As the parent of a toddler, you are all-too familiar with tantrums. They’re part of the landscape of your day. Maybe they happen at the same time every day. Maybe they feel random. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Either way, they’re exasperating and draining.
And they also can be jarring—thanks to your toddler’s seemingly endless ear-splitting sobs and screams. Which, of course, stresses you out even more.
Tantrums are actually tough to define.
According to Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, “Just as no two kids are exactly alike, no two tantrums are either.”
At her practice, she learned pretty quickly that when parents brought up their kids’ “tantrums,” she needed to delve deeper.
“Instead of taking the word ‘tantrum’ at face value, I always ask: What does it look like when Frances has a tantrum? If I were there, what would I see? What would I hear?”
In general, Hershberg defines a tantrum as “a behavioral response to not knowing how to manage or express an overwhelming emotional experience.”
Many of us assume that this overwhelming emotional experience is always anger. However, this is actually the biggest misconception about tantrums, she said. While toddlers do feel angry, they also might feel “sad, disappointed, afraid…the list goes on.”
Another big myth is that tantrums are childish and immature. Quite the opposite, Hershberg noted that tantrums are a normal and natural response in young kids. “Young children’s brains are wired in such a way that tantrums make perfect sense and are actually a sign of normal development.”
As Hershberg writes in her comprehensive, compassionate, practical and wise new book The Tantrum Survival Guide, “Toddlers or preschoolers who throw tantrums are learning to express their emotions, assert their independence, forge a place for their needs and wants in what can be a confusing and overwhelming world.”
And these tantrums decrease as kids get older and become more skilled at communicating and regulating their emotions, she said.
But since your child isn’t there yet, below Hershberg shared a variety of invaluable tips for taming your child’s tantrums.
Take your child’s feelings seriously—yes, even the seemingly ridiculous, irrational reactions. When your child is about to have a meltdown, or is in full meltdown mode because you forgot to cut the crust off their sandwich or they wanted a different sippy cup, it’s understandable if your knee-jerk reaction is: “Seriously? You’re being ridiculous,” “There’s absolutely no reason to get this upset,” “Are you kidding me?” or “Calm down! It’s totally fine.”
However, when we respond this way, we invalidate our toddler’s feelings, and only make matters worse, said Hershberg. Instead, she encourages parents to take their child’s reactions and experience seriously—no matter how small or silly these responses seem.
“[I]t’s important to remember that, more than anything, your child needs to feel heard and understood.”
However, this doesn’t mean bending over backwards to retrieve a sippy cup from grandma’s house, or the special spoon from the dishwasher. Because limits are critical.
According to Hershberg, you might instead squeeze your child’s hand, and say: “I know you want the special spoon so badly right now, but it’s dirty.” “Then do your best to redirect.”
The key is to model practicing empathy and moving on. While the ketchup touching the fries isn’t a tragedy, it’s also not insignificant to your child, she said.
“When children feel validated in their emotional reactions, and also see healthy coping skills modeled by their adult caregivers, they internalize the ability to do both of those things for themselves.”
Don’t punish tantrums. It’s common for parents to give negative consequences—such as time-outs—for tantrums. However, Hershberg underscored that “we should never punish our kids for their emotions—no matter how loud, messy, or snot-covered they may be.”
Why not? Negative consequences such as time-outs may actually be shaming, she said. Time-outs specifically are ineffective because “tantrums are ongoing, non-discrete expressions of emotion, responses to situations or feelings that children find overwhelming in some way.”
Plus, instituting negative consequences can make your child think that they shouldn’t express their emotions—or have them in the first place. It sends the message that difficult emotions are bad and must be covered up. And it sends the message that your child’s feelings don’t matter.
Strategically ignore the behavior. Instead of punishing your child for having a tantrum, Hershberg advised removing your attention. “Ignoring behavior—like tantrums—that you want to discourage can actually be as effective as paying attention to behavior you want to encourage.”
She clarified that this isn’t about ignoring your child in a passive-aggressive way. Rather, the key is to keep calm, acknowledge their frustration—“I can see you are very upset”—and do something else, such as opening the mail, unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry.
Establish structure. Being consistent can help you to reduce tantrums. “Kids need structure and routine to feel secure,” Hershberg said. She shared this example: If your child knows they’re allowed to watch exactly two half-hour cartoons after dinner, they’ll have fewer tantrums than if they’re allowed to watch four shows on some nights, one show on other nights or no TV at all.
(Other causes of tantrums include being hungry or tired or facing transitions, such as a change at daycare or a new sibling. Once you can identify the cause, you can take effective action.)
Ramp up positive attention. Hershberg stressed the importance of carving out time—even 10 minutes—to give your child your full, undivided attention to “reset and reconnect.”
“Think of your attention like a pizza—your kid is going to eat that pizza not matter what, so if you fill them up with positive attention, they will be too ‘full’ for tantrums.”
One powerful tip she regularly recommends to clients is to do something at the end of the day that their child wants to do—whether that’s having a dance party, playing with Legos or throwing couch cushions around the room.
Incorporate a pause. Hershberg helps parents create a pause between their child’s looming or current meltdown and the parents’ response. And this pause is simply taking a breath. Doing so “before reacting helps parents to feel in control, and better able to handle the situation in a way that helps everyone calm down and reconnect.”
Of course, none of us is perfect. And while you know precisely what to do, on some days, you might be too wiped out or annoyed to do it. And that’s OK. As Hershberg said, “there will be times when you give in and let your kid binge-watch ‘Paw Patrol,’ or have your phone in a seemingly endless checkout line…”
“First, relax. Really. There is actually no such thing as the ‘right’ time and the ‘wrong’ time to give in. There will be hills and valleys.”
The overall goal, Hershberg said, is to “trend positive.”
And on the days you’ve tried every single strategy and your kid still has an epic meltdown in Walmart, remember that that’s OK, too, and be gentle with yourself. You’re both likely doing your best.