We’ve all been there. Your toddler is tired and hungry, but you really need to pick up a few things from the grocery store to make dinner. It’ll be quick, you tell yourself, in and out. And then, because she wants something that you aren’t willing to buy, or maybe even for no obvious reason at all, it happens: a tantrum.
How We Respond to Tantrums
Some of us respond to tantrums with embarrassment—“what will people think of me as a parent? Or my child?” Some of us respond with anger—“how dare he act this way? Why won’t he behave?” Some of us go for the double whammy and feel both at once, which can add up to a pretty messy scene for us as parents, too.
We tend to associate tantrums with the “Terrible Twos,” but in fact they can start earlier than two and continue happening past the toddler years.
Why Tantrums Happen
Learning a little bit more about why tantrums happen, as well as what we can do to weather them in a way that supports both our child and our own needs, can help us get through these long moments with more of our sanity intact.
Tantrums often happen when children want to communicate something that their brain is not developed enough to communicate, or when they are flooded with feelings that are difficult to process in what we consider an “appropriate” way.
A young child’s prefrontal cortex—the front part of her brain that is responsible for impulse control, socially acceptable behavior, and decision-making—is just beginning to develop in the toddler years. (In fact, it can take 25 years or more to fully develop—something to remember when your kid goes off to college one day.)
Things that can trigger a tantrum include unfulfilled desires (think candy before breakfast); frustrated attempts (zipping up a jacket); or, if the conditions are right, the smallest, seemingly meaningless thing (pouring milk onto his cereal—”why would you do that, mama?!”). The “conditions,” in this case, mean how tired, hungry, overstimulated, or underconnected your child may be at any given moment.
Sometimes a tantrum isn’t even really “about” the thing that seems to cause it. In some cases that thing is just a trigger to release feelings that build so strongly in these small-but-mighty people who are growing, learning, and changing at such a rapid pace.
Tantrums also don’t look the same in every child. Some children have textbook tantrums—yelling, crying, thrashing on the floor—while others simply sit and wail inconsolably for a period of time. Some, as children’s book author Mo Willems puts it, go “boneless” in a seeming act of protest about the deep injustice of life.
What You Can Do About Tantrums
However your child expresses himself in these difficult moments, here are a few things you can do to help him through it, and keep yourself from losing it, too.
1. Don’t punish.
Many of us were taught as children that we needed to be “taught a lesson” to behave. These “lessons” often included a big spoonful of shame to swallow along with whatever consequence our parent cooked up.
Someday I’ll write a whole other post on punishment, but suffice it to say that the lesson it usually teaches is to fear the adult instead of stop the behavior. If we remember that our child is not “being a brat” or manipulating us to get what she wants when she has a tantrum, we can approach her with more tenderness in these moments.
2. Use a mantra.
Sometimes repeating a mantra can really help you keep your cool, and you’ll know which one works for you when you try a few. A few of my favorites are:
- “It’s not personal—it’s developmental.”
- “She’s not giving me a hard time—she’s having a hard time.”
- “Stop! Breathe.” (And be sure to do it.)
3. Say less.
Being (mostly) rational adults, we have a tendency to try to talk our kids out of tantrums. But when he’s in the throes of his feelings, he can’t hear your explanation that if he can just wait until after naptime, he’ll be able to go to the park. If you have the patience, just sit nearby and offer your warm presence. If you need a break and your child is in a safe space, let your child know that you’ll be back when you’ve cooled down a bit.
4. Offer empathy.
Although I recommend saying less, when you do talk, I suggest that you offer your empathy. Even though it might seem ridiculous to you that your little girl is melting down over not being able to Velcro her shoes, to her it feels like a very big deal. A few well-timed expressions like “I know, you really want to be able to put on your own shoes, and it’s hard!” can help her feel seen and understood.
Tantrums can’t be totally avoided, but—like many things—they can be softened, shortened, and lessened with good rest, food, and connection with loved ones. (All things we need as adults, too, to weather them!)
If you’d like to hear more, check out this short podcast with nine minutes of wisdom on tantrums from Janet Lansbury, an expert in respectful parenting.
About the Author
Could you use some additional help dealing with tantrums? Caroline Griswold is a parenting coach at Well Clinic who offers practical, effective, and respectful parenting tools.
Caroline supports parents with a variety of issues, including sleep, weaning, tantrums, respectful discipline, sibling challenges, and improving communication and connection with their children.