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How to Handle Toddler Tantrums

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Parent soothing upset child

If you’re a parent to a child between the ages of one and three, chances are you’ve experienced a tantrum or two. (For some parents, make that a tantrum or two — per hour.) Regardless of how frustrating they are, take comfort in knowing tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development and in no way indicate poor parenting. Kathleen Larson, MD, UnityPoint Health, offers up six pieces of advice on how to handle toddler tantrums.

1. Prevent the Outbreak

“Tantrums usually start around the time a child’s language development is really beginning. They can get frustrated about not being able to communicate everything they want/need with words,” Dr. Larson says.

However, there are things you can do to prevent tantrums. Dr. Larson says try to understand your child and the situations that seem to lower their threshold for tantrums.

“Does your child get ‘hangry?’ Make sure you eat lunch before going out and pack lots of snacks. Can’t miss that afternoon nap? Plan your day’s activities around naptime to make sure they are well rested.”

Even if sleeping and eating needs are met, you might not be able to avoid a tantrum. The truth is some children throw more tantrums than others. It depends on your child’s personality, and their ability to handle tough situations.

2. Ignore the Behavior

If a tantrum begins, the first way to deal with it is to simply ignore the behavior. This is easier at home than in public. Plus, you can always put the child in time out if he/she is causing harm like hitting, biting or kicking.

“At the store, you may just have to remove the child from the situation and be prepared to leave, if necessary. Ignoring the behavior only works if the child isn’t at risk of being in physical dangers, like running into the street or around a parking lot,” Dr. Larson says.

3. Distract & Redirect

Distracting and redirecting are two ways to help slow down a tantrum wherever it occurs.

“Distracting means quickly drawing their attention to something else. For example, if your child starts to throw a fit when you tell him/her they can’t have a new toy at the store, distract them with helping you get an item you do need. For example, “Hey, let’s pick out what kind of fruit you’d like for dinner this week, instead.”

Redirecting is similar, but it allows you to highlight the acceptable action.

“If your child is throwing a hard ball around the house, you could grab the ball and explain it’s not a good idea to throw it where things could break. Instead, suggest taking the ball outside or finding a soft ball or balloon that is acceptable indoors,” Dr. Larson says.

4. Be Consistent with Expectations

“It’s important to allow your child to explore and exercise their curiosity to develop confidence and independence but be consistent with what is not allowed, including dangerous and inappropriate behavior,” Dr. Larson says.

Also, make sure other caretakers are on the same page. Any variation in expectations can be confusing to children and result in more tantrums.

5. Name the Emotion

Children throw tantrums for an array of reasons, but it’s important for caretakers to identify the emotion the child is feeling. At this young age, they are unable to communicate their needs to you. That’s why they throw tantrums.

“Are they feeling angry, frustrated, tired or hungry? Do they need comfort, or are they seeking independence? Naming the feeling your child is experiencing and then giving them some sort of control can help improve the outcome. Simply asking them, ‘Would you like a green or yellow cup?’ can quickly help restore the peace,” Dr. Larson says.

6. Praise Good Behavior

Finally, help your child understand acceptable behavior by laying on the praise and attention for good behavior. For example, if they brush their teeth without putting up a fight, identify that moment with your child and tell them how proud you are of him/her.

“It’s a big and confusing world to our littlest people. But, identifying good behavior is a good way to help your toddler understand what to keep doing,” Dr. Larson says.