The toddler tantrum toolkit
All the authorities offer the same list of tools for dealing with the dreaded toddler tantrum. But they can be tricky to put into practice. A mom in the thick weighs in.
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I was walking through a mall, unencumbered by either of my children, when I heard a hoarse shrieking approaching. There was a mother, carrying her child, who seemed to be comprised entirely of arched spine, clawing hands and kicking legs. The mother was smiling apologetically, sweating slightly and heading for the parking lot as swiftly as she was able.

I was filled with sympathy. “I’ve been there, sister,” I communicated with a sad smile and inclination of the head. It’s a ghastly place to be. Toddler tantrums are no joke, and you never know when they’re going to strike – unless the truly unsettling answer is: all the time.

Tantrums are frightening, confusing, exhausting and shame-inducing – and that’s just for the parents of the toddler that’s writhing, screaming, pounding the floor or even hurting herself. In the wake of the uproar, parents often try to figure it all out, to pinpoint the trigger, to work on a strategy, to get professional help, or to do better next time.

Read: To time-out or not?

All the reading you do has a similar list of steps or pointers for dealing with tantrums. They seem straightforward enough, but can feel almost impossible to implement in practice:

  • Learn the triggers
  • Distract
  • Get down on their level
  • Provide options
  • Don’t add emotion by getting angry
  • Reassure
  • Time out
  • Contain.

You do have options

I can remember at the start of my tantrum phase with my daughter Angeline, reading through these and laughing derisively. They always seemed to have been compiled by people with children who perhaps folded their arms and stomped their one foot while saying “No!” loudly.

I think that it’s important to remember that these are the tools for doing your best or getting the best result. If you have a tantrum chucker, unfortunately, you’re just going to have to grit your teeth and chart the smoothest course through the storm.

“Children throw tantrums when they feel their needs aren’t being met,” says clinical psychologist Dorianne Weil, also known as “Dr D”. “Toddlers’ impulses are not controlled yet and they have no other form of expression. You just have to try to be attuned enough to your toddler to acknowledge their need without having to acknowledge the behaviour.”

Dr D isn’t suggesting that you should give your child everything they want or think that they need, but rather that by acknowledging what’s going on, rather than reacting to the tantrum, you might
get a better result.

Heading off the tantrum

For me, this is where the “don’t get angry”, “down to their level” and “options” tools come in. If you can achieve distraction, great, but generally tantrums threaten when you’re trying to achieve some goal, and materialising something interesting or playing the goat listen really does seem to empower my daughter to try to explain herself.

“I have found that giving the impression of options really works well,” says toddler mom Victoria De La Cour. “So instead of saying ‘Would you like fish-fingers or sausages for supper?’ I say, ‘I am making fishfingers. Would you like to choose your plate from the cupboard?’”

She also says that the more she lets her daughter do on her own, the fewer tantrums ensue. So while it may take all the patience you can muster, try to get your toddler to help with closing the door, getting dressed, getting into the car seat or “cooking” dinner, rather than instructing and jostling from on high.

Most parents of tantrum-throwers eventually come to this point on their own. You can always spot them – they’re the ones cowering and asking permission of their 2-year-old before pushing a lift button, buckling a shoe or turning on a light.

Read: Dealing with anger in children

Full steam ahead

Once you’ve failed to head off the tantrum, a time-out can work wonders. “I’m a big fan of the time-out, not as a form of punishment but as a cooling-off period,” says Lauren Shapiro, writer of blogs.parents24.com/veggietots.

“I also use a time-out for myself when irrational, brewing tantrums threaten to draw me into the vicious cycle of anger.”

Dad Dave Fair has also discovered the effectiveness of the time-out zone. “We created a space in our house for each kid where they go when they have a tantrum,” he explains. “The theory is that when they flip out they are wanting containment, so enforcing a boundary can be reassuring for them.”

Physical containment is also often advocated. When I first read about this, it seemed too much like cuddling a frantic child, rewarding bad behaviour, never mind the risk to your own person, but Dr
D makes it clear that this containment is not like hugging.

“It’s a harder type of containment, not a loving hug, but providing safety,” she says. “It gives a sense of authority, but it’s got to be mixed with caring. Calmly explain that the tantrum is not going to do much good, then move to someplace quiet and let it play out.

"Remember that while it may be embarrassing and unacceptable for you, being out of control isn’t such a great feeling either, hence the need for containment and boundaries.”

Reap the rewards

Some people have found that giving love can be a powerful antidote. Lauren advocates what is known as the “love bomb”. “The more ridiculous and unreasonable the toddler gets, the more you bomb them with love,” she says. “This can be very challenging, especially at the beginning, but often works wonders because tantruming toddlers are usually looking for attention and are extremely frustrated by something.”

For a long time, this didn’t sit particularly well with me, because it feels too much like rewarding bad behaviour. But at the same time, getting angry certainly didn’t help. Then, at some point you realise that you’re a small person not to shout or smack. So really, love is all you’re left with, which is as it should be.

“Children learn by 3 things: example, example and example,” says Dr D. “You have to make
yourself accountable to your own standards. Your job is to be the best you can be, because that's how they learn. Your children actually make you into better people, if you think about it."

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