Taming toddler tantrums

By: Feb 25, 2011

Whether its “terrible twos” or “trying threes,” here’s how to keep the peace

Ah, toddlers. They can be cute, funny – and very, very frustrating. From about age two to four, children have the amazing ability to morph from sweet little cherubs into loud, unruly demons in a matter of minutes. Here’s a look at why toddlers tend to act out and what you can do to keep the peace.

Why toddlers can be trying

Many parents dread the “terrible twos,” but they’re really just a normal developmental stage in which children are learning to be more independent and get easily frustrated. Two-year-olds are especially prone to emotional outbursts because they aren’t yet capable of controlling their emotions or expressing themselves in other ways.

Then, as toddlers reach ages three and four, they begin testing boundaries, “no” becomes their favourite word and temper tantrums can be daily events.

“Some kids use tantrums to get what they want, others are just tired or over stimulated and don’t know what else to do,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child and parent therapist in Toronto and author of Connected Parenting. “Either way, it’s important to handle the situation properly to ensure that the moment becomes a thing of the past – and to make sure that, in the future, your child will be able to regulate her behaviour.” Here are some strategies to help you do just that.

Dealing with tantrums

1. Establish a routine: A tired, hungry or over-stimulated toddler is a tantrum time bomb, so it’s important to stick to your regular routine as much as possible when it comes to meals, naps and outings.

2. Use distraction: Sometimes all it takes is a little distraction to head off a flow-blown fit. If something isn’t going your toddler’s way, introduce her to another activity, or simply try making her laugh.

3. Try an interruption: “An interruption isn’t a traditional time-out. Instead the child is asked to go somewhere else to think for a few minutes and told she can come back when she is ready to comply,” says Kolari. “You don’t have to discuss it when the interruption is over, just welcome her back and repeat the routine until the behaviour stops. If you’re calm and consistent, it will work.”

4. Don’t lose your cool: "Stay calm as you respond to the behaviour – yelling never works,” says Kolari. She recommends empathizing with your child by using “mirroring” statements. “Mirroring is an effective tool to help children organize and regulate their emotions,” she says. “Try saying something like, ‘That is such a cool toy; I get why you want it because it’s so cool.’ If things still escalate, just tell her you have tried to understand, but that she cannot have the toy. Tell her to go ahead and have a fit and you will wait for her to finish. I love this technique because the child often won’t meltdown because you have paradoxically allowed it.”

5. Don’t give in: Never give in to a tantrum because it only rewards the behaviour and guarantees its return, says Kolari. “Clearly say ‘no’ to your child. Don’t say ‘maybe,’ or ‘we’ll see.’ And use a neutral, but confident, voice because if you don’t believe yourself, she won’t believe you either.”