How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums: Keeping Your Cool, Even When They Don’t

Written by Lee Orlian
Interior designer & co-founder of Teepee Joy.

The sweet little baby who used to babble and crawl all over your house is now face down on the dining room floor, screaming and pounding her fists. If you’re like most parents, you are probably watching this scene unfold and wondering “How exactly did we get here?”

Learning how to deal with toddler tantrums is a crash course every parent has to go through, whether we want to or not.

It really can seem like children lose their minds on occasion. Tantrums come whipping around the corner out of nowhere, and seemingly triggered by nothing. Kids go through phases with tantrums; some phases being noticeably worse than others.

One of the reasons I really dislike the term “the terrible twos” is because it seems to indicate that children do not start throwing tantrums until they turn two (false, they start much earlier), or that children will have completely grown out of throwing fits by their third birthday (anyone raising a three-year-old is probably laughing as they read this.)

As parents, we are dealing with the developing brains of our kids, and that development doesn’t always go smoothly. As soon as children figure out that they have the ability to make choices, they will begin making them.

As soon as children realize that they have opinions on certain topics (usually the food you are trying to put in front of them, or the activity you are trying to participate in) they will voice those opinions loudly and often.

But a tantrum goes beyond your run-of-the-mill toddler sass. If you have ever witnessed toddlers screaming tantrums, there’s a good chance that these events unnerved you.

They completely lose control of their emotions for a few minutes, and are reduced to frustrated, sobbing, red-faced testaments to all of the unfairness in the world.

And if the toddler freaking out three aisles over in the grocery store made enough of an impression on you that you brought it up later that night at dinner, imagine what the parents of toddlers are going through several times a day, every day.

Tantrums happen despite their best efforts, despite pleading, despite discipline, and despite outright bribery.

Tantrums are developmentally appropriate behavior for young children, but that still doesn’t mean you have to like them. If you have a child who is prone to tantrums, the good news is that you are going to get really good at damage control.

You just have to keep a few strategies in mind…

Ignore the Tantrum

This is the advice most frequently given out to tired looking parents trying to wrestle a wriggling, uncooperative toddler into a car seat.

It is also the advice that seems the least helpful, because tantrums are custom designed to be attention grabbing. They are loud, dramatic and flashy. People can notice a tantrum happening from clear across the playground. “Ignoring” it doesn’t seem possible.

So perhaps a better way of putting this strategy is to say “don’t play into it.”

One of the mistakes we all make his parents is feeling like we are somehow responsible for stopping a tantrum. I know I often felt that way, especially with my oldest daughter who was especially prone to tantrums. But the reality is, I didn’t start her tantrum, and therefore I can’t really stop it.

Can I cut it short? Yes. A little. Can I settle her down once she’s snapped out of it? Yes. But a tantrum, just like a toddler, is a force of nature. Whenever I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in her tantrum, it never solved anything.

The best thing I could do, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed, was leave the room. I would make sure she was safe first, but I would walk away. This was for my own good, and for her’s. The tantrum has to run its course.

You’re allowed to leave the room too.

Get to Know Their Triggers

Certain situations seem custom-designed to trigger tantrums in children. For instance, the cereal aisle in a grocery store; I don’t know what it is exactly, but something about that one aisle appears to be weaponized.

Toddler bed time tantrums are also very common. The opposing forces of sleepiness and willfulness collide, leaving your child frustrated, sleepy, but also angry about the fact that he or she is sleepy.

Not every tantrum has a logical origin – in fact, there is very little logic involved at all. However, you know your child. You know what situations are likely to set them off. If you can avoid them, perhaps it is best to do so. Otherwise, try to prepare your child ahead of time for the situation is much as you can. It may help lessen things.

Most of all, have an exit strategy. If you sense that you are in a situation that is going to trigger a tantrum, you are allowed to abandon ship as it were. There is nothing to be gained by putting your child, and yourself through a stressful situation that isn’t strictly necessary.

Distract and Redirect

Sometimes, toddlers begin melting down because they are unable to stop focusing on whatever it is that’s upsetting or frustrating them. In these cases, you can actually distract or redirect your child’s attention, and avert disaster.

The distraction could be as simple as moving to a different room, getting a little fresh air outside, or offering a favorite toy. If their mind can successfully change gears from something unpleasant (the tantrum) to something pleasant (a new and exciting activity) you just might avoid the tantrum altogether.

Some kids also tend to get “stuck” in their tantrums. I know I definitely experienced this from time to time with both of my girls. You can tell that they have totally forgotten about whatever was originally upsetting them, and at this point, they are simply crying out of sheer momentum.

In these situations, a distraction can really shine. If you can offer them something new to focus on, they can snap out of the crying jags, and begin to move on.

See to Their Physical Needs

As adults, we all understand that our moods and tempers are very much at the mercy of our physical comfort. If you have ever used the term “hangry,” you know exactly what I mean. So try to keep this in mind while you puzzle out what is making your toddler threw themselves into a tantrum.

I learned early on that regardless of what time it is, and regardless of how recently they ate, it would be foolish of me to ever leave the house without a few emergency snacks and drinks on hand for the girls.

Their little tummies fill up and empty out quickly, and you never know when a hunger pang is going to be too much for a child to tolerate. Some tantrums really do originate simply because child is feeling hungry or thirsty, but can’t articulate those needs to you.

The weather and temperature can trigger tantrums as well. If you have ever ended up in a crowded building without air-conditioning, you could probably hear crying coming from every corner of that space.

Children can overheat very quickly, and likewise, they can also feel the sting of a chilly autumn wind more severely than we can as adults.

So do a quick scan of all the basics: food, drink, temperature, bathroom needs, and sleep needs. If one of these appears to be lacking, address it as soon as you can to avoid a full-scale emotional meltdown.

Get Them Outta There

Have you noticed that it’s difficult to move your child once a tantrum has begun? I sure have.

Whether it’s because they are arching their backs, throwing themselves to the ground, running away from you, or even hiding, the bottom line is if a tantrum starts, you typicaly have to deal with it in that space.

If you are in an area where you would really rather not deal with a tantrum (Okay, that was a bit of a loaded statement. You’d rather not deal with a tantrum at all, anywhere.) try to move the child to a better location before the tantrum gets into full swing.

Now sometimes, these changes in behavior can happen on a dime. But other times, you have a minute or two of warning. Think of it in terms of a geologic event: the little tremors you are feeling are your two-minute warning before the massive volcanic eruption. You have time to get out now, so do it.

Toddler tantrums in public are fraught with peril, so if you can get your child safely into the car seat, into their stroller, or back into the house, you don’t have to worry as much about them hurting themselves during their tantrum – something that can definitely happen on occasion.

Give Them Space

I know this is hard to believe given the way children will cling to you and get underfoot all day, but occasionally, they do need time away from you. Tantrums are a huge emotional release, and sometimes kids can work through those emotions more fully by themselves.

Tantrums aren’t pleasant for kids, but they are necessary. In many instances, they just want to get through them. Having a parent around constantly prodding at them, or trying to help them feel better can occasionally have the opposite effect.

A kids’ teepee is often a good place to let a child work through their tantrum, but any room that you’ve deemed safe would also be appropriate. Make sure they can’t hurt themselves on any furniture and make sure you are well within earshot but don’t be afraid to give them a little time to work it out on their own.

Some kids just do better this way.

Reassure Them That You’re There, No Matter What

A tantrum happens when a child cannot handle the emotions they are feeling. It is a huge “letting go” for them, and it leaves them very vulnerable. Some kids just need to know that even though they are falling apart, you are not.

Speak to your child in a calm and even tone, and remind them that you are here to help them. Let them see that no matter how bad the tantrum is, and no matter how dramatic things may look, that you still love them, and nothing will change that.

Do you have friends or family (or babysitters) who are dealing with toddler tantrums right now? If you found any of these strategies helpful, please consider sharing this post on social media. Let’s spread the word, and let other parents know that there is more than one way to get through your child’s toddlerhood.