Are you accidentally aggravating toddler tantrums? I was. How do you go from extreme frustration to a zen like ‘I got this’ with toddler tantrums? I was the extremely frustrated Mama. We were in a negative cycle. This is our story, together with a tonne of examples, lessons, tricks and tips that you can try for yourself.
Tantrums arrive unannounced. For us they crashed into our world at age two years three months. They are a whirlwind of unexplainable, illogical and uncontrollable emotions that overflow, ooze and fester. They are super tricky, ugly and draining!
My toddler tantrum induced negative emotions
A few weeks ago I was at the end of my tether with my toddler. All kinds of negative emotions were mostly bottled up inside me, bubbling under the surface, tearing around my mind and wreaking havoc on my Mama confidence.
My nearly two and half year old was driving me bonkers with his incessant whining, frequent flailing of limbs and utterly unreasonable reality. Almost everything became a battle overnight. Marley went to sleep cranky and woke up cranky.
Unless you are some kind of Mama ninja, tantrums will probably knock you sideways and unlock a heap of your own emotions, like fear, frustration, anger, rage, insecurity….
I’ve felt fear when dealing with embarrassing public tantrums. I’ve felt fear when I’ve not been in control, like I’m in way too deep and that my two year old will prove that I have no idea what I am doing. I’ve been scared that I’m making parenting mistakes that will scar him for life.
I’ve felt frustration because this phase is so irrational, inconsistent and such a waste of precious time. The whining, wrangling, whaling, wriggling, writhing and flopping about is enough to lock you in frustration prison for life.
Despite my goal not to fall into being a ‘shouty’ parent, I have felt inner anger escalate into rage that starts to spill out. When I have tried e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g and e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g has failed, I have had crazy thoughts like, ‘I wonder if slapping him or pouring a cold glass of water over him would snap him out of this’… Don’t worry, I didn’t do it!
I have found that the line between calm firmness and anger driven shoutiness is very very thin and that it takes an insane amount of self control, love and respect for my child, as well as personal time outs to stop myself deteriorating into the parent I do not want to be.
These personal time outs involve leaving said screaming child with Daddy, or if Daddy is at work, leaving him where I can secretly watch him, so that I can have a minute or two to breathe deeply and get myself together...
The whole experience has driven me to feeling insecure as a mother, questioning my ability, my approach and wondering if how I am doing things could be a catalyst, like fuel on the fire. Answer? Yes. Sometimes.
Here’s the thing. When tantrums hit toddlerhood we tend to blame our once mostly angelic tiny humans. But maybe it’s not your toddler. Maybe its you. This realisation is how I went from extremely frustrated to a zen like ‘I got this’. Marley wasn’t failing. I was failing.
My frantic Googling confirmed that tantrums are a necessary right of passage as our children learn to deal with their new found independence versus the rules of the world (like don’t stand in your high chair). They have limited vocabulary to express their unmet needs and they are learning to regulate their emotions at the same time. My research reassured me that Marley wasn’t deliberately being a nuisance and that child development experts don’t label tantrums as being a spoiled brat.
So, if toddler tantrums are a natural and genuinely painful process for tiny humans, then what do I need to do as a mother, what do we need to do as parents, to help our children come through the other side feeling loved, secure, resilient and socially competent?
So I dug deep and put in the work. Here are my tips on how to get to grips with the toddler tantrums phase. But here’s the caveat! This worked for Marley, Daddy and I. Be inspired by these. Test what works for you and your tiny but mighty human. Tweak as needed.
1. Avoid toddler tantrums by adapting quickly
In my motherhood journey, Marley always evolves faster than I can keep up. Motherhood is a series of phases with different types of behaviour, needs and outcomes - like the sleepless fourth trimester, the teething phase(s), the clingy I have a limpet on my hip phase…. And just as I master how to handle one phase, our little man enters a new phase. For a while I have no idea he’s moved on. I carry on as I was, not realising that his needs have changed. In fact, my ‘old’ approach often aggravates the situation.
When I caught up, I realised that Marley needed more independence, patience and creativity. I needed to be more firm, with a clear framework and lots of love and reassurance thrown in. The quicker you can adapt in the toddler tantrum phase, the better things will be.
2. Reduce rejection to reduce toddler tantrums
Before I’d figured all this out I was uncomfortable in my Mama role. I wasn’t confident in how to respond to Marley’s tantrums. Frustration was building inside me and influencing my behaviour. This might sound weird but I know I distanced myself from him. It felt like I was going through the motions, caring for him out of duty, but not truly connecting with him on a deep emotional level.
On reflection, I can see that the more distanced I was, the uglier and the more frequent the tantrums were.
I also learned that walking away from him after plonking him down to “Sit there and have a minute!” (complete with pointy finger and stern face) tended to make things worse and provoked apocalyptic reactions.
A conversation with my Mum made me realise that this was the unsightly face of rejection. Her wise words to me were, “He should not feel rejection.” Especially Marley who is a sensitive and intuitive soul.
3. Obliterate toddler tantrums with one to one time
The more attention I gave Marley the better his behaviour became. Because we’re often juggling a million things it can be very hard to give dedicated attention.
At this stage I don’t attempt to work while Marley is around but I am guilty of ‘playing’ and doing never ending household duties. Sometimes multitasking is necessary but because I had distanced myself from him, I was constantly pushing him to the side, in a sort of you get on with that, while I get on with this, kind of way.
So I started to build in more one to one time. I’d tell him, “I’m tidying the kitchen now, but when we’re finished we’ll play together.” Then I would be fully present when it was his time. Also when I spot frustration brewing, I stop what I am doing and focus all my attention on him. This often averts a negative spiral. My turning up for him fully seemed to make a big positive difference to us.
4. Interrupt toddler tantrums with distractions
My friend Lorna once told me I’d need to become a specialist in the art of distraction. Her son is older than Marley so I didn’t truly understand what she meant until we hit the tantrums phase. Then I totally got that using the things they love as distractions works best. For us tantrum distraction themes involve hide and seek, vehicles, books and anything outdoorsy.
If the tantrum calming gods are on your side then something out of the ordinary will plop into your world for extra effect - like an extra large vehicle carrying a gigantic load with flashing lights. Boom. Tantrum annihilated.
These distraction techniques, especially if used early on in the tantrum cycle, literally offer something more exciting, diverting their attention. Distraction doesn’t always work, but when successful it can be hilarious and quite alarming at how instantaneously you can switch the mood!
5. Crush toddler tantrums by giving them control
The day I discovered the magical power of my phone timer was a miracle. I literally had an epiphany when I sensed we were descending into yet another transition battle, trying to get Marley from playing in the garden to going inside for bathtime. I already gave Marley verbal early warnings….
I have found that things he can comprehend work better - two more slides and we have to leave, works way better than 5 more minutes.
I have no idea where the idea came from but I called Marley over to look at my phone. Easy. Phones to toddlers are like light to moths! I explained that we were going to have 5 more minutes in the garden and that when he heard the phone make a loud noise it would mean it was time to go in. I got him to press the green start button and to choose where we put the phone. And then we played together with 100% of my attention.
When the alarm sounded I reminded Marley what it meant and got him to turn the alarm off. And with that we walked into the house holding hands. That’s way better than having to rugby tackle him and carry him inside in fear of dropping him because he’s heavy, wriggling, yelling and lashing out.
Our magical countdowns have worked brilliantly for us. Marley asks for them, understands what they mean and has ‘timer’ and ‘alarm’ as a new words in his vocabulary.
The other way we give Marley control is by giving choices. I quickly learned not to complicate things by giving too many choices because that causes overwhelm which gets in the way.
Just offer two things to choose from. You’ve got to eat some vegetables, so do you want the peas or the broccoli? We have to put your shoes on, so do you want to sit on the bottom of the stairs or on this chair?
I guess this makes them think, distracts them from the brewing upset and helps them feel more independent and respected. This is such a simple change, and yet when you stop telling them and forcing them, and start giving them control through simple choices, it can have momentous positive impact.
6. Cut down tantrums by communicating
I often see parents scoop their child up rather unceremoniously, clearly interrupting their flow, almost dragging them to whatever it is they want them to do next. Then the parent(s) get frustrated that their little human is screaming in protest. In my experience, simple conversations at tiny human level would eliminate these upsets, or reduce the severity of them by about 85%.
I talk to Marley about anything and everything all the time. In my experience talking to him manages his expectations so nothing comes as a shock which suits his sensitive nature. I communicate what’s coming as an overview. “We’re going swimming today then we’re going to do some jobs in the garden”. Then I communicate in more detail when it’s more timely. “Because we’re going swimming we’ve got to get ready and then get in your car seat.” I always tell him what I am doing to him. I tell him I’m going to change his nappy or wash his face. I explain why he has to stop doing something, and when we’re changing from one activity to the next.
This way of doing things becomes more and more rewarding as they become more able to communicate back. Now we have conversations around these topics. He asks me related questions and he expresses his emotions - excitement and happiness about doing some things, understandable disappointment at having to stop some things, and acceptance that we have to do some mundane things (like get dressed) for the good of something else (to go swimming).
Sometimes when a tantrum is brewing, I say, “Come here, let me tell you something!” This seems to excite him. If he’s still relatively calm I gently scoop him up into a face to face cuddle conversation. I then simply explain things, weaving in distractions and simple choices. Rather miraculously, sometimes this works and we can continue doing whatever we need to do having escaped a meltdown. Sometimes it is absolutely pointless, but it is always worth a try!
7. Build trust to terminate tantrums
Always do what you say. When you deliver on your promises your little people learn to trust you. They trust they will get the treat after lunch. They trust you will read them the 4th bedtime story request as soon as they wake up in the morning. Even when Marley forgets an agreement I remind him. “Thank you for waiting so patiently and playing on your own, I’ve finished cooking, so now we can play hide and seek!”
When there is this knowing that it will be as you say, you’ve equipped yourself with a powerful tool to distract, dissipate and persuade. Trust is a wonderful thing.
8. Be what you want them to be
I constantly remind myself that if we want Marley to be calm, centred and able to deal with his emotions then as his parents we’ve got to be his best examples. I’ve got to reflect what I want. If I react to his drama by getting frustrated and angry, then I’m reflecting exactly what I don’t want.
So everyday I practice, practice, practice. When I fail I say sorry to my two year old and run through how we could redo things better. This gives us a fantastic opportunity to talk about complex emotions, feelings and reactions. The act of talking openly about failure, lessons learned and saying sorry is also an example of how I would want him to behave.
9. Accept that sometimes the toddler tantrum will win
A post like this can take a few early morning slots to write, so just as I was coming to the end of writing this we had a bad toddler tantrum day. None of our toddler tantrum hacks were working. Marley woke up on Sunday morning in a highly strung and inconsolable mood. He wanted milk but it was in the wrong cup. He wanted to be in our bed but he didn’t want Daddy in it. He wanted a story but didn’t like any book. He asked for cuddles then fought his way out of them. He cried when we said, “If you want to be on your own that’s fine, but come here when you are ready”. The rest of the day was one big whine and one big battle, with small windows of sunshine when he seemed to forget he was meant to be in a fowl mood.
I have come to accept that some days every toddler tantrum fighting trick in the book will not work.
I always keep trying to distract, communicate, give him some control… anything I can think of that will snap him out of his dark mood, but I accept that it might just be a tough day. There are going to be days that are difficult and draining. Acceptance of what is can really help you get through and start afresh the next day!
10. Know that it’s just a phase
The biggest thing I’ve learnt so far, in 28 months of parenting, is that everything is a phase. Teething rounds, sleep regressions, clingy baby, biting, hitting, spitting out food - you name it, there’s a phase for it. But they pass. And every time I’m in the middle of a tough phase, I remind myself, “Tis, but a season”.
I have clock watched my way to bedtime because the hard days feel very long! But overall the days are fast, one phase rolls into another and we find ourselves reminiscing of times gone by. So in the midst of a hard phase, look for the windows of joy and know it is but a season.
Although I can’t truthfully say I’m zen like all of the time, I do feel more like I’ve got this. The battles are less ferocious and my relationship with my son is better. So Mama, when you’re going through the dark toddler tantrum phase, remember this:
Give yourself a little time and don’t lose confidence in yourself. Adapting as quickly as you can to their evolving behaviour will help. Get the lie of the land. Research. Think about your child and what would work for their personalities. Experiment with different ways of tackling tantrums.
Take my Mum’s advice and never let your little humans feel rejection. You are more experienced at handling your emotions. Process them so you can patiently love your toddler through this phase that is an emotional roller coaster for them. Don’t distance yourself. Don’t ignore them. Don’t walk away. Don’t shut the door on them.
Give them more dedicated one to one time, especially during the sunshine windows between tantrums. When you spot a tantrum brewing your dedicated focus could change the direction of the mood.
Take my friend Lorna’s advice and become a specialist in the art of distraction. When you sense a tantrum brewing, give them one to one time by introducing a game or activity they love. Your intuition + one to one time through distraction = tantrum averted.
Give them control with simple choices and use tangible communication that they can understand. “Do you want this red jumper or that blue jumper”, can avert a complete refusal to wear clothes!
Keep your little ones informed about what happens to them. Constantly communicate. I’ve found that sudden changes in their activities don’t work too well!
Always deliver on your promises, even when they have forgotten. I have seen that Marley trusts my word and this is a fantastic tool for me.
Always be what you want them to be. It’s impossible not to fail. You will get frustrated and angry. You are human. So when you do fail, talk to them about it. Apologise. Start afresh. This in itself is behaving how you would want them to.
Accept that sometimes nothing will work and it’s just going to be one of those long hard days. Do something to recoup and refuel during nap time!
Remember, it’s just a phase. It might be a long one, as I’ve heard rumours of tantrums lasting well into age 3, but this too will pass. Plus we should get better and better at handling them.
And through all of this, do you utmost to catch a tantrum early. You can do this Mama!