10 Tips to Help Parents Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums

10 Tips to Help Parents Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums

Parenting young children is a journey filled with love, laughter, and of course, temper tantrums. The toddler years through the preschool years are especially a wild ride. 

While no parent likes dealing with toddler tantrums, the good news is that there are ways to effectively navigate them and help kids develop healthy emotional regulation skills. Helping children learn these skills early in life will set them up for an emotionally rich and fulfilling life as they grow into adults.

Here are 10 tips to minimize the frequency and intensity of a child’s tantrums. 

1. Adjust Your Expectations

The first thing to acknowledge about toddler temper tantrums is that they are a normal part of child development (to an extent). Young children do not have fully developed brains, so they are not able to regulate their emotions and behaviors in the same way as adults. And let’s be honest, a lot of adults are not even able to regulate their emotions all that well.

To support this point, Child Development Clinic explains that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotions and impulses is still developing in kids and teenagers. Additionally, Zero to Three explains that this part of the brain is especially underdeveloped in toddlers under the age of 3. 

As such, we have to adjust our expectations. Temper tantrums and emotional outbursts are simply a part of having a young brain that is still in the process of developing. 

Additionally, young children have little life experience, so it is no surprise that they need some guidance when it comes to understanding emotions and new situations. Strong emotions can be overwhelming and even quite frightening for young children, and often they respond in the only way that they know how, which unfortunately is sometimes kicking and screaming. This is where parents and childcare providers come in and offer their guidance and support. 

2. Model Healthy Emotional Regulation Skills

Children are like sponges, absorbing huge amounts of information simply by listening and watching the people around them. 

If a child frequently witnesses parents losing their tempers, for example, that child learns that aggressive behavior and losing control is an appropriate way to handle big emotions. Alternatively, they may become fearful of strong emotions and do the opposite of what they see their parents doing. They may internalize and suppress their feelings because they think this is the best way to avoid big scary, and angry outbursts. Stuffing their feelings down like this can lead to a lot of emotional problems and even mood disorders. 

On the other hand, when a child grows up watching parents respond calmly in emotionally charged situations, they learn that this is an appropriate and healthy response. Keep in mind, that responding calmly does not mean that a person is ignoring what they are feeling. It means that they are still experiencing those feelings, but they guide those feelings and keep them from getting out of control by using effective coping strategies. 

So as parents, we need to take responsibility for how we are managing our own emotions and know that we are setting an example for better or worse. 

3. Wait for the Storm to Pass

During an intense tantrum, it often feels instinctual for parents to start yelling over their child’s screams and cries. As it turns out, this instinct is counterproductive and can escalate a tantrum.

If a child has reached a point where you can’t speak to them at a conversational volume and be heard, they are likely in a “fight or flight” state. This is a state where their bodies’ stress response system has been activated and is running the show.

In this state, kids cannot think clearly or listen to reason, and their physiological systems are telling them to kick and scream or run away. When they hear a parent yelling, this charges up their system even more and they may perceive that yelling as a threat. Even if you are only yelling so that they can hear you above their crying, their brain doesn’t understand this when it’s already in crisis mode. 

There is no reasoning with a child when they are in an escalated state. We simply must wait for the storm to pass. We let them know that we are here to talk when they are calm and then we provide a supportive presence and make sure they do not harm themselves during their tantrum.

In the case of a public tantrum like at the grocery store, you may want to physically move them to a more private space, as other people swarming around could be overstimulating and escalate a tantrum. Plus, no parent wants to stand in the middle of a grocery store with a screaming child and people staring at them as though they are the worst parent in the world. So gently but with strength, it is time to pick your child up, ditch your grocery shopping cart, and walk right out of that store.  

4. Help Children Put Words to Feelings

A toddler’s tantrums are often preceded by feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and/or disappointment. Additionally, further frustration can build when young children do not know how to communicate these feelings or understand why they are having them.

By helping our toddlers develop language skills and put words to their feelings, we can help prevent meltdowns. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the term, “name it to tame it”. The concept behind this phrase is that when we identify our feelings with words, we start to lessen the intensity of those feelings.

list of feeling words for toddlers emotional development

If a feeling can be contained in a word, it is not so big and wild that we are going to drown in it.

We feel our feelings, and we are in charge of them. 

5. Teach Emotional Regulation Skills Through Play

The best way to teach younger children new skills is often through play. Play is their natural language. Luckily, there are great kids’ games that encourage developing skills like impulse control and feelings identification.

Zero to Three recommends “red light, green light” and “freeze dance” as fun games to work on impulse control. Impulse control skills are important when it comes to managing emotional outbursts and behavior issues. Kids start at one end of a room or playground and run when you say “green light”, and stop when you say “red light”. 

Freeze dance is a particularly favorite game in our house. My toddler loves to play this to the “Party Freeze Dance Song” on YouTube. Your child wiggles, jumps and spins while the music is playing, and freezes as soon as it stops. 

Feeling flashcards can be a fun way to teach kids about identifying emotions. One side of a card shows an emotional facial expression, and they have to identify the emotion. Additionally you can role-play emotionally charged scenarios with kids or use toy figures to act out conflict resolution scenarios.

6. Establish Boundaries

While children are notorious for testing boundaries, when it comes down to it, boundaries help kids feel safe. At least reasonable and appropriate boundaries do. When a boundary is clearly communicated, a child knows what to expect. This predictability eases anxieties that can come with uncertainty.

When parents consistently uphold their boundaries and practice assertive parenting, kids also know their parents are in control and watching out for them. Boundaries create a basic framework for a child to reference as they chart unfamiliar territory. So if kids have a clear framework in their minds about what is expected of them, they are less likely to test limits and encounter tantrum triggers like power struggles.  

7. Breathing Exercises for Kids

Learning to take deep breaths is a simple and convenient way for young children, older children, and adults alike to deal with overwhelming emotions that lead to tantrums.

When we focus on controlled breathing, we activate our body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that is active when we are in a relaxed state.  

There are many different ways to teach kids deep breathing, but one of my favorites is to have kids imagine they are smelling a flower as they deeply inhale, and blowing bubbles out as they exhale. 

8. Use Distraction

When things are heating up and you see your 2-year-old child is having a hard time managing their emotions, try using distraction and redirection. This helps them refocus their attention and regain a sense of control.

Offering a fun game or going outside for a change of scenery are examples of helpful distractions. Another type of distraction that I have found to work surprisingly well, even during an intense tantrum, is stopping whatever I’m doing, making a big surprised face, and gasping as though I can’t believe what I have just seen. This catches my toddler’s attention and he wants to know what all the fuss is about. Once he quiets down, I launch into a story or tell him I thought I just saw something magical. 

9. Encourage Physical Activity

Toddlers need to move! They have so much energy and movement is a healthy way for them to express and release pent-up emotions. Dance parties, running at the playground, rolling down hills, and tumbling around on floors are great ways to get their ya-yas out. When they get the chance to express emotions through large gross motor movements, they may have fewer tantrums and less intense tantrums when faced with big emotions.

10. Emotional Learning Through Movie and Book Characters

Young children can learn about emotions through characters from tv shows, movies, and books. It is often easier for children to talk about difficult feelings a character is experiencing rather than difficult feelings they themselves are having. Imaginary friends are another way that small children tend to explore complex emotions. 

So we can discuss emotions, behaviors, conflicts, and resolutions that characters face as we read books and watch movies with our kids. Sitting cuddled up on the couch with a book and mom or dad is a very safe place for young kids to explore big feelings. 

Supporting Healthy Emotional Development

We cannot expect to completely eliminate a toddler’s temper tantrums, because the occasional tantrum is a normal part of childhood development. Rather, the key to reducing the intensity and frequency of temper tantrums is to teach our kids emotional regulation skills and show them that feelings are safe and manageable.

It can be difficult to remember what to do in the heat of the moment when your child is pushing your buttons and screaming bloody murder, but this is when we take a deep breath and remember that we are in charge as parents.

We cannot make our child stop feeling their feelings, but we can help guide them. We can teach them communication skills, provide supportive boundaries, and offer our unconditional love and presence. 

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