10 Best Ways To Prevent Toddler Tantrums

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At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we’ve dealt with lots of toddlers over the years, which means that we’ve dealt with lots of tantrums. We’ve also counseled lots of exasperated parents who want advice on how to handle their “little monsters,” especially when they’re having a meltdown in a public place.

And while we certainly have some pointers on how what to do when your toddler throws a screaming, kicking tantrum, what we’ve found to be particularly helpful for parents are some guidelines for trying to prevent a tantrum before it happens.

Why do toddlers have tantrums?

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Although tantrums can frazzle the nerves of even the most stalwart parents and caregivers, they are a normal part of child development. They’re how young children show that they’re upset or frustrated.

Toddlers want independence and control over their environment — more than they are capable of handling. Because they can’t yet express what they want, feel or need, they get frustrated, sometimes at the drop of a hat. And as all parents know, this frustration is amplified when they are tired or hungry. When they discover that they can’t do something on their own, and/or they can’t have everything they want, the frustration boils over and a tantrum is often the result.

Temper tantrums can range from whining, crying and screaming to kicking, hitting, rolling on the ground and holding breath. According to Kidshealth.org, they’re equally common in boys and girls, and they typically occur between the ages of 1 and 3, around the time of language development. Some kids have tantrums often, and others only have them rarely.

10 things you can do to prevent tantrums before they start

During the toddler years, your child is going through constant changes, not only learning how to control his/her bodily functions (potty training), balance and coordination, but also his/her behavior. Sometimes the ability to maintain self-control just isn’t there, resulting in a tantrum. You may not be able to avoid outbursts entirely, but here are some great tips, suggested by Parents.com and Kidshealth.org, that hopefully can help you avoid a lot of them.

  1. Make sure your child is well-rested.

Getting enough sleep is realty important at this age (12-14 hours per day is recommended for a child 1-3 years old). Many tantrums erupt because a child is over-tired and just doesn’t have the inner energy for self-control.

  1. Give your toddler time to run and play every day.

Your child has lots of energy at this age and needs time and space to let it out. Sometimes tantrums are caused by pent-up energy and restlessness.

  1. Distract your child.

Take advantage of your toddler’s short attention span by offering something else in place of what they can’t have. Start a new activity to replace the frustrating or forbidden one. Or simply change the environment: go outside, or inside, or move to a different room.

  1. Help undo the frustration.

If your toddler is frustrated because he/she can’t put on shoes, for example, help your child master that so he/she can feel a sense of accomplishment instead of failure.

  1. Don’t give in to unreasonable demands.

Public tantrums cause some parents to give in simply to avoid embarrassment, but this only teaches children that they can get what they want by having meltdowns, especially in public. No matter how agonizing it may be, you need to ignore what others may be saying or thinking and stand firm. As calmly as possible, state your rule to your child (which hopefully they should know): “You will not get what you want by crying and kicking. When you calm down, we can talk about it.”

  1. Give plenty of positive attention and praise.

Get in the habit of praising your child for following the rules, sharing toys, waiting patiently for something he/she wants, and playing nicely with friends. Praise and hugs for positive behavior are important rewards that can make a big impression for years to come.

  1. Know your child’s limits.

If you know your toddler is tired, that is not a good time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.

  1. Give your toddler some control.

Let your child make some of his/her own choices, such as what sweater to wear, whether to have orange juice or apple juice, or which book to read or game to play. This little bit of power helps build self-esteem and lets your child know that he/she is being listened to and that his/her choices are being honored.

  1.  Teach your child healthy ways to vent anger.

When your toddler wants to react to a frustrating situation by yelling and screaming, help him/her find an acceptable outlet for the anger instead, like running around outside, bouncing a ball or singing really loudly. Teaching your toddler how to deal with negative emotions now will pay off in the future.

  1. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally.

Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty or that you’re a bad parent because your child throws a tantrum. We understand that having your child shout “I hate you” can be really hurtful, keep in mind that your child’s actions are not so much directed at you as they are simply a show of his/her frustrations and anger.

When a tantrum can’t be avoided

Sometimes in spite of your best efforts, your toddler is dead-set on throwing a nasty scene and there’s not much you can do to stop it. When that happens, here are 5 things you can do to get through it as best you can.

1) Ignore the tantrum. Walk away, if possible. The more attention you give a tantrum, the more you “fuel the fire.”.

2) Redirect your child’s focus. Fix a snack. Start singing or shaking a tambourine to a favorite song on the radio…anything to abruptly change the mood.

3) Choose your battles. Sometimes you have to give in to your child’s wishes a little, or at least reach a compromise. Just don’t make this a habit; otherwise the tantrums could become regular occurrences.  Allow your child to make his/her own decisions when appropriate. Does it really matter if he/she wears stripes with polka dots?

4) Do not allow hitting, kicking, biting, screaming, throwing things or physically hurting a person or pet. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of extreme, out-of-control behavior.

5) Plan ahead, but be ready to change those plans if you have to. If tantrums tend to happen when your toddler is hungry, pack snacks before leaving home. If they’re more likely when your child is tired, build in more nap time during the day or sleep time at night.

The good news

Tantrums generally decrease and then stop on their own as your child grows and develops. Your toddler will soon turn three and then four, year by year gaining more self-control and learning how to cooperate, communicate and cope with frustration. And fortunately, less frustration and more control mean fewer tantrums.

To learn more, we recommend these blogs we’ve written:

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By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball