9 Ways to Totally Avoid Toddler Tantrums

toddler temper tantrum
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As every parent knows, toddlers are tempestuous little creatures -- and if you've got one, then temper tantrums are definitely a part of your life. But do they have to be?

"The truth is, you can't prevent tantrums all the time," Seattle-based pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells CafeMom. "There's a lack of communication skills, and toddlers can't always get out what they have in their minds." The resulting frustration, as you're no doubt aware, tends to manifest in everything from screaming to kicking to lots and lots of tears. But there are definitely ways you can stop some of your child's temper tantrums before they even start.

Here are some ways to manage your toddler's ever-changing moods (and maintain your own sanity in the process!).

Toddler throwing a tantrum
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  • Praise them when they're well-behaved.

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    "In our busy lives, we tend to emphasize negative discipline rather than positive discipline," says Swanson. In other words, instead of taking time out to praise our kids for doing the right thing (like putting their toys away or taking turns on the slide at the playground), we only comment on their behavior when it's a problem. Toddlers tend to do more of whatever gets them the most attention, so "spend a lot of your energy giving positive reinforcement" and you'll be rewarded with a positive attitude. At least usually!

  • Gradually "stretch" their patience.

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    Since many tantrums stem from your toddler feeling impatient, teaching her how to wait will help to cut down on outbursts. The best way to do this is to start small, Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, told CafeMom.

    Have your child practice waiting for short periods of time, Karp says. For example, let's say you're on the phone. Ask the person you're speaking with to wait for a moment, then turn to your child and say, "Hang on, I'll be right with you." Finish your conversation quickly and follow through on your promise. "So basically you're putting your kid on hold for 20 or 30 seconds," says Karp. "You're saying: 'I'm going to give you what you want, but you're going to have to wait.'" When you do get off the phone (or stop whatever else it is that you're doing), praise them: "Good waiting!" Over time, they'll learn that it's not so bad to have to wait for a little while because they'll eventually get what they want or need. Eventually, with practice, you can start to increase the amount of time your kid has to wait.

  • Give them choices.

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    Often, tantrums happen because toddlers feel they have no control over their situation and a sense of "injustice" over what's happening to them. "Give them control over little things," says Swanson. "Give a small directed choice rather than yes or no." It's the difference between "Do you want to leave the library in one minute or five minutes?" and "Are you ready to leave the library?"

    Or instead of "Do you want to get dressed?" say "Would you like to wear the red shirt or the purple one?"

    More from CafeMom: 16 Bizarre Toddler Obsessions That Prove Kids Are Totally Weird

  • Stop telling them it's no big deal.

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    When your kid is freaking out because you gave him the blue sippy cup instead of the red one, you might find yourself tempted to say something like, "You're being ridiculous; it doesn't matter which color cup you use!" Discounting their feelings is only going to make kids feel more frustrated, warns Swanson. And worse, if you always treat their big-deal things like they're NBD, when something really big does happen, "they're going to think you don't care," she says.

  • Nip 'yellow-light behaviors' in the bud.

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    As you probably have experienced, a majority of tantrums happen when you have to tell your child to stop doing something repeatedly. When you're trying to put an end to what Karp calls "yellow-light behaviors," (whining, pinching, dawdling, etc.), try using the "clap growl double take" method. For example, if your toddler is yanking on your phone charger cord, clap your hands, make eye contact, and say "No" in a low, firm voice. Turn away for a few seconds (to avoid an inevitable staring contest), then make eye contact again and say "No" one more time. "Then they know you're serious," says Karp. As soon as they stop, praise them: "You stopped, that's great! Now let's go play!"

  • Engage with empathy.

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    Preventing future tantrums means knowing what to do when there is a tantrum.

    It's so easy for you to lose your cool when your kid's blood is boiling, but try to keep it together.

    Remind yourself that tantrums are sometimes the only way your kid has of expressing his anger. "Engage first with empathy, not frustration," said Swanson. Not only will helping your child to feel understood help him to calm down more quickly in the middle of a tantrum, it'll also help to prevent future upsets.

    Let your child know you understand what she's going through -- and help her to understand, too -- by verbalizing her emotions. "Give them credit for what they're feeling," says Swanson. That might sound something like: "I know that you're so mad right now, but we don't eat cookies before dinner. I know that's hard, but would you like an apple or an orange instead?"

    More from CafeMom: 5 Fun Ways to Develope Your Toddler's Language Skills

  • Boost your kid's confidence on a daily basis.

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    A great way of encouraging good behavior is to boost a kid's confidence, says Karp. "When you have a pillow fight, let them win sometimes -- or when they scare you and say 'boo,' pretend to be afraid." The idea here is to let your kid play the winner, Karp explains, because when he feels good about himself he's going to want to give something back to you -- "and that usually means being willing to cooperate," says Karp. Try turning cleanup time into a game ("Who can put more toys in the box? Wow, you're so fast!") or asking them to help you lift something "heavy" ("Look how strong you are!"). 

  • Do nothing (or not much).

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    In the thick of a tantrum, sometimes the best thing to do is simply to disengage, says Swanson. Granted, it's not always possible to step away from your child (like in the middle of a crowded store, for example). But when it's possible, you might want to do that and just let the tantrum run its course. This will actually teach a child how to self-regulate and recover from explosive emotions on her own, leading to fewer tantrums over time.

    Yep, occasionally letting your kid kick and scream on the floor for a few minutes can sometimes be okay -- next time, he might be less likely to make such a fuss.

  • Get ahead of a grumpy mood.

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    Too often we get wrapped up in our day (and our long to-do lists) -- and forget that toddlers don't have the same abilities we do. Namely, the ability to go more than an hour or two without a snack, the ability to stay up when we're normally sleeping, and the ability to deal with a change of plan without a meltdown.

    Swanson recommends arming yourself against your child's tantrum triggers. For example, make sure there are always snacks in your bag, don't run errands close to nap time, and warn your child that there may be some extra stops on your shopping trip. If you forget to do those things, you may be setting your kid up for a full-blown tantrum.

    More from CafeMom: 15 Epic Grocery Store Meltdowns From Kids Who Can't Even

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