9 Things Parents Should Do Differently If They Want to Stop Toddler Tantrums


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Any parent of a child who has neared or passed the age of 2 has probably already handled a fair share of tantrums. The crying, the screaming, the fascinating ability to seemingly become boneless in the middle of the supermarket -- it's all a part of a normal rite of passage: the toddler tantrum phrase.

But how can we know whether we're actually helping our child learn to stop having meltdowns, or if we're enabling the bad behavior?

How to handle the chaos is, of course, completely up to the parent, and no two children are exactly alike, so tactics can vary greatly -- even within a single family. But one of the hardest challenges to dealing with the ever-evolving tantrum is trying to decipher when our kids really need something from us or when they simply want their way. And sometimes it's a combination of the two.

More from CafeMom: 5 of the Most Epic Toddler Tantrums of All Time

We put this challenge to the experts: a mix of psychologists, therapists, and in-the-know parents who shed a little light on what we're doing right, wrong, and what we could be doing a little bit better.

More from CafeMom: 9 Ways to Totally Avoid Toddler Tantrums

And we received a lot of helpful insight. For example, who knew there are two main types of tantrums, and each should be handled very differently? Plus, they let us know when it's okay to give in -- after all, no one can be a strict parent all the time. 

  • Just Say No to Saying 'No'

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    A common initial reaction to a tantrum -- telling a child what he or she is doing wrong -- isn't the best one. As Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, MI, tells us, it's possible to unknowingly encourage or reinforce the behavior parents are trying to reduce.

    "A parent may go in to a long explanation or lecture about why a certain behavior is a 'no no' and though they think the lecture is a deterrent, what they are actually giving their child is one-on-one attention, eye contact, and more face time than they probably pay to good behavior," says Krawiec. "This actually incentivizes a child to act up rather than behave appropriately."

    Instead of focusing on what our children are doing wrong, we should pay five times more attention to what they're doing right. After all, toddlers love our attention.

  • Give Them a 'To Do' List

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    Instead of telling them what not to do, Krawiec encourages parents to tell kids what to do. "Replace 'stop whining' with 'use an indoor voice,'" she suggests. "When a child does what the parent has told them to do, congratulate them with high fives, thumbs up, or verbal appreciation."

  • Know Which Type of Tantrum It Is

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    There are two distinct types of tantrums. Knowing which type a child is having might help a parent best ascertain how to deal with it. "In tantrum number one, a child is using their reactive and logical brain together to manipulate the situation for their gain," says Gennifer Morley, MA LC, a licensed therapist in Boulder, CO, who specializes in play therapy and parent coaching. "This is developmentally necessary and appropriate, but is the one in which it is ideal for the parent to hold a boundary."

  • Help a Panicking Toddler Calm Down

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    Then there's tantrum number two: "It's when the child is working only from the reactive brain and they are in a fight or flight response. This means that they are having a toddler panic attack of sorts and no amount of reason will work," Morley explains. "Often a way to tell the difference is that in the manipulative kind the child can hear and consider negotiations. In the second, their brain seems clearly off line." In this case, it's the parent's job to teach the child to accept those negative emotions and to eventually calm down. This one is especially important to avoid making the child feel bad for his or her behavior, as he or she was literally out of control.

    Morley explains that this situation can be scary and humiliating to a child who feels a little off the rails. "This one involves helping the child breathe, often requires some change of location (a different room or outside) to reset the fight or flight in the brain," she suggests.

  • Take the Child Out of His or Her Comfort Zone Now and Then

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    If a parent feels that a kid's tantrums go hand-in-hand with anxiety, there are ways to help the child adjust to a situation that's making him or her nervous or scared. "Slowly ramp up the exposure to feared situations, so the child gains a track record in their mind of conquering their fear and feeling safe and competent while doing so," says Natalie Moore, a psychotherapist and play therapist in Los Angeles. "Give the child plenty of time to adjust to the idea of being exposed to their fear by narrating their day to them and reassuring them that everything will be okay. Incorporate their fear into play, making sure the situation has a happy ending, so that they become accustomed to re-associating their fear with safety."

  • Know When to Talk to an Expert

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    Worried the child is having too many or too extreme tantrums? If something feels really off, out of control, or developmentally delayed, parents shouldn't be afraid to speak up. "Talk to the pediatrician, the child's preschool director, or any other trustworthy professional," says Moore. "Ask them to give honest feedback on their hunches about the child's behavior. If the parent's concerns are discounted and they know in their gut something is not right, they should take matters into their own hands and schedule an appointment with a psychologist for an evaluation."

    More from CafeMom: How to Diffuse a Tantrum in 10 Seconds Flat

  • Remember: Kids Don't Want to Have Tantrums

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    As parents, we often believe that kids are choosing to flip out because of their own wants, but Jeff Laponsie, LMSW, of Kalamazoo Child and Family Counseling, explains that they can't help it.

    "Kids get little [benefit] out of [having] a tantrum," explains Laponsie. "Most kids -- all of the ones I've talked to -- just feel miserable during and after they've had a fit. Most of the times, toddlers lose it because there's a problem that's bigger than their ability to handle it alone. There's a demand or situation beyond their skill set, whether that is preparing for a shift from a high-interest activity -- play or special time with a grandparent, for example -- to a less preferred activity -- leaving, a car ride, waiting patiently -- or just handling the disappointment of being told 'no.'"

  • Avoid Power Struggles

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    "The goal of discipline is to change behavior in kids, not to be punitive, or remind a kid who’s in charge," says Laponsie. "When kids are calm, then they are able talk about what happened. Avoid negotiation or threats. It’s important to remember that when children are flooded with emotions, their 'brakes' just don’t work. In these moments, parents need to be the brakes for their children, and focus on helping their child calm down."

  • Make Exceptions Now and Then

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    Moore thinks it's important for everyone to know it's impossible to be super mom. "If parents give in to that 'I want candy!' tantrum in the grocery store line every now and then, they shouldn't worry about it," she says. "Kids learn through the millions of interactions they have with their caregivers over the course of their entire childhood. Looking at the big picture, a few instances of 'giving in' will not ruin a child. Parents should be gentle with themselves and just be mindful to not make a habit of it."

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