Seeing red: How to deal with toddler tantrums

File them under “Normal but Infuriating”.

We’ve all been there. Maybe you were shopping when it happened. Maybe you were at the park. Maybe it was at home, at bathtime. Maybe it’s a morning thing. Whatever happened, and wherever it was: don’t worry – tantrums are normal, and they happen to pretty much to every kid on the planet.

That’s small comfort, though, when your toddler is actually in the midst of one, right? How are you meant to calmly reason with a hitting, kicking, spitting, hissing three-year-old, who wants nothing more than to stay at the park for FIVE MORE MINUTES? The answer: you don’t reason. Let us explain.

Toddler tantrums 101

Tantrums are incredibly common in kids. A 2003 study showed that 87 per cent of kids aged 18-24 months experience tantrums, as well as 91 per cent of kids aged 30-36 months and 59 per cent aged 42 to 48 months (after which they tend to drop off dramatically). And while it might seem like tantrums are just your toddler’s way of pushing your buttons, what they really are, are coping mechanisms. Your toddler either doesn’t have the language to ask for what they want (if they’re two or under) or doesn’t have the independence she desires (if they’re over two). And when she doesn’t get what she wants, she can’t cope – so she gets angry. Really, really angry. Common tantrum behaviours include hitting, kicking, throwing objects, screaming, crying, whining and even breath-holding.

Why are they happening?

Aside from simply not getting what they want (the cause of most tantrums), tantrums may be triggered by stress (like new situations), hunger, tiredness and overstimulation (for example, too many activities packed into one day). When your toddler doesn’t get what he wants – whether or not he’s also stressed, tired, hungry or overstimulated – his emotions take over, overriding the part of his brain responsible for decision-making and rational thought. And when this happens, no amount of reasoning will help.

So what do you do?

  1. Reduce stress. Make sure your toddler is well-rested (if she no longer naps, ensure she has some “quiet time” such as listening to an audiobook or playing quietly on her own in the middle of the day), well-fed (with healthy, satisfying snacks and meals) and not overstimulated (one to two activities per day is enough).
  2. Think about your tot’s tantrum triggers. Keep a diary for a week to see exactly what happens before each tantrum. Once you know the trigger (say, eating out in restaurants, being put in the child seat in the shopping trolley) you can minimise it (by making meals at restaurants quick, by asking your toddler to walk with you at the store).
  3. Stay calm. There is nothing to be gained from you getting angry, too.
  4. Wait it out. Ignore the behaviour and, once you’ve established that your toddler is safe (for example, if they’re kicking a wall, take them to their bed and ask them to sit), give them time and space to calm down.
  5. Don’t reward the tantrum. Praise your child (very enthusiastically!) when she is able to regain control over her feelings but don’t give in and give her what she wanted in the first place – she’ll simply get the message that this behaviour is acceptable.

A choice approach

It’s one thing to try to stop a tantrum while it’s happening, but how do we stop them before they even begin? Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Centre and The Kazdin Method® for Parenting the Defiant Child, says that the best way to avoid tantrums altogether is by offering limited, minor choices instead of telling your tot what to do (even if you are telling them in a polite, gentle way). “Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance,” he says, adding that “real choice” isn’t important – only the illusion of choice. For your toddler, this might be, “Do you want to put your toys away now, or after dinner?” rather than, “Put your toys away” (likely to be met with “no”) or “Do you want to put your toys away?” (also “no”). Then, when your toddler complies, praise her enthusiastically, to lock in the behaviour.

Choice applies to you, too – choose your battles to try to eliminate tantrums. When it’s possible and reasonable, try to accommodate your toddler’s desires. This might mean saying yes to ten more minutes in the park if you have nowhere else to be, or letting them dress themselves for preschool (even if they come out in a superhero cape, gumboots and a flower crown).

When to see a professional

Yes, tantrums are common and normal. But if you notice that your toddler’s tantrums are becoming longer, more intense or more frequent, it might be time to talk to your paediatrician. This applies, too, if you frequently give in to your toddler, or if you don’t trust yourself not to behave appropriately during a tantrum.