Sneak peek: Toddler tantrums are normal but very frustrating. Research helps guide us in a slightly unconventional way on how to respond to tantrums.
All I wanted was to walk on the treadmill for maybe…20 minutes. Is that too much to ask?
I had a great plan–I would hop on the treadmill in the basement while my son (age 2 at the time) played with the plethora of toys down there. Easy peasy. I’m a pro at this toddler development thing, right?
Minute 5 rolled around and the whining began.
“Car on track…ahh.” My son couldn’t get the little Matchbox car onto the track the right way.
“I’ll help you in just a few minutes,” I said hoping he would calm down on his own. “Do it myself…urrgh, it won’t go,” my son continued. I could see the tension building but I decided the push on. I really needed some exercise.
Then I heard it–a loud “clunk.” My toddler had thrown the car across the room and it had hit the wall. Crying and fussing ensued. Oops, I had missed the point of no return. We were in full-on toddler tantrum mode.
“Remain calm,” I told myself. “He’s just frustrated. I know how to respond to tantrums“
I try to calm him but to no avail. He pushed me away. He had to get it out. I told him to take some breaths but that just made him more upset. So I just stood by him and he eventually calmed down but it took a long time.
My “20 minutes on the treadmill” had turned into a half-hour fiasco.
Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums
I look back at this incident now and I see–this is what it means to be a toddler. He was trying so hard to assert his independence and he is very independent by nature. “I do it myself” is a constant refrain, even now at almost 4 years old.
This is how toddlers learn.
Toddlers are often testing limits, but they do it because they are learning. They are learning new skills, new ideas and how they fit in their world. At times it may seem to us that our toddler’s attitude and tantrums are either: 1) a sign that we are doing something wrong or 2) a sign that something is wrong with them (usually not!). In reality, toddler tantrums are mostly just a sign of big emotions swirling around in a very immature brain.
Combine a strive for independence and limited self-regulation, you have a recipe for potential high-stress situations and toddler tantrums. As parents, it’s tough to keep a calm attitude and know how to respond to tantrums.
Well, a recent piece of research should give you a little hope.
This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing through these links provides me a small commission (at no added cost to you).
Research on How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums
Researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center recently published an article showing that parents who can keep their “cool” when their youngsters test their patience have a better chance of their kids not having behavior problems in the future. While this approach for how to respond to tantrums goes against some traditional parenting advice, research clearly shows its benefit.
The primary finding showed that children whose parents have a tendency to overreact and/or are quick to get angry with them are more likely to have more tantrums and negative behavior at age 2. It is important to note that most children increase in their tantrum-type behavior during this toddler period, but this study clearly showed that children whose parents over-reacted increased in this negative behavior more than average.
The good news for parents is that if you can maintain your “cool” while still setting firm boundaries, you are helping your child learn emotion regulation by your example. When a child misbehaves it is tempting to react out of emotion and not think about the consequences. It is a struggle to keep your calm, but if you can keep your composure and discipline the child with less intense negative emotions, the child will slowly learn how to regulate their own emotions as well. So take heart parents, we can learn how to respond to tantrums and survive those toddler years without losing our sanity.
Related reading: Learning to be a More Patient Parent Using a Simple Process
What Do You Say When a Child Has a Tantrum?
Knowing my toddler was not intentionally trying to derail my workout was the first step in keeping a calm mindset. Most of the time, these little ones are not trying to “push your buttons” or make you upset on purpose.
- Knowledge is power: if you understand what is typical for toddler behavior, it makes it easier to take it in stride (at least most of the time). If we know that they act irrationally and have little self-control, that helps us remain in control.
In other words, having age-appropriate expectations for toddlers’ behavior can help tremendously! Take a look at this graphic and think about how differently you would react to your child’s continual lack of self-control (e.g., touching that precious figurine you inherited from your grandma) if you knew she didn’t yet have the capacity for it.
Related reading: Learning How to Have Age-Appropriate Expectations for Your Kids (and why it matters for parenting)
- The “golden rule” still applies to grownups: it may sound simplistic but the old rule of “treat others how you would like to be treated” still applies to toddler-parent interactions (at least to some degree). We are modeling behavior for our kids with every action. If I yell at my toddler (which we all do from time to time), then we are modeling anger and emotional dysregulation. However, if the other 90% of the time, we model compassion, patience, and self-regulation, they will eventually learn this.
- Set boundaries on behavior, not emotions. This one is huge! Toddlers do need boundaries. Positive parenting does not mean permissiveness. If we can separate the emotion from the behavior, this type of boundary-setting becomes much easy.
- For example, if your toddler hits his brother because he took a toy from him, you could say something like, “It looks like you were mad that brother took your toy. It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hit.” Then you could teach him some other ways to handle angry feelings like asking you for help, running outside, deep breaths, or pounding on something safe like a pillow.
- Reading books about how kids can cope with big emotions can help too. Here are some of my favorites that are geared toward toddlers.
Ultimately, we are teaching our kids how to treat us. It takes years of modeling, growth, and maturity, but they will get the hang of it eventually.
In the meantime, hang on for a wild ride, and maybe get that walk on the treadmill while they’re napping.
Looking for more tips on handling tantrums? Grab this helpful download, 5 Ideas to Remember During a Tantrum.
For more help with toddlers, see my bookshelf of books and resources for toddler emotional development.