We’ve all been there: You’re in the mall or at the playground, looking down at the red-faced, tear-stained, shrieking child trying to pry away his hand from yours. All you may want in that moment is to be invisible—but, sadly, those cloaks are in short supply.
Left with the reality that tantrums are just a part of life with (cognitively developing) toddlers, many parents struggle to figure out the best course of action. Do you ignore? Distract? Talk it out? According to the experts, there may be appropriate times and places for all of those responses.
Here’s what the pros want us to know about tantrums and taming them:
Toddlers don’t like tantrums either
It helps to stop seeing tantrums as willful outbreaks and start approaching them from places of compassion, says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection—Not Punishment—To Raise Confident, Capable Kids.
“As hard as it is for you to cope with your toddler's meltdowns, especially when they happen in public, it is so much harder to actually be the toddler,” says Ockwell-Smith. “Imagine feeling so out of control, unable to calm yourself and get a hold on your emotions and being completely unable to communicate how you feel with anyone.”
Add stares from strangers and scolds from parents and it’s much easier to see why this is a stressful situation for little ones. Ockwell-Smith says that’s why, at least initially, the best reaction is a hug and some support.
Rationalization doesn’t help much during the tantrum
“In the moment the tantrum is happening, most parents don’t realize how much the tantrum is affecting them–their tone of voice, their feelings, their body language,” explains Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute, a nonprofit providing parents with practical strategies for educational success.
According to Firestone, becoming frustrated, annoyed or angry is a natural response when someone is yelling (or screaming and kicking) at you. Although telling the tantruming kiddo to “calm down” may seem like a good solution, it usually doesn’t work; kids just don’t have the skills to look at the situation as rationally as we do.
She suggests a better way to help everyone chill is to take a deep breath, gauge your feelings and validate your tot’s emotions. Says Firestone, “Get down on his level and say something like, ‘Oh dear. I know this is very frustrating. I get frustrated sometimes too.’”
Bedtime, screen time and mealtime are all factors
How often have you felt hangry? Now think about how extreme that can be for little bodies and bellies, says Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist at Happy Nest Therapy. The same goes for out-of-whack habits with screen time and bedtime.
“It's hard to notice patterns when you're in them, but I encourage parents with children who have extreme tantrums to record diet, sleep and screens over the period of a week or so,” Donhauser says. When parents keep track for awhile they can see if a a late soccer game, movie night or extra helping of dessert is the precursor to a tantrum—and adjust household schedules and menus accordingly.
Sometimes intensity is better than calmness
As counterintutive as it may seem, some kids respond better when parents get on their level—of strong emotions, that is. Says Holly Klaassen, author of The Fussy Baby Survival Guide, some tantrums can be tamed by redirecting the high energy in a positive way, such as by eagerly pointing of a cool item on the other side of the room.
Temporary distraction doesn’t mean the tantrum should go entirely unaddressed, however. Says Klaassen, “After the flood of emotions has passed, there’s time to talk about feelings or to deal with whatever caused the meltdown.”
You don’t always have to worry about who ‘wins’
As any parent knows, tantrums don’t always happen in ideal environments. If you don’t have the time or ability to talk your child down, St. Louis-based childhood and anger management specialist Kelsey Torgerson says it’s okay to give in.
“You may have somewhere you absolutely have to be or you're not at a good location for a tantrum. If that's the case, it is okay to give into your child's demands,” Torgerson says with the caveat of making sure you do it promptly so your child doesn’t read it as the fit getting them what they wanted. “The longer you wait before you give in, the more likely your child is to reach that level of tantruming again in the future.”
Outbursts are normal, 20-minute tantrums are not
When your kiddo is melting down in the grocery store and everyone is staring, it can feel like your kid is the only one who acts like this. But, according to Dr. Cheryl S. Al-Mateen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, a tantrum here or there (or in aisle six) is a normal part of early childhood.
But parents should consider getting help if the tantrums are frequent, regularly occur outside the home, typically last more than 20 minutes or involve aggression or self-injury.
The experts all agree, most tantrums are a normal part of child development. When they do happen, you can lay the groundwork for lessening tantrums—and rest assured that your kiddo will likely be back to flashing that magical smile soon enough.