What NOT to Do During Toddler Tantrums
Imagine how much less terrible the “terrible two’s” would be if you didn’t have to deal with toddler tantrums as much…
While temper tantrums are normal for your little one, they can be downright exhausting. My daughter is at the peak of her two-year-old tantrums right now (at least I hope she is)… And some days, it seems like there’s just one tantrum after another.
Tantrums are often how a toddler may express himself, so they can’t necessarily be stopped. But there are some things you can avoid doing so that your two-year-old’s tantrums don’t get worse.
Sometimes, in order to figure out how to resolve a problem, it helps to know what NOT to do first.
So here are some of my child therapist tips on what you should try not to do while your toddler is screaming and crying and in the middle of a tantrum.
What NOT to Do During Toddler Tantrums
While startling your toddler by yelling might stop a tantrum in its tracks, it’s generally not a good technique for managing behavior problems.
The best techniques for toddler tantrums actually teach your child skills. For instance, once your toddler has started to calm down, you can help him communicate what he wants appropriately.
Yelling doesn’t do this. It doesn’t teach your toddler anything productive.
And it can make the situation worse as you and your toddler start to feed off one another.
Try not to let your toddler get what he wants during or immediately after the tantrum.
Ultimately, you want your child to learn that temper tantrums or “bad” behaviors are not effective ways to get what he wants. So try not to let your child get what he wants out of the tantrum (at least not until he can communicate more calmly).
For instance, if your child is throwing a fit because he wants a cookie, don’t give him the cookie during or immediately after the tantrum. Instead, it’s good to do some prompting to get him back on track first and to then help him communicate what he wants appropriately.
Another example… Let’s say your toddler is throwing a tantrum because he wants to stay somewhere while you’re trying to get him to go somewhere else. Go ahead and redirect him to where he needs to be. For example, if he doesn’t want to leave story time at the library, feel free to gently physically direct him to leave.
Don’t react physically, verbally, or emotionally during a tantrum.
Even if your child doesn’t get what he wants out of the tantrum, he’ll often settle on getting a reaction from you.
Plus, drawing too much attention to a behavior can often increase the behavior.
So you want to avoid giving a reaction. This means no sighing, eye-rolling, or saying, “I’m just going to ignore you until you calm down.”
Sometimes, as I mentioned above, you may need to verbally or physically direct your child somewhere. And that’s OK. You can direct your child without giving a reaction.
Once your child starts to quiet down for a couple seconds, you can then begin to help him with calming down or communicating.
Try to avoid picking up your child to comfort him.
Sometimes your toddler might throw a tantrum when it’s time to transition away from something fun. And in that case, it’s OK to gently pick your child up and redirect him to where he needs to go if he’s not responding to your demands.
And some days are just really bad days… When your toddler is inexplicably fussy and just needs you to hold him.
But during other circumstances and on normal days, you want to avoid picking up your toddler during tantrums. The reason is that by picking him up, you could accidentally teach your toddler that throwing fits will get him comforted.
And the goal is for your child to use appropriate communication to tell you when he wants to be held or comforted.
So instead, give your child lots of positive attention and affection whenever he’s not throwing tantrums. This can be done through spending quality time together and praising your child. Also, teach your child the communication skills he needs so that he can request to be held on his own if needed.
Don’t offer a preferred item or activity to try to calm your toddler down.
I have certain family members who give this immediate reaction when my daughter cries: “Do you want a cookie (or cake or some sort of snack)?!” And I cringe every time that happens…
Because offering something that your child wants or likes during or immediately after a temper tantrum will teach your child one key thing… “I get things I want when I throw a fit.”
Yes, your toddler is frustrated. And yes, your toddler can’t always communicate what he wants appropriately.
But there are ways to teach your toddler how to communicate before and after the tantrum that won’t cause him to throw more fits in the future.
Don’t drop the demand you gave (unless it was unreasonable).
If you gave your toddler a demand before he threw his tantrum, don’t just let the demand go. That would be giving your toddler what he wants, which is probably to avoid or delay the demand.
(Do you see a connection between some of these? In general, you don’t want tantrums to be effective for your toddler. In other words, you don’t want your toddler to get what he wants out of the tantrums.)
Anyway, you want to repeat the demand calmly but firmly. Remember to avoid giving any other reaction. And try not to say anything else (except for praising your child when he starts to listen or calm down).
If the demand involved multiple steps or was somewhat vague, try to break down the task into smaller steps. Give your toddler one small demand at a time. (Related Post: How to Get Your Kids to Listen to You (And Do What You Say)).
You can gently give your toddler some physical assistance to help him complete the demand and get back on track if needed.
If your child has a hard time accepting “No,” try not to just say “No” all the time.
That may sound confusing or downright wrong, but let me explain…
If your child has a really hard time accepting “No” for an answer when he can’t have or do something he wants, there’s another trick you can use…
Sometimes, it’s good to offer an alternative when you say “No.” So you might say, “No, you can’t have that, but you can have this.”
Be sure to state the alternative immediately instead of waiting until your child starts to throw a tantrum to say it. Because then that would sort of be like giving in and giving your toddler something he wants.
If your toddler accepts the alternative, you can praise him for accepting it.
Over time, as your little one gets better with accepting “No” when he’s given an alternative, you can fade out offering him an alternative.
Don’t ignore unsafe behaviors.
You may have heard that ignoring is a big part of how to deal with temper tantrums. And it is. When done in a strategic manner.
But be sure that you’re always present and not ignoring any behaviors that are unsafe. For instance, if your child could run into the street, you want to provide physical assistance so that he doesn’t do so.
Don’t punish your child.
Unless your toddler does something severe during a tantrum, you generally don’t need to use discipline for temper tantrums.
Instead, there are lots of other strategies you can use to avoid and manage tantrums. (I talk about them in my e-Book, The Ultimate Guide to Dealing with Temper Tantrums).
Don’t ignore your child once the tantrum is over.
After your child has started calming down, your focus should be to get him back on track.
Ignoring during and immediately after the temper tantrum is OK.
But once the tantrum is over, you want to pay more attention to your little one again… Even if you’re upset because your toddler headbutted you or drove you nuts during the tantrum.
Once your toddler is calming down, you want to give praise and give positive attention for good behaviors.
Also, don’t forget to model and teach communication skills throughout the day when your child isn’t engaging in tantrums.
So What Do You Do During Toddler Tantrums?
The best thing to do while your child is screaming and crying is to ignore. Once your toddler starts to quiet down for a couple seconds, you can try to get him back on track.
Depending on the situation, there are different strategies to get your child back on track.
But doing things like talking, yelling, or reacting while your child is throwing a fit will only make the situation worse.
Remember that as your child ages and gets more skills (like communication skills and the ability to accept being told “No”), you’ll naturally see tantrums decrease. But the tips above, as well as these quick tips for dealing with temper tantrums, can help in the meantime.
Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist before I became a stay-at-home mom, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.