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8 Ways To Respond To Toddler Tantrums (Sans Time-Out)

Written by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Photography by Sharareh Lotfi, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

[This article was originally published on August 29, 2017]

Toddler tantrums—they happen. A lot. To help you deal, we’ve tapped parenting expert, renowned author, and mother-of-four Sarah Ockwell-Smith to share some sage and easy-to-follow advice, just in time for the release of latest book, Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection—Not Punishment—to Raise Confident, Capable Kids.

If Frank Sinatra’s famous song “Love and Marriage” had been written about parenting, the lyrics “go together like a horse and carriage” would surely be changed to “go together like a toddler and tantrums.” You can’t have one without the other, because all toddlers tantrum. Toddler tantrums aren’t a sign of bad parenting, just as a lack of them isn’t a sign of good parenting. A toddler who doesn’t tantrum is a rare creature indeed. In fact, it just means the parents are outstandingly lucky and the tantrumless days are most than likely to end abruptly shortly.

Toddlers don’t tantrum because they’re naughty, manipulative, or deliberately trying to irritate us. They tantrum because their brains are underdeveloped and they don’t have the same emotion regulation abilities and impulse control as adults. While you and I can take a deep breath, count to ten, practice a bit of mindfulness and keep our tempers under control (most of the time) when something angers us, toddlers don’t have that same neurological capability.

I always like them to a pot of boiling water on a stove top, bubbling away with no lid and nobody around to turn the gas off. That ability to put on a lid and turn down the gas sits firmly in adulthood. Just like you wouldn’t blame the pot for boiling over, it is futile—and unfair—to blame a toddler for having a tantrum.

Time-Out and the Naughty Step, common toddler discipline techniques, can’t suddenly teach impulse control and self-regulation. They just teach the toddler to be quiet, because mommy and daddy don’t like to be around them when they’re angry. No wonder teenagers have so much difficulty sharing their emotions and levels of anxiety and depression are ever on the rise. We teach kids from an early age that we only want to be around them when they’re feeling good.

So, how should you respond when your toddler tantrums? Especially if you want to raise a happy, confident kid who is honest and open with you as they grow older. Here are eight quick tips:

1. Prevention is Better Than Cure. All tantrums happen for a reason. Trying to pinpoint your toddler’s triggers and removing or reducing them is always better than dealing with the aftermath. Contrary to popular opinion, science shows that sugar does not cause hyperactivity and poor behavior, but there is such a thing as being ‘hangry’. Low blood sugar has been shown to be linked to aggression, so making sure that your toddler eats regularly is an important preventative tool. Similarly, over-tiredness and over-stimulating feature highly as tantrum triggers. Be prepared to change your plans if your toddler is being triggered and needs some space. Sometimes it’s better to cancel that playdate than cope with the tantrum that happens there.

2. Safety First. If you haven’t managed to prevent the tantrum, then you need to think about containing it as much as possible. Here, safety comes first. By that I mean the safety of your child, the safety of other children nearby, your safety and the safety of objects that are at risk. Gently and calmly remove your toddler from anything or anyone they may damage and say, “I won’t let you hit/kick/bite.” When you keep your toddler safe, the tantrum is likely to get worse temporarily, which brings me neatly onto the next tip.

3. Breathe. Now is the time to remind yourself that all toddlers tantrum. There is nothing wrong with your child, or you. It’s completely normal. The chances are, your toddler feels just as bad as you. There is no maliciousness or manipulation behind their behavior, they are just a child with an underdeveloped brain who can’t do any better. Breathe, calm yourself down, and remember that ultimately you are your child’s strongest role model. How you react now is what they will copy.

4. Focus on Your Child. When your toddler is tantruming you may feel as if everyone’s eyes are on you, judging you. Chance are they are too preoccupied with their own worries. Or perhaps some are looking at you with compassion, remembering the times they had to deal with public meltdowns. Even if somebody is clearly judging you, try to block them out. Their opinions really don’t matter, what matters now is your toddler. Focus on them and try to let the rest of the world fade away for a bit.

5. Name Emotions. Helping your toddler to recognize their emotions is important. Otherwise how else will they know how to describe what they’re feeling to you and learn how to manage them? Say to your toddler “I can see your angry that little boy took your ball,” “you were really sad that girl wouldn’t share.” Naming not only teaches emotions, it also helps your toddler to feel seen and heard.

6. Listen and Support. Many think that supporting toddlers when they tantrum means hugging it out. Most toddlers are likely to get far worse if you try to hug them mid-tantrum, usually it’s not the smartest of ideas, not unless you fancy a black eye! Instead sit close by (as close as your toddler allows) and let them know that you’re there, ready and waiting if they want you to help them calm down, or give them a hug. Until then, give them space.

7. Re-Connect. When the tantrum dies down and your toddler indicates that they would like your support to calm down, it’s time to re-connect. Only at this point should you talk about how your toddler felt, how you feel and how they made others feel. Any earlier and they won’t—can’t—listen. At this point you need to stay calm and focus on re-connection. Hold back on the chastising and lecturing.

8. Re-Direct. When the tantrum is over and the two of you are calm again, a fun activity is a great way to clear the air. Try not to distract from the tantrum before it happens if you can. While distraction has its place in what I call “emergency situations” (ones where the tantrum just can’t happen—e.g in a funeral service), it also removes important learning and connecting opportunities.

While these tips greatly improve the chances of your toddler growing to be a confident, happy adult, with a great connection with you, what they don’t do is stop the tantrums. You will go through this list thousands of times. That doesn’t mean that a gentle, compassionate approach isn’t working. It just means you’ve got a toddler with a toddler brain. Sometimes, the most impactful thing you can do is to lower the bar a little. Stop expecting your toddler to act like an adult and accept them for who they are!

For more techniques like these, check out Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s new book, Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection—Not Punishment—to Raise Confident, Capable Kids. And for more on topics like this, check out Mother’s piece on Gentle Sleep Training Techniques, 10 Sanity-Saving Tips For New Moms, and a guide to Teaching Kids Empathy.

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