Menu

5 tantrum-taming secrets from a family therapist

Rather than viewing these outbursts as wholly negative experiences, I try to see them as a vital part of how my child communicates with me.

how to stop toddler tantrums

There is no denying that tantrums are one of the hard parts of parenting. The good news is that they are an incredibly normal and healthy emotional expression for young children. So just because my son is screeching in the middle of Hobby Lobby because I won't let him pull all of the picture frames off the shelf doesn't mean I'm a terrible parent or that he is destined to be an insufferable human being.


One of my favorite ways to approach any problem is to find a way to reframe it. Rather than viewing these outbursts as wholly negative experiences, I try to see them as a vital part of how my child communicates with me.

Just as in any healthy relationship, it's a good thing for us to express our opinions, acknowledge the other person's feelings, and set boundaries with each other. However, unlike in most adult relationships, toddlers have minimal impulse control and are just starting to develop their verbal skills. Tantrums are their way of telling us when they've reached their limits or simply disagree with us.

So now that we can view tantrums more positively, how should we respond when they inevitably show up?

1. Don't take it personally

First, remind yourself that your child is not actually trying to embarrass or inconvenience you. Although they might be accomplishing those things, it's not their intention. They're trying to communicate with you, plain and simple.

Disappointment, frustration and anger are all major emotions even adults struggle to express appropriately at times. They aren't having a meltdown to punish or manipulate you; it's just the only way they can cope at this age. Remember that tantrums are developmentally appropriate.

2. Be a reporter, not a judge

Many parents get flustered by the onslaught of a child's emotions and don't know how to react in a helpful way. After doing some research into respectful parenting approaches, I developed a simple model of response.

Observe their behavior, report back what you see, acknowledge their feelings, and set boundaries (if needed). This might look like, "You really didn't want to stop playing to go change your diaper. You feel like hitting me, but I can't let you do that. I understand that you're frustrated and it's tough to stop doing something fun." This formula keeps you from trying to justify yourself or just yelling back.

3. Don't rush the process

This is one of the hardest parts for parents. It's difficult to have someone screaming, flailing around, falling on the ground, and clutching your pant leg like Gollum with his Precious. You just want the tantrum to end as quickly as possible, but trying to rush things usually ends up backfiring.

There's a wonderful analogy that says difficult emotions are like tunnels, and we are trains moving through them. There are no secret side exits, shortcuts, or quick ways to rush through; we simply have to feel the feelings all the way through.

Once you make it through to the other side—and in a toddler's case, "making it through" may look a lot like screaming, flailing and raging– you find a calmer, more relaxed child. It's also important to remember that parents often want tantrums to end quickly because we are uncomfortable, not because it's necessarily the best thing for our children.

4. Use time-ins rather than time-outs

Courtesy of Generation Mindful

Children, especially very young kids and toddlers, need to be guided through difficult emotions rather than left to struggle on their own. They need a safe anchor to cling to when they're rocked by these tumultuous feelings. They need to know that we aren't intimidated by strong feelings.

This is why I use time-ins rather than time-outs. (Generation Mindful makes an incredibly useful time-in toolkit!) When a child loses their cool, take them to a quiet space (their room, outside the restaurant, the car), and then simply let them vent their emotions.

Don't try to distract, fix, or rush the process.

Acknowledge the emotions ("I hear how upset you are"), keep the limits ("I won't let you throw food"), and then simply sit with them. This teaches kids that feelings matter, and you're not afraid of their emotional responses.

They'll learn that big emotions are nothing to be ashamed of and that a caring presence won't be withdrawn when they need it the most.

From the Shop

Create a creative play center your toddler will love

8. Don't punish feelings

Toddlers and young children are just learning how to deal with difficult emotions, so the last thing we want to do is communicate that those feelings are unacceptable or wrong to experience.

Remember the train analogy? We need to show children how to move through emotional distress, not block up the tunnel and leave them stuck there. The goal is to build resilient kids who can handle the stress and disappointments of life without shutting down or running away. Learning to accept difficult emotions is the first step to learning how to cope with them.

You can model this acceptance for a child by acknowledging their feelings without judgment or condemnation. Rather than saying, "Stop whining, nothing is wrong," or "You're fine, there's nothing to cry about," I say, "I understand that you're frustrated, but you can't do _____ right now."

Hold limits about what behaviors are acceptable, but be careful to avoid criticizing the way they feel. Emotions are always valid, even if they're uncomfortable. Teaching kids to identify and accept their feelings at a young age builds a foundation for better mental health for the rest of their life.

These techniques aren't guaranteed to stop a tantrum in its tracks, but that's not actually the goal. We want to raise healthy, secure, well-adjusted children who feel comfortable with their emotions and trust us to hear their concerns.

When my son melts down, I always experience a brief wave of helplessness— "What do I do now?"—but having clear, actionable steps enables me to stay calm and in control. While I can't always prevent tantrums, I can move through them in a healthy, connected way that helps my son with the larger task of learning emotional regulation and resiliency. As a family therapist, I know that's the goal that really matters.

You might also like:

    True

    This is my one trick to get baby to sleep (and it always works!)

    There's a reason why every mom tells you to buy a sound machine.

    So in my defense, I grew up in Florida. As a child of the sunshine state, I knew I had to check for gators before sitting on the toilet, that cockroaches didn't just scurry, they actually flew, and at that point, the most popular and only sound machine I had ever heard of was the Miami Sound Machine.

    I was raised on the notion that the rhythm was going to get me, not lull me into a peaceful slumber. Who knew?!

    Well evidently science and, probably, Gloria Estefan knew, but I digress.

    When my son was born, I just assumed the kid would know how to sleep. When I'm tired that's what I do, so why wouldn't this smaller more easily exhausted version of me not work the same way? Well, the simple and cinematic answer is, he is not in Kansas anymore.

    Being in utero is like being in a warm, soothing and squishy spa. It's cozy, it's secure, it comes with its own soundtrack. Then one day the spa is gone. The space is bigger, brighter and the constant stream of music has come to an abrupt end. Your baby just needs a little time to acclimate and a little assist from continuous sound support.

    My son, like most babies, was a restless and active sleeper. It didn't take much to jolt him from a sound sleep to crying like a banshee. I once microwaved a piece of pizza, and you would have thought I let 50 Rockettes into his room to perform a kick line.

    I was literally walking on eggshells, tiptoeing around the house, watching the television with the closed caption on.

    Like adults, babies have an internal clock. Unlike adults, babies haven't harnessed the ability to hit the snooze button on that internal clock. Lucky for babies they have a great Mama to hit the snooze button for them.

    Enter the beloved by all—sound machines.

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

    So, what's new this week?

    Earth Mama: Effective, natural herbal care for mamas and babies

    Founded and grown in her own garage in 2002, Earth Mama started as an operation of one, creating salves, tinctures, teas and soaps with homegrown herbs. With a deep desire to bring the healing powers of nature that have been relied on for thousands of years to as many mamas as possible, Melinda Olson's formulas quickly grew into Earth Mama Organics. Since then, the brand has remained committed to manufacturing clean, safe and effective herbal solutions for the entire journey of motherhood, including pregnancy, breastfeeding and baby care, and even the loss of a baby.

    Bravado Designs: Soothing sounds for a good night's sleep

    With 28 years of serving pregnant and postpartum mamas under their belt, Bravado Designs is a true authority on the needs of changing bodies. It's true that we have them to thank for rescuing us from the uncomfortable and frumpy designs our own moms had to live with. Launched in Canada by two young mamas, they designed the first prototypes with extra leopard print fabric certain that a better bra was possible. Throughout the years they've maintained their commitment to ethical manufacturing while creating long-lasting products that truly work.

    The Sill: Instagram-ready potted plants

    We've long admired this female-founded brand and the brilliant mind behind it, Eliza Blank. (She even joined Motherly co-founder Liz Tenety on and episode of The Motherly Podcast!) The mission behind the business was simple: To make the process of bringing plants into your home as easy as possible, and as wonderful as the plant themselves. With their in-house, exclusively designed minimalist planters, the end result makes plant parenthood just a few clicks away.

    Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    What went viral this week: Pregnant Disney Princesses + an airline nightmare

    Now, more than ever, we need to hear those good news stories.

    Vanessa Firme/Instagram

    Last week was a week.

    We lost a legal and cultural icon with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and deadly wildfires continue to blaze on the West Coast. Now, more than ever, we need to see creativity, kindness and compassion in our world—we need to hear those "good news" stories, but we also need to see the headlines that show us how and why the world needs to change .

    And right now both kinds of stories are going viral.

    Here are the viral stories you need to read right now:

    Keep reading Show less
    News