Dealing with toddler tantrums: A guide for parents

Science and Health

Even before your children reached the age age two, you already knew that the famous tantrums everyone is talking about were coming. You may have met them earlier than you thought, around the age of one and a half.

And now that your child is three years old, you are deep in the world of tantrums, and they may have become quite common at home or outside. Sometimes, you already know how to expect them in advance, and sometimes, even though you try to do everything to prevent them, they still manage to surprise you.

As your child grows, you begin to wonder how much longer this will continue and if this is even considered normal. The good news is that you can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the truth is that the sooner you teach your children tools for verbal expression, the faster the light at the end of the tunnel will appear.

Why is it happening?

Maayan Reichman, a parenting and tourism blogger, interviewed Sheeran Leshem, a parenting instructor, lecturer, and host of workshops for parents, to understand how to deal with tantrums at the age of 3.

A toddler girl crying (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What are the common cases in which we see tantrums?

Tantrums are very common between the ages of one and a half to three and are one of the ways in which young children express their feelings and try to change what is happening around them. Tantrums should subside once your children are better able to communicate their feelings and needs and have a safe environment in which to do so.

Frustration: Children of these ages have a variety of feelings and opinions, and their desire for independence is already well known to you. At the ages of two and three, there is still a gap between their inner thoughts, desires, and feelings and the clarity with which our children manage to express themselves.

The greater the feeling that they are not understood and unable to express themselves, the greater the frustration and the more frequent the tantrums. Similarly, when there is something that our children really want to do, and they don’t succeed or can’t do it, then there is a feeling of frustration that will lead to a tantrum.

Whether your children really want to go to the garden when it’s rainy, or they are not ready to go for a walk now, whether they want to cut the apple themselves, or you serve them the apple whole and not cut, whether they wanted to eat candy now instead of dinner and maybe they were angry or offended, and you didn’t notice, maybe you were busy on the cell phone when they wanted attention, and in general when there is a need that you didn’t respond to, the tantrum is waiting for you just around the corner.

Fatigue: There are situations where we travel or stay at other houses while our children are used to taking their afternoon naps. It could also be a situation where your child was very active throughout the day and did not rest enough. In such situations of fatigue and restlessness, the likelihood of an attack increases.

Overstimulation: Excess stimulation can cause more tantrums at these ages. Overstimulation can occur following exposure to screens (TV, etc.), unfamiliar surroundings, noise, and unusual lights.

Hungry: If you didn’t stock up on food in advance during a trip, maybe you even counted on the fact that when you get to a certain place, you will all eat a meal, and your child is hungry, you will most likely have a tantrum.

Sick: Who among us does not experience impatience and anger when sick? When we are in pain, when we are exhausted and not feeling well, we are more prone to unusual behaviors. Similarly, our children will also experience more tantrums when sick or developing an illness.

What should you do to help your child?

Before anything else, you’ll want to make sure your child is safe. This may mean physically removing your child from the area where they are having the tantrum, and if you fear injury, you may want to hold your child in your arms.

Try to understand why the tantrum happened. If it’s because your child is hungry or tired, the solution is simpler and faster and can be easily prevented next time.

Baby eating food. (illustrative) (credit: PEXELS)

Acknowledge your children’s feelings: Don’t try to diminish them (“What nonsense, that makes you angry?”), dismiss them, or make fun of them. Instead, let your children express what they feel verbally and show understanding (“I know you are angry because you wanted to go to a friend, and you can’t go”).

Through your verbal expression, your children will better understand their feelings and learn how to use their words to express their feelings later on. When you reflect to your children what they feel, you will give them the feeling that you see them, understand them, and that they can share with you the things they experience. This does not mean that you must agree with what they asked for or the behavior they demonstrated, but that you do understand what they feel and experience.

Personal example: Express your feelings in everyday conversation at home. Talk about the things that bother you, upset you, make you sad. In this way, you will legitimize your children to share their feelings, and at the same time, your children will learn to express feelings in a similar way.

Pay attention to how you behave during an argument with your partner. What behavior are you demonstrating? If you notice that you often lash out or raise your voice, try to control these situations better to model the behavior you would like to see in them for your children.

Find distractions: Once you’ve acknowledged your child’s feelings, understood why this happened, and your child is still upset, help them regulate their emotions by providing a distraction (“Whoa, look at what dog just came in here, just the kind you like, come see!”). Note that you should not use the distraction tool to ignore your children’s feelings.

Wait for it to end: Sometimes, all we can do is simply accept the situation and give it space without getting excited and waiting for the anger to pass. Yelling back, ignoring, or punishing will certainly not teach your child to express themselves verbally, so take a deep breath and let it pass on its own. Try to respond with calming and comforting energy. Remind yourself that tantrums are one of the ways your little ones try to communicate with you.

Be consistent: Sometimes, we just don’t have the energy for all these dramas, unnecessary fights, and tiring interactions, and we say to ourselves, “Come on, let him eat chocolate. It’s not worth the war.”

But once you surrender, you teach your child an effective tool to get anything they want, and that’s the surefire way to keep the tantrums around. Therefore, even if you regret not allowing something and change your mind, wait until the tantrum passes to change the decision.

Verbal expression of feelings: Teach your children to express feelings and understand the feelings of others. Use different games, such as a game where you make a facial expression, and your children have to guess what emotion the face expresses.

Use situations in the garden where a child is crying, sad, or angry, and talk about it with your children: “What happened to this child? Is he angry? Why is he angry?” “Oh, look at this child crying. What happened to him? Did he get hit?” When you notice that your child is becoming short-tempered, ask them if they are upset/angry, or frustrated and try to understand why and how you can help.

Retrospective conversation: After your children have calmed down, try to talk to them about what happened. What they felt and wanted at that moment, and what led them to the outburst. Remind them that you understand them better when they explain to you in words what they need and when they lie on the floor and cry, it is difficult for you to understand them and help them.

A child and his brother are with their parent, one playing a video game on a phone and the other having a temper tantrum (Illustrative) (credit: Direct Media/Stocksnap)

Give them a tip on how they could say what they wanted instead of the tantrum, or alternatively, ask them how they could express what they wanted in words. Praise them for calming down and talking.

In the long run, these tools will teach your children how to express themselves differently and experience fewer frustrations in front of you and others.

How can tantrums be reduced and even prevented?

Remember to include rest and sleep breaks for your children when planning a long trip or family vacation. Even a long drive between one location and another will allow your children to sleep a little in the car and be filled with new energy.

Take a stroller or travel carrier with you on long trips that will allow your children to rest when needed.

Try to adapt the nature and duration of the trip to the age of your children. Expect them to adapt to something other than you.

If you are in a loud environment like a party for a long time, give your children breaks. Go outside with them for one-on-one time to avoid being exposed to the hustle and bustle for a long time. Overstimulation can be a catalyst for tantrums.

When you go out, always have snacks on the go. Cut vegetables and fruits, crackers, and a sandwich with a non-perishable spread for any situation when your child feels hungry. Even if you just went out after lunch, ensure you have something in your bag.

Keep a routine. Anchors during the day give our children a sense of certainty and security. Maintain regular times of sleep, meals, etc., even at times of departure from the routine to give your children confidence.

Offer choices. Tantrums may occur when your child feels out of control. Allow your children a choice during the day, especially at times when you are not stressed, to allow time for deliberation.

By doing this, you will give them a feeling that they are able to express themselves and will, therefore, feel less frustrated. To empower them and strengthen their sense of self-confidence, you can also ask them to express their opinion on things unrelated to them, such as which socks you should wear.

A sign that you should get counseling: Allow children to be independent. Find activities age-appropriate and safe. Try to let them dress themselves, brush their teeth, and perform some daily tasks such as putting clothes in the washing machine or dishwasher.

Consult a professional in cases where the frequency of tantrums should decrease as your children’s communication skills improve and they can share more and express more in their daily routine. However, there are times when physical or psychological problems may cause outbursts of rage.

The tantrums continue after age 4-5. It lasts over 15 minutes and becomes more frequent or violent over time. Involve self-harm, hitting your head against the wall, holding your breath, etc.

In any case, if you feel that your level of stress or frustration is high or you simply do not know how to deal with the outbursts of anger, do not hesitate to seek help.