Taming your toddler's tantrums

Here’s how you can best cope when your little one throws a wobbly!

Child psychologist / June 15 2016

There’s a myth that good parents and kids don’t have tantrum problems. Many parents wonder what they have done wrong, or what is wrong with their toddler. However, there’s usually nothing wrong. In fact, it is far more right than wrong, that a toddler chucks a wobbly from time to time! Almost every toddler tantrums and in some ways we actually worry more about the few toddlers that don’t.


Another myth is that this behaviour only occurs during the “Terrible Twos”, then miraculously disappears. This behaviour can occur at almost any stage of a toddler’s development, although there are some more common times. For example, some toddlers will go into a screaming fit when they move to solids and demand more food, or in contrast, when they don’t want to eat.


Battle lines drawn


A lot of toddlers begin throwing tantrums when they are first mobile, as they naturally want to develop and explore their world, but parents rightly restrict them for safety reasons. A natural developmental battle begins, with an inquisitive, determined toddler, who doesn’t yet understand dangers and threats. As that toddler is restricted and given parental boundaries, a tantrum often eventuates.


“Terrible twos” aren’t exactly correct, but it is true that the greatest number of normal, typical tantrums present when most toddlers are about 18 months of age to 36 months of age. In part, this is driven by normal, but more pronounced emotional development, as well as by a normal change in toddler’s temperament, at this age. It can also be driven by other factors that are more likely to occur at this time, such as over tiredness, over stimulation in their now more involved environment, stress and social challenges, such as another child may now take their prized possession.    


Parents often hope there is a magic cure, or a ‘prevent all’ method. There is no such solution. Meltdowns will inevitably occur. However, we can practise some preventative measures. Toddlers are less likely to go on strike when they are consistently fed and hydrated. Similarly, toddlers are generally better behaved when they are in good sleep patterns. Helping toddlers to be in fairly stress-free environments also reduces the chance of this behaviour, so calm, well-structured and relaxed homes are beneficial.


Seeking stimulation


Toddlers also need activity and excitement, or they will revolt, in a desire for stimulation. Parents need to provide opportunity for toddlers to venture, to discover and to interact with their broad environment, to even make small mistakes themselves. Finally, avoiding typical triggers can help, such as being in the confectionary aisle at the supermarket, at the end of day, with an overloaded trolley and everyone frazzled.       


 Waiting it out


Once a meltdown starts, they are very difficult to stop quickly. However, parents can be effective in reducing the intensity or length. Most tantrums demand a response, but parents are better ignoring this behaviour or waiting it out, if possible, from a short distance. If waiting isn’t possible, then a detached, calm and non-escalating, non-emotional response is best. If possible, removing a toddler to a time-out spot, to calm down, can be beneficial.


Standing your ground


This also means you should try not to give into tantrums simply for peace. Remember, giving in for peace today means another certain war tomorrow and each day after that. Giving in also means that most toddlers will take much longer to grow out of them. Ignore ‘helpful others’, who remind you that a good smack always works. They are usually the parents that raised their kids by fear and negative consequences. And many smacked toddlers soon learn to hit back.


Focusing on positives is also important. Remember to focus lots on rewarding good behaviour, such as listening to mum or dad, quickly doing what is told and following requests.   


If none of this works, and uncontrollable meltdowns continue, then you may wish to seek professional help and support. In a few cases, other emotional, developmental or medical issues are actually behind the behaviour.


Keep in mind that patience will help, as most toddlers begin to reduce the number and intensity of tantrums, between three and four years of age. An occasional wobbly will still occur, but seeing the triggers for such a tantrum is often easier and more obvious. Be calm, patient, ignore the worst and try to hope for the best soon.