Managing a Toddler’s Tantrum – or Not – I don’t really know what I’m doing either

I remember thinking that the Terrible Twos were really no big deal.  My first child had tantrums, sure, but they were so mild, that I could literally laugh through them while she was having them.  Her defiance was so weak and tears so crocodile, that it was easy to calm her down and refocus her.  I just didn’t understand “those” parents whose children were screaming and flailing around in a grocery store or restaurant.  What did those parents do or not do to make this happen?  Clearly they just weren’t good parents, and as a result, they were raising spoiled brats.

Introduce my 2nd child into the mix and like a gift straight from heaven, I was given the vision of what a true toddler tantrum looks like.  It was a total epiphany for me.  My goodness, “those” parents weren’t actually mishandling a tantrum, they actually had a child who knew how to throw one.

And so here I was, dumbfounded, unable to laugh even a little (please, are you serious – she’s practically psychotic!)  A proper tantrum starts like a hurricane…you start to see signs spinning somewhere in their distant gaze and then a quiet insistent trickle of complaints or demands starts to stream into view.  When those demands are not immediately satisfied in the count of 3….2….1, well, you’re just screwed.  A tantrum-y child now enters a state of gale-force psychosis as the demons overtake them.  There may be indecipherable repetitive demands, tears gushing, red face, as his/her body either goes limp or flails uncontrollably.  It is truly a wonder to behold – and when enacted in public, can leave you feeling confused, ashamed, helpless, and frankly, mad.

So, over the past year, I have had to learn ways to prevent and manage my dear daughter’s tantrums to minimize their damage to both of us and to society at large.  Here are a few of my tips for preventing and treating Hurricane Toddler Tantrums.

You know your child better than anyone.  What makes them tick?  Try to plan ahead to minimize the things that can usually set off a tantrum.

  1.  Always expect a Tantrum & prepare for it.
    1.  Bring a water cup and snacks when you head out into the world.
      1. Keep the snacks on the healthy side and make sure to mix it up to make sure you have a couple of options
    2. Pack a Preventative Bribe
      1. Offer them something they don’t usually get to have BEFORE a tantrum could even begin.  For instance, I only give my child an occasional lollipop – but I usually do it when I’m headed to the grocery store or on a long car ride.  The happiness she feels by having this special treat overrides whatever angst may be building and does tend to ward off the demons.  You can also keep this as your last-ditch effort to settle an existing tantrum.
    3. Pack Diapers and a Change of Clothes.
      1. My girl gets especially feisty when she has a dirty diaper or accidentally gets her shirt or pants wet from a drink.  If you can make them feel comfortable, they’re less likely to let the demons take over and tantrum away
  2. Explain Today’s Plan.
    1. I have found that when I go over the day’s agenda with my daughter, she seems to understand the sequence of events and isn’t thrown off by what may have otherwise been a surprise.  Toddler’s don’t seem to like surprises.  ie.) “First, we’re going to the gym and you’re going to play with the kids and toys.  Then we’re going to the grocery store.  Next, we will go home.”
    2. Make them acknowledge the plan.
      1. It doesn’t help to tell your child the agenda if they aren’t listening or don’t understand.  I have my daughter say, “Ok, Mommy,” or repeat what we’re going to do.  It seems simple, but I think it make sense if you think about it as an adult.  If someone just dragged you around all day and you had no idea where you were going, it would be irritating.
    3. Set behavior expectations.
      1. As you pull into the parking lot of whereever, repeat to your child what you’re about to do and how they should act.  “We’re going into the store for a few minutes to buy food.  You’re going to sit in the stroller with your toy and your snack.  You’re not going to scream.  You’re not going to cry.  You’re not going to kick.  Ok?”

So, you did everything above to prepare and prevent a tantrum, and they still have one, right in the middle of the grocery store and you have a cart full of groceries.  No, you didn’t do anything wrong, you’ve just got a kid with exceptional tantrum skills.

  1.  Stay calm (even if you’re not.)
    1. Your tone of voice can set the stage for bad behavior to get better or worse.  If you talk to your child with kindness and empathy, but also add in a stern directive, it may improve the situation.  ie.) “Honey, I know you’re upset right now, but we’re almost done and all we have to do is pay for the groceries.  You need to stay in your stroller and you cannot yell and kick around in the store.”
  2. Know when to stay and when to go.
    1. Admitting defeat seems like the worst thing in the world….especially if it means you’re leaving a cart full of groceries in the middle of the store and evacuating the premises carrying a red-faced toddler.  But sometimes, there really is no other option.  If the tantrum seems mild and you’re able to finish what you’re doing, stay.  But if this is a level of awfulness you have not yet seen, it’s better to change the scenery and get the heck outta there.
  3. Distract them.
    1. Sometimes, if you are very clever and the stars are aligned just right, you can distract your toddler from whatever ails them and make them refocus.  “Do you want to watch Mickey Mouse when we get home? Remember Mickey’s Choo Choo Train?”  Starting a conversation that reminds them of things that interest them may make them forget that they are strapped into a stroller cruising through endless aisles at the grocery store.
  4. Ignore the stares or judging looks of others.
    1. When a tantrum happens, there will be rubber-neckers.  Ignore them.  They don’t know your life.  They don’t know your story.  They don’t know your kid.
  5. Politely refuse help from well-meaning strangers.
    1. I say this with reservation, because I have on occasion received help in some situations where my tantruming child and screaming infant were just too much for one mom to handle.  But, for the most part, I feel that the last thing a tantruming toddler wants to see is a stranger in their face saying “What’s wrong, little one?” or whatever kind remark they say to attempt to help you.
  6. Offer to hug your child and tell them you love them.
    1. I admit if I read this I would roll my eyes.  I’m a little bit rolling my eyes as I type it.  But truly, sometimes if your child is feeling uneasy, uncomfortable, or nervous in a situation for a reason unknown to you, offering them some bit of love and comfort can go a long way.  For me, it’s the most counter-intuitive step in here because the last thing I really want to do is hug my child when she’s misbehaving, but it has actually worked.

Those are all the tricks I have up my sleeve.  The main thing to know is that a tantrum is normal and sometimes unstoppable.  Don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up over it.  Remind yourself that this too shall pass and stay the course of the strong parent.  Your child gains strength from your composure, and will ultimately learn to model your own behavior.  Try to remember that – even when you feel like having a tantrum of your own.

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