We have seen plenty of tantrums in our house, but there are a few that have stuck with us. One of these is the "graham cracker tantrum of 2017." My son was just under 2 years old, and we had gone out to lunch with a friend. As many toddlers are, my son was big on routine. He was used to coming home from school, having lunch and then getting ready for a nap. Going out to lunch threw off everything.
My sister was with us and she drove home so that I could sit in the backseat and prevent my toddler from falling asleep on the 30-minute drive home that would ruin his nap. I don't remember how it came up, but we started talking about snacks he could have later in the afternoon. I suggested graham crackers and peanut butter.
It was already past nap time when we got home, but my son walked into the house and sat down at his little table, ready for lunch just like every day. It didn't matter that he had just had a full lunch, this was his routine. He looked up at me and sweetly said, "Maybe graham cracker?"
Now if I had only known what would follow, I would likely have just given him a small snack or at least a drink at his little table to fulfill his need for routine. That is not what happened.
I reminded him he had already had lunch and it was time to get ready for a nap. He looked at me and he utterly lost it. He quickly went from sitting patiently, waiting for graham crackers to thrashing around on the floor, banging on things, yelling "Maybe graham cracker!"
This was not the kind of tantrum I could cut short. It was happening.
Should I scramble to find the graham crackers and start tossing them his way, hoping one would land in his mid-yell mouth?
Should I scold him and tell him his behavior was inappropriate?
Should I try to reason with him?
Here are six steps to use tantrums to bring you closer to your toddler:
Step 1: Know that tantrums are normal.
The first step is understanding that tantrums are a completely normal, appropriate behavior for young children. This is key because this understanding will help you keep your calm.
Toddlers throw tantrums for all sorts of reasons. They are struggling to process big emotions with still-developing verbal skills. They are hungry or tired or off schedule. They are overstimulated.
Sometimes, and most frustratingly, there is no discernible reason for the tantrum. But it is still a normal part of toddler behavior and the more you can accept that, the calmer you'll be able to stay.
Step 2: Don't try to stop the tantrum.
Most tantrums can't be stopped once they're underway. Even if you can stop a tantrum though, you probably shouldn't.
For starters, you don't need to tell your child tantrums are unacceptable. If there is no reward for throwing a tantrum, that is if you don't give in to what they're yelling for, they will stop when they're developmentally ready.
Trying to stop a tantrum often makes it last longer. This is because any reasoning you try to do provides additional stimulation. If a child is already overwhelmed with emotion, this stimulation only feeds the fire.
Trying to stop a tantrum also sends the message that you're uncomfortable with your child's big emotions, that you can't or don't want to deal with them.
Step 3: Don't punish your child.
Punishing a child for having a tantrum isn't fair because the behavior is out of their control. They are not willfully laying on the floor kicking and screaming, they have simply lost it, lost control of their little bodies for the time being. Furthermore, they can't hear you and they can't think rationally in this state. If there is a behavior that needs to be addressed, such as a safety issue, wait until you are both calm to discuss it.
Step 4: Don't give in.
Wouldn't it be easier to just give him the graham cracker?
In the short term, yes, it absolutely would. In the long run, giving in to the demands of tantrums will not bring you closer together. It will in fact likely make you feel resentful over time, because no one likes to feel like they're being manipulated or controlled, even by a toddler.
It can also get your child stuck in a pattern of behavior, where they keep throwing tantrums when they normally would be done with the behavior because they know if they throw a tantrum, they will get their way.
Does this mean you have to dig your feet in and never give your toddler what they're begging for? No.
There will be times when you simply just didn't realize something was important to them when you said "no" offhandedly but don't really care. In these cases, say something like, "Whoa, I didn't realize this was so important to you. I changed my mind, I'm actually okay with it if you have a graham cracker."
This works best if your child is just starting to get upset, rather than already mid-tantrum. Also, only do this when you really don't mind giving them what they ask for, and when you can do it calmly.
Step 5: Provide quiet comfort.
Be a calming presence for your child when they are having a tantrum. What does this look like?
- It likely means sitting on the floor with them, if you can.
- It means using few, if any words, as they can't hear you.
- It means being available for hugs and comfort, but not grabbing them in a big bear hug and trying to skip to the end.
- It means simply being present and accepting.
It can feel odd, to just sit there and watch as your child yells and flails around, but this presence is what they need and it is powerful.
Being a calm presence sends the message that, despite their big feelings, they are safe. It lets them know that you can handle anything they throw your way and that you are okay with their emotions, even the negative ones.
Step 6: Be there when it's over.
You will be able to tell when the tantrum is winding down. Your child may make eye contact with you, their cries may become quieter, they may start sucking their thumb if they use that for comfort.
Now is the time to reconnect with your child, to show them that you still love them as much as ever when they act like this. You can reach out for their hand or open your arms to show you're available for a hug. This is the part that makes it all worth it.
These post-tantrum snuggles bring you closer together and strengthen your connection in a different way than the happy times.
Think about a friendship where you can be real and raw and show your emotions, versus one where it is always fun but you stick to talking about music and movies. It is a different level of relationship.
We want our children to come to us when they feel bullied at school, when they struggle with body image or when they are heartbroken by their first breakup.
It all starts now, with these little flailing bodies and hot tears, with nonsensical yells about graham crackers. These are the times when we build the trust, the solid relationships that will last throughout our parenting journeys.