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Top tips for diffusing toddler tantrums

Posted in: Family Last updated: 01 Jan 2017
Child who does not want to eat her vegetables

We’ve all been there - that moment when your child’s face crinkles, flushing almost purple, feet and fists pounding the supermarket aisle floor, confectionary flying off the shelves in all directions.

The torturous temper tantrum - especially when it’s in public - can leave you feeling utterly helpless and like the worst parent in the world when judgemental glares and tuts are thrown your way.

But it shouldn’t, and you’re not.

Throwing a tantrum is all part and parcel of learning how to communicate and testing where the boundaries of acceptable social behaviour lie.

Claire B. Kopp, Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology at Claremont University explains, “Toddlers are beginning to understand a lot more of the words they hear, yet their ability to produce language is so limited.” When your child is struggling to communicate how they feel, or what they want, frustration is an inevitable outcome.

“Toddlers are beginning to understand a lot more of the words they hear, yet their ability to produce language is so limited.”

If that doesn’t make you feel any better, here’s a quick overview of what’s going on inside their brain - or more accurately, not going on. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain, just behind the forehead, that regulates emotions, self-control and social behaviour.

It also happens to be one of the last areas of the brain to develop (between 3-6 years of age), making toddlers prone to irrational emotional outbursts.

An immature PFC has some upsides - it’s also what enables them to move on 4 minutes later as if nothing ever happened when your blood pressure is sky high and you are still feeling red faced and flustered.

More about toddler temper tantrums on Parenting.com

How to handle an outburst

Stay cool

Easier said than done, but losing your cool will only add fuel to the fire. When they’re lacking control, they are relying on an adult to provide the social cues to steer the situation. Unlike your screaming bundle of fury, you have the cognitive ability to control your emotions.

Keep your voice calm and low, and communicate clearly that their behaviour is unacceptable and that they can’t always get what they want. Avoid getting into a negotiation when they’re in this state. Calmly repeating phrases like “I won’t talk to you about this until you have calmed down” can help.

Avoidance factors

Although tantrums are an inevitable part of child development, sometimes there are meltdown-contributing factors that are within your control. Look for the signs that your child is hungry, tired, too hot or uncomfortable.

If you can, make changes to their environment that will help them to regain control over their emotions. For example, if you’re about to slog through your weekly supermarket shop, have a healthy snack to hand.

Learn the limits of what they can handle - usually the hard way - and try to avoid lengthy errand trips with a little one in tow.

If this isn’t practical, try to keep them engaged by turning shopping into a game, getting them to help you “find the red packet of biscuits as fast as you can”. 

Distract their attention

When you get the feeling that they’re on the brink, take advantage of their short attention span and try to distract their attention with something - anything - that will make them focus on their immediate environment.

“Look at that in the window over there!” or “Quick - look, a pigeon!” might just be enough to nip it in the bud.

Don’t cave in to their demands

At the time, it might feel like you’d give anything to make them stop screaming. But in the long run, if you cave, you’re teaching them that that behaviour is an effective way to get what they want.

Take a deep breath, ignore the judgemental stares, and remind yourself that it’s a normal part of child development.

Give them control over little things

By giving your child the space to make small choices about their life, you can help them feel in control and empowered when the time suits. Try to phrase the question as a choice between two things, rather than giving them an option to say “no”.

Things like “Do you want strawberry or chocolate ice-cream?” or “Do you want to read ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, or ‘The Cat in the Hat’?”.

Ultimately, if it’s no skin off your nose which option they choose, pick your battles wisely.

Time Out

If you’re at home with an irate toddler on your hands and nothing seems to be working, it can be useful to have a specific ‘time out’ place.

Calmly take your child to the cooling down zone, sit them down, and explain to them that they need to stay here until they’ve regained control over their emotions and are calm again. Make sure they’re safe before leaving them and never lock them in.

Once they’ve regained control, praise them for doing so and give them a big cuddle.

Tantrums tend to decrease in frequency and severity once a child’s language skills improve. Just hang in there. And remember, whilst there are certain strategies that may or may not work to diffuse a tantrum, they’re a completely normal part of your child’s development.

Keep calm and carry on.

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