“I DON’T WANNA!”: Managing toddler tantrums

A blond haired toddler having a tantrum

Toddler temper tantrums usually happen when parents are most likely to be embarrassed; your place of worship, the grocery store or during a visit to a stuffy relative. A tantrum might even happen while you are visiting Alzein Pediatrics!

Whether your child is a screamer, a kicker or a howler, temper tantrums can be stressful for everyone – you as a parent, onlookers and also your child. The medical providers at Alzein Pediatrics have totally been there, both as healthcare professionals and as parents. While every single tantrum every single time can’t be magically waved away (but wouldn’t that be great!), we do have techniques that can help.

Tantrums are typically caused by one of several factors. A tantrum may happen because your child wants control and cannot have it. Your child may be experiencing very big feelings they cannot otherwise express or control. Tantrums can also happen because your child is physically uncomfortable.

A tired or hungry toddler (or even a teen) is much more likely to have a temper tantrum than a well-rested and -fed child. You can minimize or eliminate some temper tantrums by simply making sure your child gets good sleep and proper nutrition. Adjust your errand and appointment schedule so that your child is well-rested rather than ready for a nap when you head to the grocery store or dentist. Have nutritious snacks in your bag in the event of a delayed meal. Being aware of and preparing for these physiological triggers can help you avoid temper tantrums brought on by a sleepy or hangry toddler.

As your child develops emotionally, you can help them manage big emotions. As you see your child winding up, talk to them, helping to identify the way they are feeling. “You are so frustrated right now,” “I can tell you are feeling sad” or, “You are feeling angry!” can go a long way in calming a child who just wants to be heard. Naming emotions also teaches your child the vocabulary to experience, express and then process those feelings in a healthier way.

Some tantrums come from a toddler’s inability to control their environment. Your child generally has a clear sense of what they want to do, like crawl places, see things and touch objects, but not an understanding of why it might not be safe, or allowed. That tension between what they want and want they are allowed to do can lead to temper tantrums, even if you are helping them identify their feelings and they are well-rested.

You can help your child manage themselves by setting expectations with them before an activity or event that may cause a tantrum. Talk about how to behave in stores or doctor’s offices equips your child with the knowledge and language to positively navigate the experience. Praise your child throughout the experience and provide positive feedback frequently to reinforce these expectations in a child-friendly way. “You really understand how to behave at Aunt Mary’s house!”

It can be helpful to provide transition time and alerts for children so they can feel some control over their experience. Saying “We have five minutes before we have to leave the playground” can help children prepare emotionally for a transition. However, other data suggests that transition time can actually exacerbate tantrums because it introduces an emotional disruption and delays the processing of that disruption. Carefully observe how your child reacts to transitioning between activities and decide what approach makes the most sense.

Redirecting a child who is on the verge of a tantrum can be very effective, but do not redirect your child with a screen, as that will teach your child that tantrums mean getting screen time. Also, studies show that using screens for emotional regulation actually results in children becoming unable to regulate their emotions by themselves, resulting in more tantrums. Give them crayons and paper, ask them to dance or sing with you, or play a quick game of “I Spy” by saying, “Hey, I see something yellow. Can you guess what it is?”

The most important factor in managing your child’s tantrums is your own response. When you remain calm, implement tactics to de-escalate the situation and react in an affirming way to your child’s positive response, no matter how small, your child will learn to model you – and how you manage your frustration in a healthy way.

If your child has difficulty with emotional regulation, message your Alzein Pediatrics provider. We can help!

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