When my daughter Ava was 2 years old, she insisted on wearing a Snow White costume to the grocery store, the park and even to church. One day, I took our little princess to the mall. There, she spotted a chair across the second floor balcony, in the opposite direction of where we were headed, and demanded to sit on it. When I offered her a closer seat, a tantrum ensued. She angrily cried from one end of the mall to the other.
While a public tantrum like this one can be embarrassing for a parent, licensed psychologist Bill Maier notes that such outbursts are normal for young children. Between 18 to 36 months, toddlers such as Ava experience what he refers to as a "period of 'separation and individuation.' " It's a time when they become increasingly mobile and seek to have more control over their environment. (For example, what chair they sit in at the mall.)
"When the toddler discovers he can't do certain things on his own and that Mom and Dad won't let him have everything he wants, he experiences frustration," Dr. Maier explains. Because a child's language is just starting to develop at this age, Dr. Maier says it's often difficult for toddlers to clearly express the frustration they may be feeling, which can cause a tantrum. "In a nutshell," he says, "frustration plus inability to communicate equals tantrum."
How can you and I handle toddler tantrums like Ava's both at home and in public? Here are four simple ideas to help toddlers manage frustration that stems from their growing desire for independence.
Wait out your child.
When it comes to tantrums, Dr. Maier says the best thing parents can do is to simply ignore them. He recommends remaining calm and patiently waiting for your child to stop. Even though it may take some time for your toddler to calm down, it's important, as I've discovered with Ava and her three sisters, not to give in to a tantrum. Rewarding a fit will teach a toddler that outbursts are effective and will undermine your attempts to show your child a healthier way of handling frustration.
"When she calms down," Dr. Maier explains, "you might say something like, 'Screaming and yelling won't get my attention. I need you to use your words.' " However, he also cautions that the exception to ignoring a tantrum is when a fit becomes destructive or dangerous. Dr. Maier notes that parents should never allow their toddlers to hit them. If a child hits or becomes violent, the parent needs to stop the behavior immediately.
On our trip to the mall, I decided to ignore my tiny, angry Snow White’s tantrum. I had learned from similar outbursts at home that eventually Ava would calm down on her own if I chose not to give her my attention.
Take some time out.
If your toddler's tantrum continues to escalate and ignoring her doesn't work, a time-out may be necessary. One way to determine if a time-out is needed is to observe your child's emotional state and note whether her frustration is building or if the energy she's pouring into the fit is waning. If her angry reaction is losing steam, she'll probably calm down on her own and a time-out is unnecessary.
In public, time-outs require more creativity. I found this to be true with our youngest daughter, Dorothy, on a recent family vacation to Walt Disney World. At 33 months, she threw several tantrums that continued to escalate.
With each outburst, my husband or I would find a spot away from foot traffic and the rest of the family. We'd sit her down for a time-out and wait while she cried and screamed. We tried to choose a location that wasn't near stores, rides or other fun activities. Eventually, Dorothy would calm down, change her attitude and be ready to rejoin the rest of the family.
At home, Dr. Maier recommends using a portable Pack 'n Play that's away from the activity in the house. He states, "It's important that your child does not have access to toys during the time-out, and you should not interact with her. Don't lecture her or scold her; simply ignore her. Remember that for a toddler, even negative attention is better than no attention at all."
Learn to identify triggers.
In addition to dealing with tantrums in progress, parents can also find ways to help prevent or lessen the intensity of outbursts before they start. One preventive measure, both at home and in public, is to learn to recognize your child's triggers. Are there certain situations or specific activities that commonly result in your child feeling frustrated? If so, identify these triggers and train yourself to notice them. Then plan ahead on how to respond.
When our oldest daughter, Olivia, was a toddler, transitioning from one activity or location to the next often led to a tantrum. To help avoid fits, we started to verbally prepare her in advance for change. If we were at the playground, we would say, "We're going to play for five more minutes and then it's time to go home." We'd repeat that at each minute mark until it was time to leave.
I have a friend whose young children also struggle with transitions. She uses the timer feature on her smartphone to help transition smoothly. When they hear the quacking duck sound, they understand it's time to shift activities.
Offer food or rest.
Dr. Maier points out that tiredness and hunger are a recipe for disaster when it comes to toddler tantrums. I found this to be true with all four of my kids.
If you're at home, a tantrum that results from a child being overtired or hungry is simpler to address because both your kitchen and your child's bed are nearby. In public, I've found that preparing in advance is helpful.
If I know we're going to miss a nap or that my toddler didn't sleep well the night before, I bring along a favorite toy or blanket. When I notice my child starting to react emotionally, I offer her this item. It helps to comfort and calm her. When it comes to food, I keep snacks in my purse or in the car. If I see that my toddler is growing fussy and it's been a couple of hours since she's eaten, I'll offer her a snack. For me, favorite items and snacks have often helped calm a tantrum in its beginning stages.
As parents, we don't have to fear toddler tantrums. Just as our child's emotions shouldn't guide her behavior when frustrated, as parents we need to be careful not to allow embarrassment to influence how we deal with our toddler's outbursts. Instead, with the right tools, we can feel ready and equipped to help the youngest members of our family deal with their emotions and learn how to be independent in a healthy way.