough to let out his feelings – and move on.

  • Express your own feelings appropriately

Supporting your child’s emotional fallouts goes hand in hand with acknowledging and expressing your own feelings appropriately and honestly. It can also help to acknowledge which of your child’s feelings you have the most difficulty dealing with and to try and understand your child’s perspective by trying to recall your own feelings as a child: think of a time when you felt upset as a child and the response of adults in your world was unsupportive – were you belittled for crying? Punished for expressing anger? Now, imagine how you would have liked to be responded to.


For more support and respectful strategies to guide your toddler’s behaviour, check out Pinky’s book ‘Toddler Tactics’ – its also available through Amazon UK and Amazon US.  Also see Pinky’s Toddler Tactics ‘live’ seminars .

Pinky McKayrespectful disciplinetalking to toddlersToddlertoddler behaviourToddler Tacticstoddler tantrumToddler tantrums
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  • Sara

    Pinky, you are a wonderful wonderful angel. I would not want to walk this parenting pathway without your gentle guidance ‘ringing in my ear’ during stressful situations. Thank you so much for being there for all mums xxx

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  • Caz

    How would you recommend dealing with tantrums at nap time? Ie. A toddler who refuses a nap even though he is clearly tired. We have tried leaving the bedroom and playing for a while, then coming back later to try again but then we get another tantrum. Have also tried not leaving the bedroom but the tantrum just keeps escalating.

  • parentsupporthub.com

    This may be the oldest trick in the book but it is so well versed for a reason. Breathing really does calm you down. A quick practical technique is to breathe in for seven and out for eleven. The longer outbreath has a physical effect on your body by shutting down the Sympathetic Nervous System (the fight or flight response that is activated in times of stress – and toddler tantrums are certainly stressful). This simple exercise can be done at any time, it lowers your blood pressure and your heart rate, it reduces your immediate emotional reactions, allowing you to calm down and think of more productive responses.

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