What to Do (and Not Do) When Your Toddler Has a Tantrum

By Laura Caneira, APRN, and Rebecca Moles, MD

We all know that tantrums are normal behavior for toddlers, but that doesn’t change how upsetting they may feel for everyone in the household. And with everyone’s emotional reserves running a little low during COVID-19, you want to have strategies ready to keep your cool – and, of course, calm your child.

For help with toddler tantrums, Laura Caneira, APRN, and Rebecca Moles, MD, join the blog.

First things first: Set limits. Be consistent. Reward positives.

Toddlers are miniature explorers, acquiring new knowledge about their world and environment, testing limits and acquiring language and socialization skills. But they don’t yet have control over emotional impulses, which means they may react in a variety of emotional ways.

So to prevent tantrums – or at least minimize them – you should set consistent and reasonable limits, and give lots of praise and encouragement for positive behavior. (You can even praise positive behavior mid-tantrum: For example, if your child is still yelling about not wanting to get dressed, but has put an arm through her shirt, praise her for that!)

Ask what your toddler is trying to tell you.

Ask yourself if one of the following reasons could be the cause of the tantrum, and then try the suggested solution.

  • Hungry? Offer your toddler one or two simple, nutritious choices as a snack or during a meal. Do not fixate on amounts or make mealtimes a battle. Hunger is often a trigger for tantrums, so be aware of what time of day your child’s hunger usually peaks, and plan ahead with snacks. 
  • Wet/dirty? Change your toddler’s diaper and any wet clothing. Consider putting off toilet training until after the pandemic subsides
  • Tired? Overtired toddlers may cry and keep themselves awake. Keep naptimes, bedtimes and waking times consistent. Remember the “4 Bs” to maintain a good routine: bathing, brushing teeth, books and bedtime. For help keeping your child’s sleep on track, check out 3 Bedtime Challenges Your Kids Might Be Having Now – and How to Solve Them.
  • Anxious? Separation anxiety affects many toddlers. Maintain a quick, consistent goodbye ritual that includes specific, child-appropriate parameters like, “I will be back after your nap.”
  • Sick? Sometimes toddlers who have a fever or other illness cry more than usual. Consider calling your child’s doctor for advice or to schedule a Video Visit.
  • Bored? Try one of the ideas listed below.

Once you understand why your child is upset, validate his feelings.

Like all children (and adults!), toddlers want others to understand their frustrations.

  • You might say something like, “I can tell you are upset that you can’t have candy right now,” or “I know you love your green shirt and you hate when it is in the laundry,” or “I am so sad and mad too that we can’t go to the park.”
  • Suggest something that you do when a similar situation frustrates you: “When I can’t have candy when I want it, I like to have a piece of fruit instead – want to try that?” or “When my favorite shirt is dirty, I like to wear my PJ shirt until the laundry is done,” or “When I can’t do something I love, I like to look at pictures of other times when I could. Do you want to look at pictures?”

To tame a “boredom” tantrum, try these activities.

Indoors

  • Sing: You don’t have to be a good singer, and it doesn’t have to be a real song. Narrate what you are doing in a sing-song voice. For older toddlers, try counting songs or color songs to describe their environment.
  • Dance: Dance parties to music can be a family affair!
  • Physical activity: Try these indoor activities for heart-healthy kids.
  • Picnic: Make mealtime fun by spreading a tablecloth on the floor and eating picnic-style, or have a pretend picnic for favorite dolls and stuffed animals.
  • Treasure hunt: Hide a few items throughout the house, or make a more elaborate treasure map for bigger toddlers. Enlist the help of older children to create the hunt for younger siblings.
  • Obstacle courses: Use painters tape to create hopscotch or obstacle courses, or try the classic: “The floor is lava!”
  • Video chat: Video chat with grandparents or other loved ones to discuss the day’s activities or read bedtime stories together. Here are 23 more ideas for video chats.
  • Creativity: Any artistic activity is a fun learning experience. Make macaroni necklaces, draw, color or paint. Make a coping toolbox. Try putting food coloring in shaving cream and paint the walls in the bathroom during bath time.

Outdoors

  • Go on a family walk: Change up regular walks, by playing I Spy or go on “bear hunts” – aka, looking for stuffed animals in windows of homes.
  • Explore nature: Get dirty! Talk about the differences in mud and sand, play in puddles, talk about leaves, acorns, grass, worms and birds. Lead your toddler through as many hands-on experiences as possible, then read a book about it at bedtime
  • Sidewalk chalk: Create family portraits, trace hands or bodies, or create and share a #chalk4childrens masterpiece to support Connecticut Children’s team members and all healthcare workers.
  • Obstacle course: Use pool noodles, plastic cones and hula hoops and say “GO”! Rearrange and try again.
  • Bubbles: Dish soap plus water equals hours of fun.
  • Picnic: Take your indoor picnic into the fresh air – with real food, or pretend – and don’t forget to invite your favorite stuffed animal.

For more inspiration, see 16 Creative Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy During Social Distancing.

If nothing is working, put your toddler in a safe place and walk away.

  • You may do all of the above, and find that your toddler is still crying.
  • If you are at risk of losing control – for example, if you are yelling, crying or feeling anger in your mind or body – put your toddler in a safe place, and walk away.
  • A short timeout may be an effective way for everyone to calm down – including you. You can even admit to your child that you’re feeling a little stressed, and that you need a couple minutes. See below for timeout tips.
  • If there is another adult with you, ask that they take a turn with your toddler.
  • If not, it is perfectly acceptable to leave your crying toddler in a safe place for a few moments so that you can calm down.
  • Try taking deep breaths, talking to a friend, eating a snack or stepping outside
  • Never hit, squeeze, punch or slap your toddler.

If you must, here’s how to give a very short timeout:

  • In a calm voice, identify the behavior that you need your child to stop (yelling, stomping), and ask him to stop.
  • If a timeout is necessary, explain that you will wait a few minutes while they calm down, and you look forward to talking once they’re calm. Have your child go to a quiet place – but not their bedroom or a play room.
  • Keep timeouts very short: just one minute for each year of age (i.e. two minutes for a 2-year-old).
  • If your child leaves the timeout area before time is up, calmly have her go back. Ignore any tantrums unless there is danger of harm.
  • After the tantrum is over, move on. Rehashing the details with your child may not be effective: Younger children often cannot remember or understand what you mean, and older children might feel ashamed enough to spark a new tantrum. If you feel a conversation is necessary, wait until after your child has calmed down, and keep your remarks short and positive.

Share these tips with all of your toddler’s caregivers.

  • Many parents have to leave their children with new caregivers during the COVID-19 reality. Make sure that anyone who may care for your child has these tips and understands the dangers of harming a child.
  • If you have concerns about your own child, another child you care for, or the ability of an adult you know to properly care for their child, contact the Connecticut State Department of Children and Families at 1-800-842-2288.

Get help managing your family’s stress during COVID-19 >>

Check out all of our coronavirus resources for families >>

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