Toddler Tantrums: Prevent, Navigate, & Reset Effectively

Motherhood Unfolding

Welcome to this week’s post on all things toddler tantrums! Tantrums can be tough for everyone involved especially if they come one after another. Have you experienced one of those days with your child? Me too! Hang in there, it happens to everyone.

It can be frustrating and exhausting but toddler tantrums are a normal part of development. Your kiddo is learning how to process and express their emotions and that is big and important work! Tantrums can be daunting but with the right tools, you can effectively support your kiddo before, during, and after they happen. Each outburst can become a positive opportunity for your child to learn how to better understand and control their emotions.

In this post, we are going to explore the steps to prevent tantrums before they start, how to effectively navigate them, and how to provide a positive reset for you and your kiddo.

Two things I want to mention here before jumping in:

  1. Tantrums do not define you as a mother and they do not define your child. They are supposed to happen during this stage of development and some tantrums will happen no matter what.
  2. I am not a professional. But I am a mama baptized by fire, trying to do her best, and sharing what has been helpful along the way.

I firmly believe that every mama knows what is best for her child and you know what speaks to your kiddo but sometimes a little collaboration with a fellow mama (hello there!) can help spark some new ideas in handling the tough situations. We are all going through the same things together. You are never alone in the challenges that you face in motherhood. I've got you, mama.

Preventing Toddler Tantrums Before They Start

One of the most effective ways to deal with an outburst is to not have to deal with one at all, am I right? This starts with preventing the cause. Sometimes tantrums can be the effect of very simple causes. Things like being hungry, tired, over-stimulated, or feeling powerless can be the lava that is quietly building under the surface until it’s...well, not so quiet anymore.

We all get busy and sometimes things can fall through the cracks. Maybe breakfast is a little late getting on the table or an outing runs into naptime. Things happen and that’s just life. But, doing your best to avoid these known triggers will help reduce tantrums.

If you know your child is dealing with a tantrum trigger (hunger, overstimulation, etc) remind yourself that they are going to be more irritable than usual and adjust your actions with that in mind. Give them a little more grace or let them know that they might start feeling grouchy because they are (hungry, overstimulated, etc) and that it is ok.

Knowing the root cause of a toddler tantrum will dramatically increase your ability to effectively handle it. Once you identify the cause or potential cause, work to keep communication open and validate your child’s emotions. This will help to keep your toddler level. It also teaches them that they can look to you for guidance in leading them through their big emotions.

Power Struggles

Power struggles can be one of the most common triggers for toddler tantrums. Think about your kiddo’s day. How many decisions do they get to make? Generally what they get to wear, eat, and where to go is decided for them and they get little say in the matter. Some of this is always going to happen. They can’t choose everything but attempt throughout the day to give some autonomy back to your child. Work to provide them with options so they can feel powerful over some decisions.

There may be times when your kiddo chooses to “exert power” over seemingly insignificant things, things that don’t even make sense. As an example, maybe your kiddo is ready to get out of the bath but they want two towels instead of one. Maybe you gave them the option of one or the other but they insisted on both. It doesn't make sense and you don't want to wash an extra towel just because. But if things start to escalate, take a moment and think about it. Is it really that big of a deal if they use two towels? No. Let them feel powerful when they need to. For the little things, what does it matter?

For big things, your kiddo wants to control but simply can’t such as needing to leave a play date, or not wanting to go to the grocery store, stay kind but firm. Openly communicate with them and let them know why you have made the decision you have, and why it can’t be changed. If there is a choice in the matter, try to provide them with one. If there is a consolation to be given, try to give it to them.

Maybe it’s time to leave for the grocery store and they don’t want to. Do you have enough time to fit a quick trip to the park beforehand so they can get out some wiggles? If not, let them pick out a treat at the grocery store. Or let them choose what you are going to make for dinner and have them help you pick out the ingredients at the store. There is generally a way to approach things with your child that will de-escalate tensions. The key is finding the right approach, which just takes practice.

Effectively Navigating Tantrums

Sometimes toddler tantrums simply can’t be avoided. You’ve done your best to give options and communicate openly but you need to stand firm and they just aren’t having it. It’s going to happen. Once again, I’d like to say that some tantrums will happen no matter what and they do not define you as a mother or your child.

Your kiddo might just need to release some big feelings in the way that comes easiest to them. Everyone at one time or another needs to let their emotions out. Think about the last time you were able to release some pent up feelings. Wasn’t it cathartic? Your toddler may need the space to do the same.

Don’t be afraid to let them explore their emotions even if they are big. They are doing important work in those moments. They are learning what emotions they feel, how to process them, name them, work through them, etc. It may not feel like important work when they have a meltdown over not getting chicken nuggets for lunch but every tantrum is an opportunity for emotional growth.

Ideally, this would all happen at home but what happens when you are out? Listen to your instincts. If you know your child needs you to push the world away and help them navigate their big emotions then do it. Don’t worry about who else might be witness to what is happening. I know it’s easier said than done but whoever may or may not be looking is not important in these highly sensitive moments. In fact, it is within these highly sensitive moments where some of the deepest connections can be forged.

I have found that when my toddler is having a tough time during a public outing if I take a few minutes to focus on helping him instead of quieting him, the outburst is generally over much quicker.

Supporting Your Child Through a Tantrum

When you know a tantrum is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is to lead by example. It is how you handle the tantrum and how you help them process their feelings that teaches them how to handle it. In the tough moments when you feel under pressure and stressed, show them how to move through their emotions effectively.

  • Remain calm, breathe deep, listen to them, and let them know you are here to help.
  • Talk them through their feelings and validate them. Let them know it's okay to be upset.
  • Do your best not to limit what needs to be expressed even if it seems exorbitant to you.
  • Maintain respect for them at all times. Don't belittle them. Whatever they are upset about is a big deal to them at that moment even if they explode over something simply because they are tired.
  • Work to model how to handle emotions but understand that you have more experience in handling them.
  • Stay on the same page as your spouse and support each other through the tantrum so things don't become even more hectic. Talk with your spouse about how you want to approach tantrums beforehand.
  • Finally, never underestimate the power of touch. Sometimes affection in their darkest moments is the most powerful thing you can do. However, this is definitely something to listen to your gut on. Sometimes affection is not what they want. I know for me, my little guy craves it the most at his most sensitive times, but each kid and each tantrum is different.

What kiddos need and what they will respond to may be different for different outbursts. The main thing to always keep in mind is that you are a role model for them. Stay calm, give them the space to express their feelings, and guide them through it whether it is talking it out, hugging it out, etc. Once this is accomplished, it is time to reset and move past the toddler tantrum with a positive conclusion.

Resetting Effectively

Toddler tantrums are draining for everyone. But after the storm, it’s time to find the rainbow. Talk about what happened and validate your little one's feelings even if you don’t agree with their actions. Take time to reset and reframe. This is important for both of you. Take this opportunity to bond. I have found that the moments with the most adversity also are the moments that have the most potential for connection.

The aftermath of the tantrum is where the real work is. Think about these questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did you respond?
  • How did they respond?
  • What helped you get through it?
  • Is there something to talk about?
  • How will you reset and reframe to move forward?

It can be hard to reset after a tantrum. Although, I have found that kids are generally much better at it. It's us adults that tend to hold onto what has previously happened. Ask your child how they are feeling now and what helped them feel better. Remember what they said and make a note for next time!

Then, help them reframe the situation. As an example, maybe they had a meltdown over not getting candy when they asked for it. You worked through it, explained why they couldn’t have it, navigated all of the emotions together, hugged it out (if they allowed for it). Now you can reframe the situation. They can't have the candy now, but what can they have? Let them know when they can have candy or how they can earn it.

For the big exhaustive toddler tantrums, you might need something more than just talking through a reframe. You might need a bridging activity to help everyone relax and move forward. If the circumstances allow for it, try reading a book together. Invite them to curl up in your lap, read, and take extra time for them to look at all the pictures.

Another option is coloring together. If you or your little one don’t feel much like talking or reading and you aren't ready to jump into active play, quiet, and calm coloring side by side might be what you are looking for. Play-Doh could be another option as well and also allows them to shape or pound the dough if they still have any unresolved feelings. This tactile work might be just what they need. Really any activity you do together without distractions will help everyone refocus, rebuild, and start again fresh.

You Don't Need to Be Perfect to Be a Good Mom

Through all of this, it's important to remember that sometimes you will get it wrong. What you try might not resonate with your child for that particular tantrum. You might not be as level as you normally are. Things might not go as you intend. It happens to all of us. You are only human. Even though you are better at handling your emotions than your toddler, that doesn't mean you handle them perfectly.

It's okay if you don't get things perfect. Toddler tantrums can be volatile for everyone involved. It’s okay to apologize to your child and tell them you were wrong in how you handled things or explain your own emotions to them. I do this more than I care to admit. If you lead by example and parent with love you will ultimately make the right decisions.

Additional Resources

If you are looking for additional resources, I recommend these parenting books, all of which I have read and loved:

The Danish Way of Parenting: What The Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids

The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7

Stress-Free Discipline: Simple Strategies for Handling Common Behavior Problems

Lastly, this isn't a book, but I have found watching Daniel Tiger with my little guy to be fun and really helpful for how to deal with common issues toddlers face. I use phrases and songs from the show every day to help my little one!

Do you have any tips for toddler tantrums that I missed? Let me know in the comments.

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Motherhood is an evolution and a baptism by fire. I am here to help those raging flames turn to mere embers and to help you get the best out of motherhood.

Nashville, TN

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