Tantrum talk: Addressing toddler outbursts

Dealing with toddler tantrums is no easy feat. Learn steps to help your child work through a tantrum and learn positive ways to express their emotions.

Understanding why your child is throwing a tantrum is the first step to changing their behavior.
Understanding why your child is throwing a tantrum is the first step to changing their behavior.

There’s a reason we refer to the second year of life as the “terrible twos”—the dreaded tantrum. It’s not uncommon for children to experience emotional outbursts that are loud, disruptive and long-lasting. These most often occur at times that are very inconvenient for parents and caregivers. An adult’s reaction to these outbursts is often embarrassment, fear of judgement from other people or sheer frustration and the disruption to our routines. Chances are you’ve both witnessed and experienced situations like this first hand.

Michigan State University Extension has some tips on how to address outbursts and tantrums in toddlers.

Step 1: Identify the problem or stressor

Do some investigating and try to pinpoint what is making your toddler upset. Ask yourself if their basic needs are being met. Are they tired or hungry? Overstimulated or bored? Understanding why your child is throwing a tantrum is the first step to changing their behavior, both in the moment and in the future.

Step 2: Do a self-check in

Are my expectations appropriate? Expecting a 2-year-old to withstand a two-hour trip to the grocery store, skip naptime or deal with big changes to their normal routine may not seem like a big deal to you, but it can be a big deal to young children. Make sure you aren’t creating a situation that is stressing out your child.

Step 3: Make sure they are safe

Once you have identified what is causing your child’s tantrum and have thought about whether or not your expectations for them are appropriate, it’s time to take action. First and foremost, your job is to make sure your child is safe. Make sure your child is in a situation where they cannot harm themselves or others. This may require moving your child into a different room or space until they have calmed down.

Step 4: Help your child express their feelings

Let your child express their feelings; be present and supportive. You could say to your child, “Wow, you are so angry. You are stomping your feet and yelling.” When your child is in the middle of a tantrum, they are not able to think logically, so instead of trying to help them problem-solve, focus on their feelings. As long as a child isn’t hurting themselves or others, it is perfectly OK for them to express their feelings, even if it can get a bit loud or dramatic.

Step 5: Comfort and support your child

Young children want to know you love and support them no matter what. Stay close to your child and reassure them you are there to support them. They may want to sit on your lap or near you, some children might want a gentle touch like pats on the back or snuggles, and some children might prefer to be alone while they deal with these tough emotions, and that’s OK too. Reassure your child you will be there for them when they are ready.

Step 6: Talk about it

Once your child has calmed down, and only after they have calmed down, you should talk about the situation with them. Help them identify what emotions they were feeling, like mad, angry, hurt or frustrated. The younger the child, the simpler the conversation should be. It could be as simple as, “You were so mad that I helped you put your shirt on. You wanted to do it all by yourself. Next time, you can say, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Make sure your child knows that feelings are always OK. It is OK to be mad or sad or frustrated, but this doesn’t mean all behaviors are OK. This is also the time to set things right. If your child hurt someone or broke something during their tantrum, help your child understand why what they did is wrong and help to set it right. They can get an icepack for someone they hurt, offer words or comfort, clean up a mess they made, etc. Remember that when children are out of control, they need support, comfort and guidance, not punishment.

Once the tantrum is complete and your child has calmed down, take a minute to think about what you could have done and what you might do in the future to avoid meltdowns like this one. Should you give a few more warnings before expecting your child to stop playing and come to lunch? Should you pack an activity bag for your next grocery store trip? Maybe you could pay attention to signs of anxiety or worry and comfort your child before they get too worked up.

When children are having tantrums, they are out of control. You have the power to help them learn to express their emotions in constructive and helpful ways and help them manage these tough emotions.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Did you find this article useful?