HOW TO: Prevent Toddler Tantrums Before They Ever Begin!

Taylor Keating

Here's the actual truth, you can't. HOWEVER, I do believe that you can equip your child with coping and self-regulation skills to where a tantrum is a quick and relatively painless process. Tantrums are developmentally appropriate for toddlers as this is a time in their life when they discover their autonomy and that they're an individual in a big, big world. They’re testing their limits, and seeing what they can get away with. At this point, it’s purely just them figuring our where they fit into the world.

But that doesn't mean your child should be miserable and fighting with you all the time in this crazy power-struggle that seems to never end. It starts from day one when they’re walking and talking and crawling and trying to explore. It’s our job as parents to set them up to succeed and it will definitely take work if you don’t have the base layer of these skills prepared. The tips I mention below are all practiced in my house (as much as possible, but obviously I am human and get upset and sometimes yell and all of that dark side of motherhood stuff). But I genuinely believe that these few little tweaks to how things are worded or dealt with helped Lincoln, my two year old, be able to work his way through tantrums better, quicker, and understand why he has these big big feelings.

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Routines and Transitions

Be consistent with your days. When a child knows what to expect next, it is easier for them to let go of what they are doing and go with the flow of a normal day. Keep meals, naps, and bedtime routine the same, every single day. Soon, they catch on to what will come before or next without you ever having to utter a word. Obviously they can’t read a clock, but they will be able to understand the time of day based on what you’re doing at that time.

For transitions, give warnings. "Hey, we have 5 minutes before we clean and eat lunch. 5 more minutes." Whether they can count or not, you're signaling that a change is coming and giving them time to finish and process the next steps. Some children need more or a couple warnings to prepare. A surprise switch without any warning is enough to set a tantrum in motion alone. That change can cause anxiety and panic and unknown feelings. The next thing that happens might just be a power struggle.

Reward positive behavior

Acknowledge the small wins. Reward does not necessarily mean treats, gifts, or anything tangible. What I mean by rewards is to acknowledge the good in the day, not related at all to things that may be a trigger. That could be when your children are playing nicely together… tell him you’re proud that he’s sharing toys with his sister. You ask him once to wash his hands and he gets up and does it on the first try. Tell him he did a great job listening to directions.

Personally, I hate using terms like good or bad. It just feels icky to me. What is good actually and how would you child know what constitutes as good or bad. Instead of saying, you are doing such a good job. Say something like, “I love how you picked up all of the train tracks before moving to a new toy.”

Good and bad feel like such a label to me. If I was told that was a bad choice or I am bad, I probably would be more likely to act in that way again. Versus saying, that helping to clean was a good decision. That sounds a hell of a lot better.

When you see something, say something! You cannot over-compliment your child. You are their main hype-man!

Give choices

If you have a toddler, I bet their favorite phrase is, "me do!” I couldn’t even count the amount of times my toddler says my do throughout a day. Instead of saying "no, no, no" over and over throughout the day when your toddler wants to do every single thing, give them options. When you're cleaning, ask "do you want to help by cleaning the table or the floor?" The best part is they cannot really answer no but you are empowering them to choose their task, which gives them that bit of control.

During pick-up time, it's okay to help them to hurry things along. Let them be involved by saying, I'm going to clean the blocks. Do you want to help me with the blocks or pick up the trains?" If' they don't want to get into the car, ask them "do you want to pick our first song in the car or buckle your own belt?" They need to get into the car, but once there, they have an incentive.

Distract or back-up

If your child is begging for the sharp pair of scissors and cannot seem to let it go, give them something else to distract them or bring something else up. This exact situation happened to us today, Lincoln was set on getting the nail clippers, and instead, I distracted him by asking if he wanted to use safe scissors at the table with paper. Instant flip in his behavior and off he went to the table without a single protest.

Another strategy, which is similar, is to have a backup. If you know your child needs a specific lovey or they will lose their mind, have a back up for a worst case scenario. A different favorite or special activity is also a great option to divert their energy.

Same with certain toys. It's honestly not worth the fight of forgetting it at school or in the car or wherever. It's also good to know something your child can always be redirected to. For us, it's playdough or outside. Always a win and instant tantrum stopper.

Know the limits

It's okay to tailor your day around your child. You know them best. Lincoln needs sleep and it's not something I have ever been willing to mess with. If he is tired, he is going to cry and cry and cry over the smallest of things. So obviously, a late night trip to the grocery store would most likely result in a tantrum at one point of another. A playdate at 12 pm when Lincoln naps 1-3 would be a nightmare. There's nothing wrong with avoiding problematic times and times your child may be more emotional for activities.

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An early childhood educator at heart, now raising two toddlers with big feelings and writing about mom life through a real lens.

Ridgefield, CT
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