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

    14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

    Meadow ring toss game

    Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

    $30

    Balance board

    Plan Toys balance board

    Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

    $75

    Detective set

    Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

    This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

    $40

    Wooden doll stroller

    Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

    Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

    $120

    Sand play set

    Plan Toys sand set

    Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

    $30

    Water play set

    Plan Toys water play set

    Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

    $100

    Mini golf set

    Plan Toys mini golf set

    Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

    $40

    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

    $121

    Wooden rocking pegasus

    plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

    Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

    $100

    Croquet set

    Plan Toys croquet set

    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

    $45

    Wooden digital camera

    fathers factory wooden digital camera

    Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

    $179

    Wooden bulldozer toy

    plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

    $100

    Pull-along hippo

    janod toys pull along hippo toy

    There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

    $33

    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

    Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

    $88

    We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

    Shop

    Time-saving formula tips our editors swear by

    Less time making bottles, more time snuggling.

    As a new parent, it can feel like feeding your baby is a full-time job—with a very demanding nightshift. Add in the additional steps it takes to prepare a bottle of formula and, well… we don't blame you if you're eager to save some time when you can. After all, that means more time for snuggling your baby or practicing your own well-deserved self-care.

    Here's the upside: Many, many formula-feeding mamas before you have experienced the same thing, and they've developed some excellent tricks that can help you mix up a bottle in record time. Here are the best time-saving formula tips from editors here at Motherly.

    1. Use room temperature water

    The top suggestion that came up time and time again was to introduce bottles with room temperature water from the beginning. That way, you can make a bottle whenever you need it without worrying about warming up water—which is a total lifesaver when you have to make a bottle on the go or in the middle of the night.

    2. Buy online to save shopping time

    You'll need a lot of formula throughout the first year and beyond—so finding a brand like Comforts, which offers high-quality infant formula at lower prices, will help you save a substantial amount of money. Not to mention, you can order online or find the formula on shelves during your standard shopping trip—and that'll save you so much time and effort as well.

    3. Pre-measure nighttime bottles

    The middle of the night is the last time you'll want to spend precious minutes mixing up a bottle. Instead, our editors suggest measuring out the correct amount of powder formula into a bottle and putting the necessary portion of water on your bedside table. That way, all you have to do is roll over and combine the water and formula in the bottle before feeding your baby. Sounds so much better than hiking all the way to the kitchen and back at 3 am, right?

    4. Divide serving sizes for outings

    Before leaving the house with your baby, divvy up any portions of formula and water that you may need during your outing. Then, when your baby is hungry, just combine the pre-measured water and powder serving in the bottle. Our editors confirm this is much easier than trying to portion out the right amount of water or formula while riding in the car.

    5. Memorize the mental math

    Soon enough, you'll be able to prepare a bottle in your sleep. But, especially in the beginning or when increasing your baby's serving, the mental math can take a bit of time. If #mombrain makes it tough to commit the measurements to memory, write up a cheat sheet for yourself or anyone else who will prepare your baby's bottle.

    6. Warm up chilled formula with water

    If you're the savvy kind of mom who prepares and refrigerates bottles for the day in advance, you'll probably want to bring it up to room temperature before serving. Rather than purchase a bottle warmer, our editors say the old-fashioned method works incredibly well: Just plunge the sealed bottle in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes and—voila!—it's ready to serve.



    Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on Comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

    This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

    Our Partners

    It's science: Why your baby stops crying when you stand up

    A fascinating study explains why.

    When your baby is crying, it feels nearly instinctual to stand up to rock, sway and soothe them. That's because standing up to calm babies is instinctual—driven by centuries of positive feedback from calmed babies, researchers have found.

    "Infants under 6 months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease, compared with holding by a sitting mother," say authors of a 2013 study published in Current Biology.

    Even more striking: This coordinated set of actions—the mother standing and the baby calming—is observed in other mammal species, too. Using pharmacologic and genetic interventions with mice, the authors say, "We identified strikingly similar responses in mouse pups as defined by immobility and diminished ultrasonic vocalizations and heart rate."

    Keep reading Show less
    News