Top tips on how to tame a toddler tantrum – advice from parents who have been there too
Every parent has been there. Maybe it’s because your little one doesn’t want to come home from the park. Or maybe it’s because you won’t let them put a giant bar of chocolate in the trolley at the supermarket. Or perhaps it’s because you cut their sandwiches into triangles but they want squares.
Whatever the reason, what happens next is the same. The bottom lip goes, the tears start, the shouting and screaming begins. They might even hit or kick you. “Come on, darling,” you say in your calmest voice. “That’s not how we behave in our family. It’s time to go.” The shouting continues. “We’ve been here two hours having fun, it’s time to go home now for lunch. Maybe you can have your favourite – scrambled egg on toast,” you say, hoping the bribe will work. “I don’t want to go home!” the wailing starts. “I don’t want to go home! Don’t make me go home!” “I’m sorry,” you say, “But it’s really time to go now.” It’s like they don’t even hear you. Perhaps they then start going red in the face or lying on the floor crying. “Everyone is looking at me,” you think to yourself. “I must be the worst parent ever.” You don’t mean to shout, but you’re so tired because you had a rare night out last night, or maybe you were up all night with the baby, and so you do, and it just makes their tears and the screaming worse. “What on earth do I do now?” you think to yourself.
When Cardiff Mummy Says asked its Facebook followers how they cope with toddler tantrums, you were full of helpful advice and suggestions.
Roxy was one of many parents who said distraction helped calm her 14-month-old son during one recent public meltdown. “In the supermarket he wanted stuff out of the trolley and was having a mini tantrum,” she says, “so I took a can of beans out of the trolley and started hitting it gently off the trolley and the sound of it made him laugh and he stopped.” Amazing!
It’s a similar idea to glitter jars, which lots of parents say help their little one by distracting and calming them.
Anny says her little one needs to be left alone. “A will not tolerate cuddles or distractions when tantrumming so I just walk away until it’s over, even in the middle of the supermarket,” she says. Other mums have told me they put their child in a different room until they calm down. The space, they say, is as beneficial for the parent as the child.
Other mums find different children need different techniques. As Mandy says, “My youngest (4) is best ignored but my oldest (6) is best taken away to a quiet place for a little mummy time. It’s taken ages to work this out but now I have life is definitely easier for all of us.”
Mum-of-two Karan found gritting her teeth and smiling was the only way to navigate a particularly bad tantrum on an aeroplane. “My tired, fed-up 21-month-old daughter decided to throw a full on hissy fit once the seat belt light came on and she a) had to be strapped to me and not get down and b) had to have her Peppa Pig iPad removed. There were many stares and tuts from an otherwise quiet plane full of people without kids. After trying everything, including chocolate button bribery which got promptly hit across the floor, hubby and I decided to smile and laugh and grit our teeth until it was over.
“It went on for about 10 minutes, which felt like an hour,” she says. “It stopped only when she ran out of steam, at which point she got a big cuddle as she had exhausted herself.”
I find that staying calm myself helps. Speaking in a firm but kind voice is far more effective for me than shouting – because your little one will only try to shout louder than you. I also feel it’s hypocritical of me to tell them not to shout and scream if that’s exactly what I am doing. I’m not saying it’s easy, and sometimes I fail miserably, but if I act calm, I feel calm, and everything feels easier.
If I’m stressed or upset, the breath techniques I’ve learnt through yoga help to keep me calm and to refocus, and the same is true of my children. I give them a big hug, acknowledge they are upset, and tell them to take a deep breath and blow mummy away. I first introduced it as a game, when they were happily playing, and we pretended to be the big bad wolf in the story of The Three Little Pigs, trying to blow down the houses. I wanted to be sure they could do it, rather than suddenly introducing it mid-meltdown. It definitely helps.
Many of the mums commenting on Cardiff Mummy Says agree prevention is better than a cure.
Mum Gail says sometimes you need to avoid certain activities and accept there are things that just aren’t worth attempting to do with your children. “I rarely take my toddler to town,” she says. “I find it a pointless task for myself – unless I’m going just for him in which case I fully expect tantrums. If I try to go anywhere shopping for myself and take my son, misery and frustration will ensue.”
Laura says that working out your child’s tantrum triggers can help pre-empt when one may strike. Hunger, tiredness and a lack of stimulation are the biggest triggers for her daughter – “I am that mummy who always carries a stash of snacks,” she says – while over-tiredness is the biggest trigger for her son. “I also offer choice wherever possible as my two are so headstrong,” she adds.
Offering a choice is something that has worked with my headstrong children too. My son would often have a tantrum about cleaning his teeth. While teeth-brushing is non-negotiable, asking him whether he wants to clean his teeth before he washes his face, or whether he would like mummy or daddy to help him, gives him a sense of control – which is often what toddlers and pre-schoolers crave. Or I might make it seem like it was his suggestion, for example by saying something like, “We’re off to soft play soon, so what else do we need to do before we can go?” He’ll then say, “Put on my socks and shoes, and clean my teeth,” so I will ask him which one he wants to do first. It’s the same at the park. “We’re going home soon, so what would you like to have one more play on before we go?” is a lot more effective than suddenly telling him we’re leaving.
I find acknowledging their feelings can prevent a tantrum from escalating. A simple “I know you’re upset” – without an added ‘but….’ can help them feel their opinions are important too.
That said, sometimes I can take all the precautions, try all the diffusion techniques and still nothing works. And isn’t it always the way that it happens when you’re somewhere full of other people who, in your mind, are judging your parenting skills?
Gail says not to worry what other people think of you. “Let them [your children] just go through the motions and switch off to passers-by,” she says. And she’s right; chances are you won’t see these people again and the most important thing is helping your child through it and keeping them safe, not the opinions of people you don’t know.
Mum of two Catherine adds not to presume people are judging you. “I think we often mistake other peoples ‘oh, thank God it’s not my children today’ relief face as a face of condemnation,” she says. “It’s definitely empathy I feel when I pass anyone with kids kicking off.”
Nicola, another mum of two, found empathy from a stranger really helped her cope with one public tantrum. “We all try our best and I always think it’s lovely when other parents try to help and support rather than look on in horror/amusement. My son had one once while out food shopping and a lovely lady offered me a bit of support and said ‘I remember these days well; it will pass’. Just that support at the time made all the difference.”
It’s something we can all do when we see another parent struggling with an upset child. A sympathetic smile, a kind word or an offer of help from someone who understands could really help another parent when they need it most.
What are your tantrum-taming techniques? I’m sure other parents would love to hear them.
I think it’s a good point made that different techniques work for different children, and it’s just learning what works best for yours. My son was always really chilled as a toddler but if he ever approached a tantrum I always found I could laugh him out of it by tickling or something. My older daughter is just coming out of it at 3 1/2 but we’ve had tantrums a-plenty from her. I found we could avoid them by making sure she wasn’t tired as that’s her massive trigger. The most useful advice I ever read was about doing countdowns to leaving places, a 5, 2 and 1 minute warning of leaving the park has meant we don’t get those particular tantrums any more. The random ones about the wind blowing the wrong way or someone looking at her – these I find are best dealt with by telling her calmly to come and find me when she’s finished for a cuddle and then walking away. She goes bonkers for a few minutes (or longer, usually!) then comes to find me and has a cuddle.
I’m pretty confident that neither of these will work for my 18mth old though who is the most head strong, loud child I have ever met….. so I’m going to read all of the advice people have in advance to stock up my ammo!!! I also read a lovely article once written by a Mum saying she wished there was a universal sign for: “I’m with you sister, you’re doing great” we could give each other – this would be so great!
Oh I love that idea of a universal sign. I try to give other parents a sympathetic look but who knows if that’s how they perceive it!
The countdown thing when we are leaving places has worked wonders for us too, such a useful technique. X