Tips for Avoiding and Responding to Tantrums

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Tips for Avoiding and Responding to Tantrums. Strategies to avoid tantrums and strategies for how to respond when tantrums do happen (because they will).

Toddler having a tantrum

Toddlers are going to have tantrums; you can’t stop that. You may not be able to stop tantrums from ever happening, but the way you handle them can significantly affect the frequency and duration of the tantrums. Let’s remember some things first:

  • Boundaries are not a bad thing for your child. They allow your child freedom. There are a lot of natural consequences in life, and a lot of imposed consequences by society. If you teach your child that there are boundaries and consequences for crossing those boundaries, life will be a lot simpler. It gives your child the freedom to choose correct choices. Read more in How to Give Your Toddler Boundaries.
  • Freedom does not mean you get to do what you want when you want and be free from consequences. To dramatically illustrate this point, I may have the freedom to run up credit card debt, but I am responsible for paying that debt back, and at a much higher price. I also have the freedom to do drugs, but I am then in bondage to the addiction that follows. It is your responsibility as the parent of your child to teach your child about choices, actions, and consequences. So don’t feel guilty about preventing certain activities. Read more in Too Many Freedoms.
  • There is no such thing as “all of a sudden” behavior, as discussed in Toddlerwise. Your toddler does not suddenly start doing things that he should not be doing. Your toddler works his way up with minor offenses, then the big one hits. The big one can be traced back following the trail of small ones. Maybe the big one is something that puts your child in danger, like standing in a highchair or running into the road. Maybe it is one that is offensive to your moral sensibilities, like he is “suddenly” hitting other children. Get past these symptoms and identify the root of the misbehavior.

With those foundational points in place, let’s discuss tantrums more. Below are strategies for avoiding tantrums, strategies for dealing with tantrums when they happen, and some specific tips for using time-out.

Strategies for Avoiding Tantrums

  • You child does what works. If the tantrums are working, he will continue them. Honestly analyze yourself. Don’t let the child control you.
  • Children do what they learn. Dr. Phil had a show with children who threw tantrums often. Many of the parents of these children actually threw tantrums themselves when they were mad. The tantrums weren’t exactly like the child’s, but they were screaming, stomping, slamming doors, etc. The children learned from their parents. Make sure he has good examples in the home of how to behave properly.
  • Many tantrums happen because the child can’t express emotions accurately. They don’t feel understood. Teach them to label emotions. One idea is to show a chart of faces and explain what each emotion is. Something my son and I do is play a game where I say what emotion I am going to express (for example I say, “I am going to look, happy”), then I show it on my face. We have played this game since he was about two years old, and he is very good at expressing how he feels. You can also teach sign language to a child who isn’t verbally expressing things.
  • Don’t distract or suppress, substitute until the novelty of the action wears off. If you simply tell your toddler he isn’t able to do something, you are setting the stage for a fight. If you tell him he isn’t allowed to spit at the dinner table, but he is allowed to spit in the tub (IN the tub, not just while in the tub), you are giving him options that are acceptable to you. This is a real-life example. Brayden recently started thinking it fun to take a drink and then spit it out kind of in a raspberry style. I told him he was not allowed to spit at the dinner table, but he was free to do so in the tub. To this day, the idea has never struck him in the tub, but anytime he wants to do it at the table, he reminds me he isn’t allowed to do that there but can in the tub. Toddlers are curious. They want to learn how things work. Give them opportunities to explore things that are okay to explore. Teach him there are boundaries where certain things are acceptable and the same action is unacceptable.
  • Toddlerwise points out that active learning is best. Do not allow absorption (watching TV). Go for activities that stimulate the senses. This doesn’t mean absolutely no TV (unless you want it to). It means to limit the time in front of the TV. This is not too difficult for most toddlers because they seem to love to go outside and prefer interaction with people to sitting in front of the TV. It gets harder for our house in the winter months because our outside activity is limited. I have found that if Brayden has more than 1 hour total per day of TV, he is less obedient. Limit TV time, and be sure time spent in front of the TV is as beneficial as possible. Control what your child sees.
  • 10-12 hours of sleep at night.
  • Nap. I have heard many parents say their child refused to nap past age 1. My son (now 2.5) refused to nap starting at 2 weeks old. It wasn’t his choice to make. I knew he needed naps. So I was sure he took them. “A toddler’s ability to nap depends to a large extend on the habits the child has developed in his or her first year” (Toddlerwise p.147). For anyone with a young baby, take that to heart. Get your child accustomed to the fact that naps are a part of life and not an option. Brayden has never wanted to take a nap. Every now and then he informs me that he is done taking naps, and I inform him that he is not. He still needs a nap to be a happy boy throughout the day. I know there are some children out there who like naps and ask for them. Between 16-20 months, your baby will be ready for one nap a day. Usually around 4 years is when that nap is no longer needed every day. Preschoolwise says to look at it as a weaning process rather than a dropping.
  • Rest time. Once your child is ready to not have a nap every day, still have rest time. Rest time is discussed on page 100 of Preschoolwise. Rest time is when your child lays in bed and looks at books. Some days, he will fall asleep. Other days, he will stay awake and look at books. Give your child this time to take a break and get some rest.
  • Have a scheduled day. Children thrive on routine. When Brayden wants to do something that can’t come until much later, I tell him it will happen after X point in the day. He will then list off to me everything that happens between now and X. He knows what is life is like. He knows what to expect. It gives him a way of measuring time. He knows when naptime is next and will often tell me it isn’t time for his nap, and I assure him it is. He smiles and moves on. He gave it a try :-). This doesn’t mean we don’t have some days where we do something different or go somewhere for fun, but the majority of our days are spent the same way.
  • Along the same lines, consistency, consistency, consistency. Keep the days as much the same as possible. Also, keep your reactions consistent. Don’t let him get away with something one day, not allow it another, and then be shocked when he does it again. Decide on your rules.
  • Expect answers or a response when you ask or direct. Keep your expectations within reason. Toddlerwise says a two year old will comply 60% of the time. A three year old, 70%. A five year old, 85-90%. That gives you an idea of what you can expect from your baby. This doesn’t mean that if you have a two year old you accept him ignoring you 40% of the time. You don’t say, “Oh, this is in that threshold, I’ll move on and try again.” It just means your child is normal and for his age. You still work on it (these statistics found on page 94 of Toddlerwise).
  • Give instructions, not suggestions. I once worked at a daycare. In my training, they told me to never give instructions ending in “okay.” “Danny, don’t hit, okay?” Danny doesn’t get to choose whether or not to hit–not hitting is the rule.
  • Instead of using “okay” as some sign of agreeance to your instructions, require a “yes Mamma” after you give instructions. This gives the child accountability. When Brayden is really mad, it just really is hard for him to say “Yes, Mamma.” He will sit and stew over it with a scowl on his face. I insist on it. Finally he says it, and he follows through.
  • Require eye-contact when giving instructions. Eye contact is natural non-verbal communication to show you are listening, and this is a suggestion across the board for fixing tantrums.
  • Focus on redirecting and restricting, not punishment.
  • If your child wants to play with or do something no allowed, say, “you can’t go outside right now, but you may draw or play with this toy or do a puzzle.” Giving a child other fun options can help direct energy away from the tantrum.
  • When you cactch you child doing something he shouldn’t be, ask him what he should be doing.
  • When it is time for Brayden to do something he doesn’t want to and he resists, I give him choices to get him there. For example, when it is naptime and he doesn’t want to go, I say, “Would you like to walk to your room, or would you like me to carry you.” Either choice, he gets to his room, but it gives him some options. If he doesn’t choose, I choose for him.

Strategies to Avoid or Minimize Tantrums

Temper tantrums will happen at some point, but there are plenty of things you can do to minimize the frequency and severity of temper tantrums. Here are some ideas I love from the book Parenting the Strong-Willed Child:

  • Praise Appropriate BehaviorWe have all heard that forever. Focus on positive, praise when doing right things…it really does work (and it works for husbands too!).
  • Regular Meals and Regular SleepI think we are all subscribers to the importance of regular eating and sleeping habits. Having these routine things consistently greatly helps avoid tantrums.
  • Watch for a PatternIf you think you are doing everything right and yet your child has tantrums, track when and where they happen so you can see a pattern. Then, rearrange things if possible to decrease likelihood of a tantrum. Does it happen right before meals? If so, try moving meals a bit earlier or giving a snack between meals. 
  • Intervene Before it EscalatesThis isn’t always the best step, but for some children and some situations, you stepping in before it gets too bad will help. You might start to see a tantrum before your child actually snaps into one, in which case you can change scenery or even coach your child through coping (take a deep breath, relax…). Most children of any age can easily have their mind directed elsewhere. “No, you may not have a piece of candy. Did you see that purple balloon over there?!?!?” The more experienced of a mom you get, the more tricks you will have up your sleeve for distracting disgruntled children.
  • Ignore if Done for AttentionWhen the child is having a tantrum for attention, ignore it and the child will stop (well, most will). Be sure you keep your child in eye sight, though. I remember Brayden’s first (and only) time throwing himself on the ground for a tantrum. I use the term “throwing” lightly because he ever-so-gingerly placed himself on the floor in order to emphasize how mad he was. We were in a store and he wanted something…I can’t remember what…and he place himself on the ground. I was pretty amused. He must have decided to chance it to see if I would balk under public pressure. Oh no, not me. I tried to keep my smile off my face as I stood a few feet off and pretended to look everywhere but at him. He didn’t last very long.
  • Make Sure Tantrum Doesn’t WorkI think this should be right up there with regular meals a regular sleep so far as importance goes for truly avoiding tantrums. If you give in after five minutes of a tantrum, guess what? Your child will be sure to go at least five minutes the next time. You don’t say “no” or give an instruction unless you intend to see it through to the end–even if a tantrum follows, and even if you are in public. Did your child ask for something at the grocery store? Do not say no unless you intent to follow through with no. Don’t say no hoping your child will calmly reply, “okay,” but change your mind if a tantrum follows. 
  • Relax and Stay CalmYour demeanor has such a powerful impact on the mood of your children. If you lose your cool, your child will not decide to shape up. Also, it is pretty hypocritical to have your own tantrum in response to your child’s tantrum. If it isn’t okay for a 2 year old to have a tantrum, then it is definitely not okay for an adult to have a tantrum.
  • Acknowledge Feelings After Tantrum is Over“I know you are upset because you wanted candy. I know it makes you sad that you can’t…” 
  • Ask Children Over Four What They Could Have DoneFor children four and older, ask them what they think they could have done differently. What was a better option than throwing a fit?
  • Help Child Express HimselfA lot of tantrums come because the child is incapable of expressing his feelings. Teaching sign language is a great way to help the non-verbal crowd. For those who can speak, you need to teach them a vocabulary to be able to express themselves. My favorite activity for doing this is Teaching Emotions.

These are some concrete, real tips that really work for tantrums. Keep your child rested and fed. Teach your child to express himself without fits. Make sure the tantrum doesn’t work for the child–those are the top three  key tips to focus on before adding the other tips (in my opinion). 

Strategies for Dealing with the Tantrum

Tantrums do happen. So here are some ideas of what to do when then do. Your goal is to minimize future outbreaks :).

  • Make sure you understand how they are feeling. First you have to find out, then you repeat what they are feeling, what they need, what they want, etc. You may have to repeat it over and over so they know you get it. It doesn’t mean they get what they want, but at least they know oyou know. “You want candy, you want candy, I can see that you are upset because you want candy. You don’t get to have candy right now, but I understand that you want it.”
  • Redirect: move to a different activity. (Toddlerwise p. 102)
  • Isolate: this would be a time out. Child stays there until he is ready to be calm and happy. (Toddlerwise p. 102)
  • Natural Consequences: let them happen. Parents in my generation seem to want to save their children from the natural consequences of life. Toddlerwise uses the example of teasing a dog with the ice cream cone and the dog takes it. Don’t rescue your child from this lesson by providing more ice cream. Natural consequences will always happen in life because they are natural. If you teach child they don’t apply now, they will have a much harder time years down the road accepting the natural consequences of life. As the book Parenting with Love and Logic points out, it is better to teach natural consequences while your child is young and the stakes are low. No more ice cream is not as big of a deal as a ticket for drunk driving, or worse. Toddlerwise says natural consequences will be use more in ages 2 and up. (Toddlerwise p. 102)
  • Loss of privilege: the child looses a privilege. I would imagine this to be dynamic. What was devastating to your two year old might not phase your three year old. Dr. Phil always says to find the child’s currency. That currency will change with time, but there is always something. (Toddlerwise p. 102)
  • Use logic if it works on your child. My mom always says I was easy to discipline because she could explain the reasons to me for what was happening, and I understood that and accepted it. My sister was not that way. She didn’t care that a car could hit her if she played in the street, she wanted to play in the street!
  • Be sure child is not hungry or tired. It is always unfair to expect a tired and hungry toddler to behave as a well-rested, fed one.
  • Don’t offer too many choices. Preschoolwise talks about the addiction to choices and the problems it brings up. Yes, you need to allow choices to teach the child how to make them, but if your child is throwing a fit every time a choice is not offered, or refuses the options you offer, you are likely allowing too many choices. I have seen this happen with Brayden. Every so often he will get upset over a shirt I have picked for him to wear. I then know I have been allowing too many choices and cut back. Then the shirt isn’t such a big deal. It is truly amazing.
  • Never threaten something you aren’t willing to follow through on. Don’t tell your child you are going to have to stay home if he doesn’t put his coat on if staying home is something you are unwilling or unable to do. He will learn quickly about bluffs.
  • There are other options available to you. Do what works for your child.

Tips for Avoiding and Responding to Tantrums. Strategies to avoid tantrums and strategies for how to respond when tantrums do happen (because they will). Rules for Isolation (time out)

If you choose to use time outs, here are some rules to follow:

  • Be calm yourself before you start the time-out.
  • Use non-verbal cues. Hands out to mean come to me, palm straight forward to indicate you need to stay there.
  • Identify the needs of your child.
  • Preschoolwise says not to base the time out on a time limit but rather on mom’s (or dad’s) perception of how long each time out needs to be. (Preschoolwise p. 167)

I personally use time out only when it is a big offense. I can count on one hand the number of times time out has been used, and those have usually been when he needs to calm down. Otherwise, there are loss of privileges. I let the punishment fall in line with what the offense was.
As you can see, there is a lot of information available through just two of the books I mentioned. Here I give some ideas from the books and idea of my own, but I have only scratched the surface. It would be wise to read the books and soak it all in. Good luck in working with your child through these!

Conclusion

On Becoming Toddlerwise (affiliate) has some great advice for avoiding tantrums. If you have a toddler and don’t have that book, I would encourage you get it and read through it. Take notes for yourself so you can easily reference points of interest. On Becoming Preschoolwise (affiliate) also has many helpful tips aimed toward 3 years and up. Following that, there is On Becoming Childwise (affiliate), and more. Choose the book appropriate for the age of your child.

More Tantrum Posts On This Blog:

On Becoming Toddlerwise

Reader Tantrum Questions:

  • Krystal said…
    Thanks for the post about dicipline. I will try out taking away privilages. I have tried this before, but when it comes to keeping the punishment fall in line w/ the offense I am at a loss. Sometimes it is easy to do, but others…ex. If he won’t put on his shoes? Or if he kicks or hits someone?
    February 1, 2008 4:43 PM
    Plowmanators said…
    Krystal, For punishment falling in line, some of the consequences will be natural, and some will be what mom and dad decide fitting. Be sure you don’t propose a consequence you aren’t willing to see through.If my son were to refuse to wear shoes, my reaction would either be 1-he doesn’t get to leave the house. 2-he has to be carried everywhere. My son hates to be carried, so I use that a lot.For hitting, there is isolation. He is removed from the situation. If he can’t be nice upon returning, I would leave the situation completely. If he can’t play nice, he doesn’t get to play at all.
    February 1, 2008 8:43 PM
  • Brandy Perry said: So, my daughter is 8 months old, and she just recently started throwing little fits. Not to the degree of tantrum, but she yells at me and gets angry and screams when I take something away from her or when she wants my attention. Is this the beginning stages of temper tantrums? Is how I respond now going to set a foundation for future, more severe tantrums? Or is this normal? What would be the best way for me to respond to her right now, given that she does not understand words yet? Any suggestions would be helpful.
    Plowmanators said: Brandy Perry, yes, that is the beginnings of temper tantrums. And yes, what you do now will impact how she acts in the future. The great news is that since she is starting young, you will be able to teach young, and they learn easier when young.Be sure to read the tantrum posts on this blog. The most important thing with tantrums is to not give in. So don’t give her what she wants when it fit is thrown. Only say no when you mean it. Distract. Teacher her other ways to communicate.
  • Megs501 said: Hi! My daughter is 8.5 months old. She is throwing tantrums at meal time. She will usually refuse to eat and only wants her bottle-she continuously signs for “milk.” This has been going on about 5 days to a week. She pushes my hands away, turns her head, and screams. We are doing sign language with her and it does not seem to be helping much. She will sign for “milk” but still screams.Do I not giver he the bottle until she eats? Do I make her skip the bottle once or twice, will it harm her if I do? Do I ignore the tantrum at this age? She has also started yelling at us when she wants our attention; I try to say “daddy” or “mama” and sign for please, etc but it does not seem to have an impact…She is cutting her two top teeth right now, could that be it? She cut the bottom two at 6 months and we did not have any of these problems; she refused to nurse at that time. This time around she is refusing solids-which she usually loves! Also, we started CIO and took away the paci about 3 weeks ago. It went wonderfully, 8 minutes and she was sound asleep, then after a few days only 4 minutes, etc. Now, suddenly getting her to sleep is a long process/fight. So could it all be related? I am feeling a little desperate because I did not think I would have this problem with her, she was/is such a good eater and sleeper! Any thoughts or suggestions would be so appreciated! =)Thanks
    Plowmanators said: I would guess it is either sickness or teething. Any time a child has a total personality make-over, it is pretty safe to assume the child isn’t feeling well.I always gave milk before the meal, so I would hold her in your lap and feed her the milk, then move to the highchair. At her age, if she is screaming, let’s say she wants to be done, I would say, “we don’t scream. You say, “All Done” (sign and say). Then sign it for her, tell her good job, and get her out of the high chair.

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