Toddlers are amazing little creatures, but they can be oh so difficult to figure out! Toddlers are growing and changing constantly. Many of the changes are welcomed: saying their first word, playing silly games, and developing impressive motor skills like running and jumping. However, some of the changes are less fun, like saying “no” a lot, testing boundaries, or biting you or someone else. Whatever the undesirable act is, this article will help you know how to best handle toddler tantrums. And guess what??? It starts with you!
Main Causes of Poor Behavior in Toddlers
Undesired behaviors occur for so many reasons, mostly because of how quickly toddlers are developing. Their brains are learning so many new things at such an astonishing rate, which lead to undesirable behaviors. Read on for more specific reasons why toddlers might be breaking down.
Also, here’s a quick rundown from Cleveland Clinic about tantrums and their causes. I found it to be a helpful resource.
Difficulty in Communication
Lack of communication is a huge reason why toddlers have breakdowns (and for that matter, adults too). Children are starting to have more preferences and ideas, but sometimes their vocabulary can’t keep up with the change. They may know that they don’t want to go outside right now, but they may not be able to say that. Instead, your child may cry, or hit, or even stomp around because they don’t have the word to tell you that they don’t want to go outside.
Communication is so key to helping your little one navigate their day. (Imagine if all the coffee lovers were unable to ask for coffee…there would be mad chaos!) If you need all my best tips for improving your toddler’s speech and language, check out my post here.
A T T E N T I O N
Your child wants attention. ATTENTION! It’s one of the biggest reasons children act out, get loud, or even do something awesome and then look right at you with a big smile. Kids want your attention. Ideally, they would get your attention in a positive way (cleaning up, saying “thank you”, or being a good friend to someone else). But if that isn’t working, they will try other tactics to get your attention. This might be biting, hitting, yelling, or something more tame but frustrating like whining.
Kids want your attention and they will get it somehow!
Children may act out because they are avoiding something. If you ask them to help clean up, or to eat another bite of broccoli, they might get mad because they don’t want to do that. As children are learning more about what they like and don’t like, they are going to let you know.
Basic Needs Aren’t Met
Sometimes toddlers act out because they are tired or hungry, or both. I feel like that is the most relatable reason to get frustrated. I am definitely next-level cranky if I am tired or hungry! So the same goes for your little person. Make sure they are fed and rested so they can be at their best.
They Want Something
This one is simple. Your child wants something and they can’t have it or can’t get it. Again, I understand this as a grown woman, because sometimes I really want a whole sleeve of Oreos, but I can’t just do that! When your child wants something they can’t have, it’s hard for them to understand the reason. They don’t know that having a big candy bar before supper will make their tummies hurt. They don’t get why they can’t just take a toy from Sonia.
How to Change Your Behavior
Yes, you read that right! The rest of this article is about how you need to change how you interact with your child. It really is wild the difference in tantrums (or lack of tantrums) when the adult takes the time to change their own behavior. (Of course, we are also changing the behavior of the crazy little human thrashing around on the floor, but that change can come because you change first.)
Studies show that one of the best ways to help your child calm down or not get upset in the first place is for you (the mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, caregiver, or whoever you are) to stay calm.
Yikes! I don’t know how you feel when you read that, but it makes me feel instantly guilty. I try so stinking hard to stay calm when my toddler is repeatedly not listening, but it’s so tough. Staying calm is really hard to do when it feels like your toddler is trying to make you mad (they aren’t). It’s also hard to keep your cool if you are in a public place or with judgemental family members, or whatever. Having an audience doesn’t usually help you or your toddler. But alas, keeping a level head will help even in those situations.
The Research on Toddler Behaviors and YOU
In one study by Lorber et al., the authors discuss the idea that toddlers are more likely to have behavioral issues if they have overreactive parents (those who are overly angry or irritated and/or physically aggressive). The study also notes that parents (or primary caregivers) have the greatest effect on a child’s socialization. The experiment they conducted had to do with how a toddler’s behavior changes if a parent reacts too strongly.
They found that parents are more likely to be hard on their own kids. Parents seem to identify behaviors in their own children as negative, even when others would identify them as positive or neutral. We see our own kids as more “naughty” because they are ours. When we focus on the negative behavior in our kids, we start to think that they are being “bad” more often than they really are. Yikes! That seems like a bit of a wake-up call to me! Is my toddler really doing something bad, or am I just over-focused on bad behaviors?
Another study by Gardner et al. showed a correlation between increased positive parenting techniques and decreased toddler disruptive behavior. Parents were given training on positive parenting techniques such as rewards, playful strategies, and praise, and it worked! Just another line of evidence that what you say and do matters!
How to Best Handle Toddler Tantrums:
Catch your child being good.
It’s so easy to point out and notice when your child is doing the wrong thing. But what you really need to do is notice when they are doing the right thing and talk about it with them. Children get tired of being nagged at (don’t we all), so instead of always commenting and calling them out for being “bad”, call them out for being good. When they interact well with a sibling (instead of hitting) say something like, “Wow, you are such a good big brother/sister”. Work to tell them more positive things than negatives. I cannot oversell this one enough.
Stay calm so you don’t accidentally get your toddler more upset. That’s right, when you get upset, it rarely helps your toddler calm down. Rather, you need to model being calm, and they are much more likely to calm down. (So much easier said than done!)
Pick your battles.
Especially when toddlers are little, they don’t even know that they are being “mean” or “bad”. If your child bumps into another kid or even hits them, they don’t necessarily know this is a big deal, unless you make it a big deal. Sometimes completely ignoring it can make it go away faster than if you blow your top off about it! Or sometimes my toddler will say, “Can I kick you mommy?” And if I get really bent out of shape about it, she will likely keep doing it. But if I say, “You can kiss mommy!” or something silly, then we move on and it’s not a big thing.
Distract your child with something else when they are losing their cool. If my husband hears my little one start to get mad, he will sometimes just say, in a really fun voice, “Look what I found!” and she comes running. (The funniest part is he usually doesn’t even have anything to show her, he just makes something up!) She literally runs away from the crying mess she was just so lost in.
Reward them for good behavior.
If you have a really specific goal or behavior in mind for your child, reward them with something small for doing what you asked. It can be big goals like potty training or helping clean up (especially if that’s something they typically have a hard time with). The rewards don’t have to be food or little toys (but they can be), the reward could just be a favorite activity-like blowing bubbles.
Tell them what you want them to do, not just what not to do.
This is my FAVORITE tactic out of all of them. Toddlers hear “no” a lot, like a lot. But if all they are hearing is what they are NOT supposed to do, why not tell them what you want them TO do?? If you want your toddler to stop hitting sister, instead say, “Use your nice hands.” And then you can even proceed to tell your child some positive ways to interact with sister.
Another good example: instead of saying, “Don’t throw the toys!”, you can say, “Look how you can play with this truck” and then show them how fun it is to spin the wheels on the truck, make it drive up the couch, and beep when it goes backward. The key is to make it fun, and not focus on the negative behavior.
Real Life Story:
In the midst of writing this article, where I tell parents to keep calm during tense moments with kids, I lost it with my own little one. I did not like the parent I was as I yelled at my toddler and didn’t show her an ounce of patience or understanding. I DID NOT stay calm! And I felt so awful about it later.
So know that as I write this I am reading it for myself too. I am looking up research articles and noting the positive/negative effects of my own breakdowns on my child. I am far from a perfect parent (and I’m gonna guess you are too), but we are still trying! Right? And that is what matters!
Let me hear about your strategies to keep calm during your child’s meltdown! Comment below.