One recent morning, I watched in complete horror as my toddler had a shrieking fit in the grocery store because I wouldn’t let her push the cart (her driving skills are worse than those of a texting teen). At first, I tried to look nonchalant, deluding myself with “If I pretend I don’t notice, maybe no one else will, either.” But when my daughter continued to flail like a human helicopter, we were forced to proceed from Aisle 4 straight to the car. That night, as I wrestled on her pajamas and she did her trademark Toddler Back Arch, I knew another meltdown was imminent. Each of us were in our beds by 8 p.m.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I was eager (okay, desperate) to unravel the mysteries of toddler tantrums. Why do kids have them? Can you stop one? What’s the worst way to react to a meltdown? Experts offer their best advice so there will be fewer tears—for both of you.
The 5 Stages of a Tantrum
Anger behaviors, such as screaming and throwing things, typically spike in the beginning of the tantrum, says Michael Potegal, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, and James A. Green, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Connecticut. They fitted toddlers with special one-pieces kitted out with built-in microphones and recorded more than 100 tantrums. The loudest outbursts were the equivalent of the incessant horns of rush-hour traffic.
2: Anger and Sadness
A long-held theory about tantrums is that they have two distinct stages: anger, followed by sadness. But when Drs. Green and Potegal analyzed videos of meltdowns, they found that anger and sadness (which is manifested by crying, whining, and whimpering) actually overlap in time. We tend to only notice anger’s fireworks, explains Dr. Potegal. “You don’t always see that in fact the crying and whining start at the beginning, go all the way through the end, and don’t change all that much.”
3: Anger Levels Drop
If you still see signs of anger, don’t try to soothe your child yet. Her fury has to subside first; anger suppresses her ability to be comforted. “When kids are mad and an adult picks them up, they arch their back,” says Dr. Potegal. “The anger drives them, so they reject comfort.” (It’s the same don’t-touch-me reaction as when a spouse tries for a post-fight hug when his partner is still fuming.)
4: Wanting a Cuddle
Once the tsunami has fully passed, kids are ready to accept your help. “They feel bad when they’re so out of control, and they’re needy afterwards,” says Claudia M. Gold, M.D., director of the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, in Massachusetts. Offer a hug and a kiss and a simple, “Well, that was really not much fun.” This acknowledges that it happened, and it was upsetting, but now it’s over. The words themselves don’t matter as much as your reassuring presence, says Dr. Gold.
5: Moving On
Kids switch gears and change emotions much more quickly than adults do. So if you find you’re still twitching an hour later while your tot is happily playing with blocks, don’t worry: That’s perfectly normal behavior. “It comes under the heading of what’s called ‘lability,’ or being adaptable,” says Dr. Potegal.
Tactics That Never Work
“A 2-year-old often doesn’t have the cognitive resources, and the language, to express what he’s feeling,” says Dr. Green. So firing questions at a child when he’s in mid-freak-out (like, “Why did you do that to your sister?” or “What do you want?”) may just prolong that rage and overload his system even further.
Don’t bother explaining to a hysterically crying kid that she can’t peel the banana because Mommy already peeled it. “In the middle of a tantrum, the child is functioning in the limbic centers of the brain, which are run by emotion,” explains Dr. Gold. “The higher cortical centers that are responsible for reasoning are not working properly, so trying to rationalize with a child while she’s having a tantrum is completely impossible.”
Toddlers crave a reaction from their parents, even a bad one. Take away the payoff. Silently count to ten, take deep breaths, and remind yourself that you’re the grown-up. Losing your cool can have long-term effects: Researchers at Oregon State University found that parents who anger easily and overreact are more likely to have toddlers who do the same.
If you tell your screeching child that you’re going to turn off the TV, switch it off. If you warn him that he’ll get a time-out the next time he yells at you, follow through—quietly, quickly, and without emotion. Consistency is key: If your kid knows what is coming when he has a fit, he is less likely to do it.
Children are feeling helpless when they’re having a tantrum, so ignoring them is like abandoning them in their moment of weakness, says Dr. Gold. In a calm voice, say, “Go ahead, I’m going to sit here with you until you’re done.” The idea is to contain your child’s anger, not make it go away.
Tantrum types, decoded
Meltdowns are divided into these distinct categories, behavior experts agree. Which is your child’s tantrum of choice these days?
This insistent demand for intangibles, often food and treats, usually occurs in the kitchen or at the grocery store. This makes sense to Dr. Gold, author of Keeping Your Child in Mind. Kids are bombarded with visual stimulation in a supermarket, she says, and Mom’s attention is diverted by shopping (and, frequently, running into people she knows). “It actually can be sort of a stressful place for a kid, and if you think of a child having a tantrum as being ‘stressed,’ rather than ‘difficult,’ that can help you to be more empathic,” Dr. Gold explains.
tantrum-stopper At home, stow objects that bring on a beg-fest out of sight. Before embarking on shopping or other excursions, make sure your child is well rested and well fed; take an interactive toy or a book with you, and have him participate by helping him pick out a few things. Meltdowns often start when a child is denied a treat, so try this strategy from Alan Greene, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine (and father of four): Bring paper and a pen, and when your toddler asks for something, say “Let’s write that down.” Make a list, and at the end of the trip, read back some of the healthier choices, and let your child pick one or two things. List-making will distract him, make him feel included, and promises a reward at the finish line.
Mom’s preoccupied—time to unleash the beast! The best example: Your kid is doing fine by herself, but then you get on the phone, and suddenly she has to have your attention.
tantrum-stopper Advance warning is key. Try, “Mommy has to talk on the phone now. Play quietly in your room, and then we’ll color together.” Try stashing away toys which only come out during phone calls. And if it’s a serious call that involves, say, banking information, you might park her in front of a video for a little while. In general, young kids are easily diverted. Tantrums can sometimes be cut short with early commands that are brief and easy to follow, which quickly grab a toddler’s interest. “The more specific, the better,” says Dr. Potegal, “like, ‘Don’t hit the dog.’” Or distract with short, specific invitations—“Let’s color” rather than a vague “Be good.” A quick change of location can also be effective (“Time to water the flowers!”).
The power struggle
Refusing to get into bed or to leave the playground is your child’s way of asserting herself.
tantrum-stopper It’s tempting to cave, especially at the end of the day. Don’t. When you give in, this teaches your child that tantrums get results. In these instances, your child wants control, so give a little ground by offering choices within the limits you have set. For example, you can ask, “What would you like to do first, brush your hair or brush your teeth?” And toddlers don’t like surprises, so defuse a potential eruption by giving a child plenty of advance notice before you leave the park or a friend’s house. Toddlers are comforted by knowing exactly what’s going to come next, so saying “You can ride your scooter two more times around the park, and then we have to go home” gives them a sense of control. Avoid promises like, “You can ride your scooter for five minutes.” Since most toddlers can’t tell time, they’ll feel ambushed when their time is up.
Dr. Potegal has also devised a simple solution, which he says works after only two or three tries. Explain to your child ahead of time that if she doesn’t do what you ask—say, put on her pajamas—you’re going to count to three, and if she still doesn’t comply, you’ll put your hands on her hands and guide her through the task. Then do it. “She’ll hate this approach, because it’s a challenge to her autonomy,” he says. “But then she’ll comply.”
Tantrums Are Universal!
When Australian toddlers lose it, they spit the dummy (their word for pacifiers) or throw their toys out of the cot. French children have a crise de colère (a “crisis of anger”). The British use the evocative term throwing a wobbly. And the Spanish have multiple names, among them pataleo, which translates to “kicking legs” and rabieta, which originates from the word … rabies. (Hey, it is sort of apt.)
How Other Moms Handle Freakouts
“My boy likes to help, so if I see a meltdown coming, I quickly grab one of his stuffed animals and the toy starts throwing a ‘tantrum.’ My son knows it needs help calming down, so he will count to 11 with the toy and take deep breaths until the animal feels better. Engaging in his tantrum, instead of reacting after, helps!”
“I record my kids during a tantrum, and show them the video later so they see how they look. Now my kids talk about what’s going on, without the crying and hitting.”
“Whenever my daughters and I were out and another kid had a tantrum, I’d pull my girls aside and whisper, ‘That child is not behaving. I’m glad you don’t do that.’ They loved feeling superior and I think it cut down on the tantrums.”
Cranford, New Jersey
“We made what we call a ‘calming jar’—a plastic bottle with a lid, filled with 1 tablespoon of clear glue to each cup of hot water in the jar, as well as glitter and food coloring. When my daughter’s really worked up, she gets to shake the jar to mix up all the glitter, then sets it down and watches until all the glitter settles to the bottom and she has found her happy self.”