4 Things Not to Do When Your Young Child has a Tantrum

by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

Does your head ever spin from all the suggestions you get  about how to  manage your young child’s temper tantrums or out-of-control  behavior? Your  in-laws tell you you’re spoiling your child, your best friend  thinks you’re  being too strict, and the other parents you know all seem to follow a different  playbook.

Related:  How to take charge as a parent and get control back.

Knowing how to effectively handle your young child or toddler  can feel  overwhelming at times.There’s so much advice about what we should do  that it’s easy to start feeling confused and unsure of your own parenting   skills.

Too  often parents work under the faulty assumption that if  they can simply explain  things to a tantruming child, the child will fall in  line and stop  misbehaving.


The truth is, there is no “magic,” one-size-fits-all  way to parent your  toddler. The true expert of your child is you. Believe me, I  understand that it  can be hard to trust your parenting gut when your toddler is  having a tantrum  in the middle of the grocery store! But part of becoming the  most effective  parent you can is to begin to develop parenting skills that  combine your  intuition, your strengths, and the values most important to you. What I tell all parents of young kids is the  following: As you navigate through your parenting years, you’ll try some  methods that will  work and you’ll put them in your toolbox. You’ll quickly  discard the methods  that don’t work. And along the way, you’ll figure out what  works best for your  family.

Part of finding your way is learning what not to do  when parenting  your tantruming child. This can be confusing, since so much  parenting advice is  based on what you should be doing—but the truth is, figuring out  what pitfalls to avoid is just as important.

Here are my top four “Don’ts” when dealing with your toddler   mid-tantrum:

1. Don’t be inflexible. Toddlerhood  may represent the most  stubborn, inflexible time in the life of a child. Too  often parents do not  recognize this as a normal part of their child’s  development, and are  frustrated as their child increasingly seems irrational  and out of control. In  response some parents tend to clamp down on their child,  hoping that by being a  stronger disciplinarian their child will become less  willful. Unfortunately,  when you do this, you are creating a battle of wills, a  tug-of-war between you  and your child in which no one wins. The key instead is  to be more flexible,  giving the strong-willed child more choices, not fewer. This  may sound  counter-intuitive, so here’s an example of what I mean:

Four-year-old Bradley had a hard time getting ready for pre-school  each  morning. He would lie on the floor, fight with his mother over what to  wear and  could never seem to get in the car on time. His mother realized that,  as a  strong-willed child, Bradley needed to have more of a say in what he was  doing.  After identifying the areas in which he struggled, his mom created a  plan that  included giving Bradley choices. The night before school, she and  Bradley laid  out his clothes for the next day and his mom would ask, “Do you  want to wear  jeans or sweat pants?” In the morning at breakfast, she’d ask,  “Waffles or  cereal?” When it came time to get in the car, she’d say, “Do you  want to bring  Superman or Legos with you today?”

Giving your child a sense of control on issues that are not  that important  in the long run allows your child a sense of autonomy in a world  that is very  structured and rule-oriented. Simple choices on a daily basis make  it less  likely that your child will want to fight you on the big stuff.

Related:  Doing too much for your kids? How to teach them to be more responsible for  themselves.

2. Don’t  be too flexible. Confused yet?  Don’t be. Just as it’s important to give your  strong-willed  child choices, this can backfire if you become so flexible that  your child  doesn’t know what to do. Here’s an example:

Carly was 3 1/2 years old and had always been a great  sleeper as a baby.  Her parents would rock her and lay her in her crib, and she  would sleep through  the night. Since getting her big girl bed, Carly began to  fight her bedtime,  get up in the middle of the night, and wake her parents. At  a loss for how to  get Carly to sleep, her parents gave her too many choices. If  Carly wanted to  read a book at 3:00 a.m. they read with her. If she wanted some  juice, they’d  bring it to her. If she wanted to sleep with them, but then  change her mind 20  minutes later, they’d walk her back to her room. They  allowed her to dictate  the terms of her bedtime and sleep schedule instead of  getting control of the  situation. A better option would be to set the  guidelines for Carly before  bedtime, saying something like, “Tonight we’ll read  two stories, have one song,  then it’s time for bed. If you wake up in the  middle of the night, I will walk  you back to bed and you will stay there”. After  Carly’s parents enlist her help  in making her room as comfortable and cozy as  possible, she will know what is  expected of her for future bedtimes.

Toddlers need someone to be in charge, and that’s you. While  you can benefit  from giving your child choices, you will also benefit from  setting loving  boundaries so your child can feel safe and satisfied in the  choices she has  made.

3. Don’t reason with a defiant toddler. Toddlers are  irrational by nature, and as a parent it’s important to simply  accept this  fact. Too often parents work under the faulty assumption that if  they can  simply explain things to a tantruming child, the child will fall in  line and  stop misbehaving. As a result, many parents talk over the  developmental level  of their toddler. The outcome is simply more screaming and  misbehaving by the  child—and more frustration on the part of the parent! A rule  of thumb is to try  using approximately as many words as the age of your child.

For example, if your two-year-old  bites, you say, “No biting” and remove her  from the situation. If your 5-year-old  starts having a tantrum in the middle of  the store, you say, “We don’t cry over  toys,” and you leave. The point is, a  long, drawn-out speech by you solves  nothing—and your young child or toddler  will just tune out. The best way to  deal with a defiant toddler is to take  swift, immediate action that involves  the smallest number of words  possible.

Since we as adults communicate (hopefully) in rational, mature  ways with  other adults, we assume that we can do the same with our toddlers. Bear  in  mind, though, that your toddler lacks the maturity at this stage in their   development to be reasonable most of the time. Brevity and calmness are a   parent’s best friend at this stage.

Related:  How to give your child consequences that will really work.

4. Don’t scream back. Toddlers  between the ages of two and  six are notorious for losing their tempers and  screaming at the nearest human.  The main reasons for this are a lack of  maturity, an inability to express  themselves verbally, and frustration over not  being able to process the  situation in front of them. Here’s an example of what  I mean:

Sam, a funny, strong-willed 5-year-old became frustrated  while trying to  put together his new Lego set. No matter how much he tried, he  couldn’t  understand the instructions, which were a bit over his head. Not  knowing how to  proceed, he did the first thing that came to his mind: he picked  up his Lego  set and threw it at his 3-year-old sister’s head, screaming at his  mother all  the while. His mother, while horrified and angry in the moment,  stayed calm.  She took him by the arm and told him “We don’t scream or throw  toys,” and led  him to his room for a cooling-off period.

Besides handling the situation calmly and effectively, Sam’s  mom modeled for  him how he can react in the future when he becomes frustrated  and angry.  Toddlers don’t know what to do when faced with a rush of emotion, so  they do  what comes naturally: they have a fit! This type of behavior is  perfectly  normal for all toddlers, but it is imperative that they learn early  that while  it’s normal, it won’t be tolerated in your house. Your job is to  show your  child the right way to react; staying calm and consistent is the best  way to  teach them.

By the way, if you find that you are having a hard time  controlling your own temper, seek out  support in the form of friends, other parents  with same-age children, or by  taking a parenting class at your local rec center  or church. Having a support  system during these difficult years of  child-rearing can be a life saver.

Related:  Stay calm with your child–even when he’s pushing your buttons.

Toddlers are interesting little beings, filled with passion,  humor,  curiosity, and willfulness. They are just beginning to understand the  bigger  world around them, to navigate the daily routines of their home and  school  life, and to test boundaries to see what the outcome may be. As your  child  leaves babyhood and enters the independent stage of their development,  it’s  important for you too to grow as a parent and to recognize that your  parenting  style needs to change along with your toddler. Parenting a baby,  while  difficult at the time, may seem downright easy when faced with a  screaming  three-year-old. It’s really important at this age for you to take an  inventory  of what works and what isn’t working when dealing your young child or  toddler.  By trusting your instincts and implementing rules that you are  comfortable  with, you will be doing all the right things to help not just your child,  but  your entire family.


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