What is a tantrum?

Tantrums. Those dreaded crying and screaming spells where your toddler thinks their whole world is ending because they couldn’t have the purple fruit snack instead of the red one. Every parent knows that a tantrum is no joke. Their child is now inconsolable over the smallest thing when they don’t get their way or they need attention. But hear this, parents! Tantrums are a developmentally appropriate behavior that all children go through in this stage we call the toddler years.

Think about it this way: From birth to about 12-18 months of age, crying and getting loud was your child’s primary form of communication. They didn’t have the ability to use words or to get to things themselves. Whether it was for food, to have their diaper changed, or for just a little affection from a parent, your baby typically cries. And sometimes quite loudly, might I add. And now, as they transition into their toddler years, everything they know about how to communicate has been completely flipped on its head.

They are now expected to communicate with words and to no longer scream and cry. It’s like learning a whole new language! It was as if one day they were dropped in a foreign place where they do not speak the language and are expected to figure it out without a fuss. I know I would be super frustrated if that happened to me. Also, toddlers are internally motivated to satisfy their needs and wants. That’s all they know. “I want the red car, so I am going to get the red car.” “I am hungry, so I am going to get whatever food I can get my hands on.”

When we tell them “no” or it’s not an option at this moment, it really is the end of the world from their eyes, because their worldview and their goals have now been blocked. But take it from me, a behavioral therapist for children. I know tantrums are not fun or easy to deal with. I see them countless times every day. So, let’s talk about how as parents of young children, you can respond to these tantrums and keep yourself calm and sane in the process.

New responses to try.

Ignore the tantrum.
Your child is throwing a tantrum because they want a response from you. So what is the best course of action? Don’t give them attention for a negative behavior. If you try to talk them down when they are crying, you are positively reinforcing them for exactly what you don’t want: More tantrums.

Kids at this stage are learning by cause and effect. “If I have a tantrum about the red fruit snack, mom will give it to me so I stop crying.” If that mom then gives the child the fruit snack, then they will continue to tantrum for everything they want, because they know it works.

Here’s the solution: ignore your child. Don’t look them in the eye, don’t touch them, and don’t talk to them. Let them feel their feelings and then talk afterwards about how they can get what they want with words or pointing if your child has communication difficulties. By ignoring, you’re teaching them a tantrum doesn’t work to get their way. Communicating with their parents will.

Keep yourself calm before responding to your crying child.
I recently saw a quote that I think is quite applicable to tantrums. “An escalated parent cannot calm down an escalated child.” Sit with that for a moment. If you are angry and escalated, what example do you think your child sees in you? “If mom is upset, I should be upset too.” Or think about it this way: If you are upset with your partner about them not making the bed that morning and they say this to you: “You need to calm down.” How does that make you feel? More upset, right?

Therefore, you need to have yourself calm before you can help your child calm down. Take a few deep breaths. Walk away from them for a moment if it’s safe. Take yourself to a different place in your mind. Show your child how you can calm down when you are frustrated and they will learn from it. Kids thrive from examples and that’s how they primarily learn at this age.

Use coping skills.
Teach your child ways that they can use skills to calm themselves down before they start a tantrum. Some examples: deep breaths, fidgets (pop-its), stress toys (squishy objects), and an oral teether if your kid sometimes bites themselves or others. Now, you are going to want to practice these with your child outside of when they are actually in a tantrum, otherwise they will not be interested in the moment. Build it up as a skill out of the moment so they can rely on it when they really need it.

Reward and praise your child when they communicate effectively.
At the same time that we are trying to reduce negative behaviors like tantrums, we also want to focus on building up their positive skills. And being consistent and immediate with praise and rewards is so important. Again, think of cause and effect. “Every time I use my words, mom gives me a high-5 and tells me I’m a big girl.”

Now, that child is motivated to keep using good behaviors, like communicating, to get that attention that they don’t get when they are using a tantrum. Teach your child that good behaviors get attention and negative behaviors are ignored and earn consequences.

What to expect when trying these new responses

Now let’s talk about what can actually happen when you start to use these new responses. You might encounter what we like to call “The Testing Period.” This is the time where your kiddo might increase their tantrums for a little while to see if you are really going to stick with these new responses that you’re trying.

Here’s my biggest point to leave you with: STICK WITH IT! Children learn through routine and consistency. The more you continue to use these strategies, the quicker your child will learn that tantrums will no longer work to get a response from you. The more consistent you are, the typically sooner you will see the change in behaviors.

It is important to still remember that tantrums are developmentally appropriate for toddlers. So, they still might have some here or there. But, remember your end goal: You are teaching your child how to communicate with the world around them and to understand that there are rules in their world. You are preparing your child to be a successful adult. And as adults, we know we don’t always get our way. For that reason, it is imperative that we teach children these skills at an early age, so they can be ready to be successful in their future.

When is it just a tantrum vs. when is it time to ask for help?

In conclusion, remember, tantrums are typical and you are not the only parent that deals with a screaming child over that purple fruit snack when they wanted the red one. However, keep an eye out for if the tantrums start to last longer than 30 minutes or they happen very frequently (more than 3-5 times a day). Also, keep on the lookout for aggressive behaviors or when they might try to hurt themselves during tantrums.

If you start to notice these concerns, it might be time to consult with your pediatrician about what other strategies you can try or if it’s time to reach out to a behavioral therapist. If you live in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties in Wisconsin, feel free to reach out to us here at the Behavior Clinic of Penfield Children’s Center for a free consultation at 414-345-6351 and to determine if your child would be a good fit for our program. If you live in other areas, ask your child’s pediatrician about what resources are available to you.

Final thought

Remember everyone, although tantrums are tough, they are your child’s way of trying to figure out the world around them during those toddler years. Put yourself in their shoes and remember: an escalated parent cannot calm down an escalated child.

Written by: Tamara Rottier, MS, LPC-IT, Bilingual Family Counselor at Penfield Children’s Center Behavior Clinic.

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