Toddler Tantrums. One of the things almost all parents dread. The screaming, kicking, throwing themselves on the floor. We’ve all experienced it (and often at the most inopportune times).
But how can you stop it in its tracks without totally losing your crap?! Through trial and error, I’ve figured out how to stop toddler tantrums in under 5 minutes (at least for my toddlers) without yelling, spanking, or sending them to their room! And as a bonus: this trick will likely work far past the toddler years.
I Learned How To Stop Toddler Tantrums (and you can too!)
For us, the “terrible” twos started several months before our sweet babe was two. It was more like one and one quarter. In fact I have one of his earliest toddler tantrums on video, forever immortalized on Facebook.
Perhaps that wasn’t one of my finest parenting decisions, but that’s neither here nor there.
The point is, sometime between the age of one and two, our precious, sweet little angel babies turn into something more resembling that kid from The Exorcist, and we start wondering where to get some holy water….
Ok, ok. That’s taking it a bit far, I know. (Wow, I’m just in a sassy mood today, huh?) But seriously, those toddler tantrums can really throw us for a loop.
And if we’re not careful they can leave us showing our ugly side to our precious, sweet kiddos (cause, come on, they are still precious and sweet, even if they’re struggling to manage their emotions).
It really kicked into overdrive for us when our oldest was around two and a half. He had gotten completely fixated on one show in particular and it started becoming a major problem for us.
He would want to watch it from the moment he got out of bed until he went to bed again at night. If we told him it wasn’t time to watch TV or that we were going to watch something else or that it was time to turn it off, it was like WWIII in our house.
Instantly the massive meltdown would start. He would scream and cry and throw things and throw himself on the floor. He would hit us, yell at us, try to beg and plead and bargain.
There was no reasoning with this little sweetheart. It was all out war that would last for 30 minutes or more, even sometimes pushing towards an hour.
For months this went on. We didn’t want to punish him for not having the skills to manage his emotions, but boy were we running low on patience!
Then one day I tried something different. I scooped him up in my arms and just sat with him on my lap on the couch. I didn’t try to explain or distract or make it stop. I just was there for him.
And to my surprise, he was able to calm down and move on to the next activity within about 15 minutes. And each day after that took less and less time, until he was finally able to turn off that show with no problems at all!
Now I’m not promising this method will work for all kids all the time. And I’m not promising that it will work in under 5 minutes every time.
But what I do know is that, after implementing this method every day and every tantrum for many weeks, my son’s tantrums are fewer, farther between, and much shorter in duration and less intense.
After much practice, we can usually calm his toddler tantrums in under 5 minutes. (A different variation works just as well for my younger son too!)
Step 1 – Stop what you’re doing
This may seem like the most obvious thing to us, but it’s often the hardest. Having to stop what we’re doing in order to manage a meltdown is one of the biggest triggers for many parents (I know it is for me)!
I don’t know about you, but when I have to interrupt what I’m doing to deal with what seems to me like an overly dramatic outburst, I tend to get pretty annoyed.
But the important thing to remember here is that our kids aren’t giving us a hard time, they’re having a hard time. In all reality, they aren’t trying to be dramatic or to interrupt you or create a scene.
They just don’t know how to process and manage the feelings they’re feeling and they need our help.
When I keep this in mind, I find it a lot easier to take a break from whatever I’m doing to help them.
It also helps to know that when I pause for a moment to effectively manage the upset, I’m usually able to get back to my task a lot quicker and easier (and with a lot less frustration) than when I’m just shouting or managing from afar.
Step 2 – Go to your child
A lot of us (myself included) often feel irritated when we call for our kids to come to us and they don’t. Right? We expect them to just obey because we said so. But that doesn’t really help anyone and it doesn’t solve the problem.
Usually what happens, at least in my house, is I tell them to come to me, they don’t, I get angry and perhaps yell or get cranky with them, they get more upset, and it’s just a vicious cycle.
I’ve found that when I take the time and energy to instead go to them, to meet them where they are rather than waiting impatiently for them to come to me, things go a lot smoother.
A lot of the time, I think the reason they don’t come when we call is because they aren’t sure what will happen if they do. This may be particularly true in homes where punishments have been the norm in the past.
But that’s ok! That’s why this step is important. Just making the effort to go to them instead of asking them to take one more step when they’re already struggling emotionally can make a world of difference.
Step 3 – Get physical
I don’t mean spank them or drag them to their room or to time out. The goal with positive parenting is to eliminate punishments and replace them with empathy and support.
No, instead I mean that this is the time to pick them up, put them on your lap, hug them, snuggle them, tell them it’s ok to be upset and that you’re there for them.
Let’s do a quick thought exercise. Think of all the things we sometimes say to kids when they’re upset…
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“Oh, knock it off, you’re fine.”
“You’re acting like a baby!”
“Quit your whining already!!!”
Or how about what we do when they’re upset…
Put them in time-out.
Send them to their room alone.
Smack their mouth.
Have you been guilty of any of these things before? I know I have!
Now imagine you’ve come home from a horrible day at work. Someone said something to you that was really hurtful and you’re having a hard time getting past it.
You tell your partner about it and his first response is, “Wow, you’re such a baby! Why don’t you just quit whining about it already?”
Then when you understandably are hurt by that comment and begin crying, he tells you to go to your room and sit there until you’re ready to act like a big girl.
Of course you would probably not tolerate that kind of treatment from another adult, especially someone who is supposed to love and support you, right?
And yet this is what we do to our kids all the time!
But when we take time to connect with them physically through a hug or rubbing their back or even just sitting near them, we tell them without words that they matter to us and we are here for them no matter what.
Step 4 – Move to a distraction free location
One of my favorite positive parenting mentors says that toddler tantrums are kind of like pooping. Everyone does it, it’s a healthy way to get the yucky stuff out, and it’s usually best done in private.
The thing is, kids don’t want to have an audience while they work on their emotions anymore than we do. Have you ever noticed that a lot of people prefer to cry in private, without anyone seeing them?
We go to our room or cry in the shower or we quickly dry our eyes so no one notices. We don’t like being emotionally vulnerable in front of other people.
And our kids are no different.
So, whenever possible, bring your child to a quiet, dimly lit space away from the eyes of other people.
Most of the time my sons throw their biggest toddler tantrums at home. My oldest son is usually ok with just sitting with me on the couch when it’s just us and his brother home (or even if Dad is home).
But little brother, more often than not, needs to go to a room away from the busyness of everything.
Usually we go to his bedroom and sit together on his bed while we listen to a Moshi Moment, a 5 or 6 minute meditation designed for kids to help them learn to focus on their breath and calm their bodies when they are upset.
(Moshi Moments are just one part of the amazing Moshi app meant to bring the practice of mindfulness and meditation into a format that kids understand and enjoy.
We’ve really learned to love it over the past couple of months! It includes sleep stories, music, sounds, and meditations. I highly recommend checking it out!)
When we’re out in public, we try to go somewhere a little more private. Perhaps to a bathroom or even to our car if we can. But even if that’s not possible, we try to find a quiet corner away from a lot of people where we can take a deep breath, refocus, and work through the feelings together.
Step 5 – Don’t try to fix it
One of my biggest mistakes early on was always trying to make it better. I was constantly trying to distract my toddler or get him to tell me why he was upset and what I could do to make him feel better.
I wanted to fix the problem. But I’ve learned that he doesn’t always need me to fix the problem. Sometimes he just needs to feel heard and understood. Sometimes he just needs me to be there in the problem with him rather than trying to fix it.
Now I’ve made it a habit to avoid trying to explain or reason or figure out a solution. Instead, when he is crying on my lap and says he wants something he can’t have, or that little brother hurt him, or whatever the issue is, I simply say, “I know baby, I’m sorry. I love you.” And I hug him a little tighter.
Once things are calm, correction can happen if needed. But in the middle of the upset when emotions are raw (even if those emotions seem totally silly to your grown up brain), the only thing your little love needs is for you to be there for them and to know that you care.
Step 6 – Stay as long as they need you to
I admit, I’m not perfect at this. It can sometimes be a huge inconvenience to my day when I have to take long periods of time away from important tasks to manage a tantrum.
But much like I mentioned when discussing going to your child, I’ve found that taking the time to fully work through any emotions your child is feeling the first time greatly minimizes or even eliminates the chances of another meltdown to tend to later in the day.
See, the more we rush our children along to work through their emotions and get on with their day so that we can get on with ours, the more likely it is that they aren’t actually working through their emotions.
Instead, they’re stuffing them down deep inside over and over until eventually they spill out in the most dramatic way (and often at the most inopportune time).
When you take the time to really make sure your child has fully released any pent up feelings, you can rest assured that there won’t be any undealt with emotions bubbling over later on.
It may take longer initially as they work through whatever might be built up already. But once they have gotten everything out, emotional breakdowns will become a lot quicker and easier to work through because they won’t be backed by a bunch of pent up emotions from previous experiences.
Step 7 – Keep correction to a minimum
Once you and your child have worked through the emotions of the moment, there may sometimes need to be some correction.
If someone hit someone else or said something unkind, amends will need to be made. If limits were broken, they will need to be re-established.
It’s important to know that correction is the final step in handling toddler tantrums and meltdowns, and that it’s not even always necessary.
You never need to correct your child for feeling any certain way. Feelings are ok. It’s ok to feel angry or sad or frustrated. The things that sometimes need to be corrected are the ways in which a child acts because of those feelings.
It’s ok to feel angry. It’s not ok to shove your little brother or sister down because you feel angry.
It’s ok to feel sad that someone called you a name you didn’t like. It’s not ok to retaliate by calling them a name they don’t like.
You see where I’m going with this? Correct the actions caused by the feelings, not the feelings themselves.
But we also have to be mindful of how we correct. It’s probably not helpful to say, “Boy, you really screwed up when you said that!”
What might be more helpful is, “Do you think that Emma’s feeling were hurt when you called her a name? What do you think would help her feel better?”
In the first example, the child feels ashamed with no real guidance on what they should do differently the next time.
In the second example, the child gets to think through their actions and the effect they had and then problem solve to come up with a solution all without judgement from an adult.
This gives them the tools needed to work through similar situations in the future without making them feel worse in the present.
The most important things to remember are:
- Correction should come only after a positive connection has been made
- Only inappropriate actions should be corrected, never feelings
- Correction should be kept short, to the point, and non-judgemental or accusatory
- Focus on what should happen in the future rather than what should not happen
If you’re struggling to manage your child’s tantrums and meltdowns, you’re not alone. But if you take the time to connect before you correct and to validate and support your child, you’ll find that they will learn how to regulate their emotions much better and much quicker.
You’ll see fewer toddler tantrums and they will likely be shorter and less intense over time. The most important thing you can do for your child is to provide them with a safe and loving environment to feel all their feelings and to learn how to manage them well. You got this momma!