Struggling with the terrible twos? Learn the most gentle, yet effective strategies for coping with temper tantrums peacefully.
- Written by Genevieve Howland
- Updated on May 05, 2020
You’re at the grocery store buying dinner and your toddler spots the ice cream section. The next thing you know your child is flailing and screaming on the floor of aisle 10 because he can’t have ice cream for dinner. The terrible twos have hit hard and toddler temper tantrums are coming full force. What’s a mama to do?
In this article, we’ll answer all of your most burning questions about temper tantrums—namely how to cope.
First, Be Sure the Basics Are Met
Ever heard of being hangry? Ya know, anger because you’re hungry. There’s a reason that “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry” is a thing. Even adults who haven’t been eating healthy get very grumpy. Kids have the same struggle—and then some, since they haven’t developed the same coping skills as adults.
Make sure your offering balanced meals and snacks. Avoid simple carbs and sugars that cause temporary spikes, then crashes. And do your best to serve meals and snacks at regular intervals. Long stretches between meals is a recipe for disaster—toddlers burn through food faster than adults do.
Life happens, but keeping a regular sleep schedule is just as important (if not more so!) as the nutrients your child is taking in. Toddlers do best with a mid-afternoon nap. Get out early in the morning, get them running, jumping, skipping… anything to burn energy. Generally, this is enough to help them crash for a nap right after lunch due to fatigue.
Some toddlers will resist an afternoon nap, but it is so important for children under the age of four to get as much sleep as possible throughout the day and night. If your child is struggling to wind down, try to encourage them to rest quietly in their crib or toddler bed. They can lay there and flip through books or listen to lullabies. And, if they skip the nap, make sure they go to bed a bit earlier, around 6-6:30 p.m.
How to Effectively Deal With Temper Tantrums
The best way to deal with someone else’s eruptive emotions is to not join in yourself. You know, the whole “two wrongs don’t make a right” thing.
This can be really hard, but staying calm is the best way to get through a tantrum without making the situation worse. Count to 10 to help interrupt your fight or flight response. And, if it’s safe to do so, sometimes walking away to collect yourself can help, too. Whatever you need to do to regroup and enter the situation more calmly will be a huge help.
Connect by getting eye-to-eye
Connecting with your child at a time when they may feel very alone with their scary emotions can help them relax. They also learn that you are on their team and are ready to help them navigate whatever comes their way.
Get close to your child by sitting on the floor with them, and ideally, making eye contact. This helps your child feel safe and supported. As adults, we often do this for our friends and family members. Have you ever had a friend simply sit in silence next to you while you cried? If so, then you know how supported and safe this type of behavior can make you feel.
Create a cozy area somewhere safe—the child’s room or in the family room, for example—that she can go when she gets upset or needs to cool down. You can even dedicate a small pillow to the cause. Let you child squeeze or punch the pillow to let off some steam. It’s also a good idea to have lots of comfort tools in this space—dolls, stuffed animals, snacks, etc. If you are in a store or outside the home, bring your child to a safe place like the car or a waiting room.
Sit with your child and allow them to express themselves to you without judgment. Once they have calmed down and feel heard, you can reiterate your expectations.
Show compassion—but don’t try to fix
It’s really tempting to give in to what your child wants or to find a distraction for a child that is having a tantrum. But that doesn’t teach them how to deal with disappointment. Fixing your child’s problems will only cause more situations where you need to “fix” something. Instead, use compassion and empathy to help your child learn to deal with complex emotions.
Try working through their feelings by repeating what you hear them say. For example, “You really wanted to have ice cream today. Ice cream tastes so good! But we can’t have ice cream today and that makes you feel really mad!” Why? Kids begin to relax as they recognize that you understand how they are feeling.
Teach child breathing techniques
Kids have temper tantrums, because they are struggling with big emotions. Help them learn how to use calm down techniques. This is a great way to support your child in learning to self regulate. Have your child count to 10 if they know how to. Or, have them take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You can even make it a song. Daniel Tiger says “When you’re feeling mad and you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to FOUR.”
Temper tantrums are sometimes a reaction to feeling small. Kids often don’t have much say in what they do each day, and that can cause them to feel powerless. Offering choices throughout the day can help reduce tantrums. But offering a choice during a tantrum can help, too. Consider this: “You really want ice cream, but we need to pick a healthy snack. Would you like apple slices or carrot sticks?”
Avoid tantrum triggers
Most kids have tantrum triggers like being tired, hungry, or bored. Try to hone in on what triggers your child, so you can avoid these situations, thus reducing the number of tantrums your child has.
- If you know your child tends to meltdown when your errands go longer than an hour, avoid keeping him out that long.
- If he can’t handle missing a nap, avoid being out of the house during nap time.
If you absolutely can’t avoid tantrum triggers, plan ahead to minimize or ease tantrums. Give yourself extra time to get where you need to go in case you need to spend 10 minutes waiting for your toddler to stop thrashing around on the floor. This also helps you stay calm. Bring snacks, favorite toys, or a favorite blanket to offer some comfort or entertainment.
Include heavy work activities into play time
Heavy work activities are activities that require lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy items. This work helps kids (and adults) activate the proprioceptive system. Proprioception is a process that helps us become aware of our bodies and how they can be moved in space. It’s often thought of as another sense similar to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
When kids are throwing a temper tantrum, thrashing their bodies around and throwing things, they are seeking this stimulation. Make sure there are lots of opportunities for heavy work in your daily lives to help reduce your child’s instinct to do it during a temper tantrum.
Here are some ideas:
- Pushing a friend on the swings
- Carrying groceries
- Carrying a heavy toy
- Pulling a sled (filled with people or heavy objects)
- Hanging upside-down on monkey bars
- Doing household chores
- Raking leaves
Incorporate some of these into your daily routine, or offer one of these activities when you sense a tantrum coming on.
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Why Do Temper Tantrums Happen?
While these strategies surely help, it’s nearly impossible to avoid temper tantrums altogether. When you’re truly exasperated, understanding why temper tantrums happen can really help you effectively solve them and keep your cool.
Here are the main reasons temper tantrums occur, according to Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids:
- Not enough sleep or healthy food: As mentioned above, this is the number one trigger for tantrums. Kids who are overtired or hungry are already struggling, so almost any disappointment can set them off.
- Lacking connection: When kids feel disconnected from their caregivers, they are more likely to act out. Kids (and adults!) need to feel loved and accepted. After a long day at school or daycare, many kids crave mom or dad’s attention. Unfortunately, this often coincides with evening routines where mom and dad are running errands, making dinner, cleaning up, etc.
- Feeling powerless: As mentioned, kids don’t often have much say in what they do each day. But we all want to feel in control of our lives. Lack of control or ability to make decisions in their lives can cause tantrums.
- Having “too big” emotions: Sometimes a tantrum is simply an emotion that a child is struggling with. No one likes to feel negative emotions, but we all need to learn to deal with them. Tantrums can be a representation of this journey and an opportunity for learning.
Will The Tantrums Ever End?
Sometimes it can feel like your child is being so irrational it can’t possibly be normal. The good news (that might also feel like bad news): Most of the time, tantrums are a normal part of toddler-hood.
As your child gets older, can communicate better, and has more self-awareness and self-control, you should see tantrums begin to improve and decrease in frequency.
If your child is violent towards themselves or others, can’t communicate at a level appropriate for their age, or exhibiting behavior that’s getting worse, check in with your pediatrician.
Otherwise this stage is completely normal. And it’s also a really good thing if you think about it: It means your child is processing emotions, learning, and growing. It also means that he trusts you enough to be completely vulnerable.
I always try to remember: He’s not trying to give me a hard time—he’s having a hard time. I find that thinking about my kids’ tantrums as a cry for help, instead of “bad behavior,” can help me stay calm and support them through their emotions. Hang in there mama, you’re doing great!