Children & Discipline

Responding to Toddler Tantrums

Published: 13 Feb 2014
Responding to Toddler Tantrums

Hi Dr Justin,

My three year-old has been having total meltdowns every time I say ‘no’. He loses it when he can’t have his own way. My friend told me her psychologist said to ignore the tantrum and he’ll stop, but he just follows me around the house and screams and I feel like a bad mum if I ignore him.

What do I do?

We often hear about the ‘terrible two’s’ – and for good reason. When we say ‘no’ to them, they get terribly upset. Why would the person who loves them and protects them and provides for them deprive them of something they want?

Children are typically not cognitively capable of moving their mindset to the point where they can see things from another perspective until around the age of 4-5 years. Until that time, parents should expect some pretty significant emotions, tantrums, and meltdowns. It’s normal, and it shows that our kids are developing the way they’re supposed to.

Responding to Toddler Tantrums

What matters for their ongoing wellbeing and development is how we choose to respond to their tantrums, outbursts, and meltdowns.

My mother loves to remind me of how she dealt with my tantrums when I was just two. Apparently I would scream, hold my breath, and turn a strange bluey-purplish shade. About this time mum would give me what I wanted and my tantrum would stop. After some months she sought advice from a psychologist who advised her to ignore me.

Next time I held my breath, that’s exactly what mum did.

I held my breath, turned purple, and passed out! My mum was freaking out. My grandfather threw cold water on my face. I woke up and never held my breath again.

But it didn’t stop my tantrums. It just changed my methods.

What is the best way of dealing with a tantrum?

Here’s the thing – when we get mad at our kids for having tantrums, or when we ignore them, we don’t really deal with the issue:

A tantrum is a result of an unmet need.

Maybe the need is food, or sleep, or a strong desire to be nowhere near the car seat. When we see the tantrum as such, we respond to it quite differently than we might if we see it as a child being a brat.

By recognising that our child is a person who is frustrated, tired, angry, or struggling to deal with something, we are more likely to be patient, compassionate, and tender.

Comparatively, when we see the tantrum as bratty behaviour, we generally respond with irritation, annoyance, or even anger. Or if we choose to ignore our child we essentially shut him out of our lives at the very moment he needs us most.

My recommendations for dealing with a toddler tantrum

  1. Stay with your child
  2. Patiently show you understand by labelling the emotions your child expresses, and do it compassionately. You might say, “You’re so upset about this.”
  3. Don’t ignore your child.
  4. Don’t try to fix things.
  5. Stick with your limits.
  6. If your child won’t be consoled by your attempts to understand, quietly and gently let him know that you’ll gladly hug him once he’s calmed down.
  7. Once the tantrum is over and emotions have cooled, then it’s time for the conversation about expectations.

When we take this approach we do some important things:

First, we show that our child is always worthy of our love, even when we disapprove of their behaviour.

Second, we set an example of patience, kindness, and respect.

Third, we teach them that even when emotions are big and overwhelming, they can learn to work through them.

Teaching doesn’t work when our kids are emotionally flooded. Getting them in trouble (disapproving of them) only makes them question their emotions and feel that something is wrong with them as a person, and ignoring them (or dismissing them) reinforces a similar message.

Our natural reactions are to get angry or to ignore our children’s big emotions, tantrums, and meltdowns. Our natural reactions are wrong. If we approach our upset child, not as a problem, but as a person with an unmet need, we will be more disposed to look at them compassionately, see the world through their eyes, and guide them to a better place. And research shows that when we adopt an approach that is patient and focused on teaching our children about their emotions, they learn to regulate their emotions faster, become more socially successful, increase in emotional intelligence, and have higher wellbeing.


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