Gentle Parenting During Toddler Tantrums

>> Friday, April 30, 2010

This post is written for inclusion in the Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted by Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries. All week, April 26-30, we will be featuring essays about non-punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.

We've all heard it or said it "You need to stop throwing tantrums and be good!”. It's ironic that we put these expectations on our toddlers when even as adults we sometimes have our own little temper tantrums.

I'm a firm believer that when a child can do well he will do well. I believe this applies to children of all ages not just our toddlers.

We bring our babies home from the hospital and they cry. But we (hopefully) realize these cries are their only way to communicate with us. They lack the skills to communicate any other way aside from crying. So we spend countless hours responding to their cries and talking them through their cries “It’s okay baby, your diaper is wet but mommy is going to change it” or “Aww you’re a hungry baby! It’s time to nurse you again”. Gradually our babies start to tell us or show us what they need and the crying becomes less.

We reach toddlerhood with lots of words and the ability to communicate things they want and don’t want (haven’t we all heard “No!” a million times today?) and our expectations suddenly sky-rocket. Our little one wants something in the kitchen or at the store and we say “just a minute” or “I’m sorry, but we aren’t buying that today”. And.Then.We.Wait. For the meltdown to begin. And once it starts, I don’t know about you but I really wish there was a magic way to stop it. I’ve been dealing with the tantrums head-on for awhile now and I’ve been trying to “come to terms” with them if you will.

In my reflections and reading about tantrums, I’ve realized that just because my little guy can talk it doesn’t mean that he has the ability or the skills to express how he is feeling. He is not able to say “Mom, it’s making me very frustrated that I can’t fit this square block into the circle slot.”, so he’s left to throwing a tantrum to express himself.

What can we do to help our children through and to get over throwing tantrums?
  • We can give them the words they are lacking. Just like we did when they were infants “I know it’s frustrating for you when the toys don’t work like you want. Would you like some help?” Recently I’ve been reminding him in a calm voice to use his words. I tell him I don’t understand what you want when you are screaming at me; you have to use your words. Sometimes it works, he’ll stop crying and I can help him find the words he needs.
  • We can lower our expectations. I don’t mean allow them to do whatever they want, but when we expect them to behave as two year olds our expectations will fall so they can actually meet them. They don’t understand when we say “Just a minute” – they have no concept of time so to them that would be like saying “Just wait an hour”. However, if we said “Just as soon as mommy puts these dishes in the sink I can get you juice”, then we might avoid a complete meltdown.
  • We can try to avoid tantrum situations.
  1. How often do we know that the kids are tired or hungry yet we still attempt that quick stop at the store on the way home? Either give the kids a snack before going in or try to run to the store when the kids are better able to handle a stop.
  2. We can give our children notice of changes that will be taking place.
  3. Offer choices when possible.
  4. Try not to use the word no. So often we mean something other than no, such as stop or don’t touch. Sometimes just avoiding the word no will avoid a tantrum or three.
Sometimes no matter what we do there are going to be tantrums. It’s just part of being a toddler (teen or adult). What can we do once a tantrum is underway?
  • Stay calm. I wrote recently, how sometimes I feel like joining him in his tantrum. But raising my voice or getting angry will only end up making the tantrum worse for both of us.
  • Wait it out. Once the tantrum is in full force there is no reasoning or distracting. If we’re home I can offer to sit with him and hold him (sometimes this does work). When I hold him I validate his feelings and try to give him the words. Sometimes he tells me to “Go!” So I walk away a short distance (making sure he is safe) and wait until he calms down a little, then I’ll again offer to sit with him. If we are out somewhere I try to take him someplace private (I’m sure it’s embarrassing for him as well when he can’t control himself & people are looking at him) or we will just leave if we are able.
  • Don’t give in. If the tantrum is because he wants something now is not the time to give it to him in order to stop the tantrum. He will remember this and use this tool in the future many more times.
As your child gains the skills to handle themselves and their emotions let them know they’ve done well “Great job for not throwing the toys when they didn’t work the way you wanted” or “Good job using your words, I can help you so much better when you tell me what you need”. They will realize this is good and appropriate behaviour and they will want (and be able if other stressors are favourable) to repeat it again next time. I don’t believe we need to praise them every single time they don’t have a tantrum, but the first couple times they handle themselves appropriately I think it’s ok to let them know they have done well.

I know as a parent of a toddler (and two pre-teens) it’s not always easy to keep your cool and remain patient. We’re human. I know I fail more times than I care to count. It’s important not to beat yourself up when you make a parenting mistake (perceived or otherwise). Start now when your kids are little of making it a priority to apologize when you’ve made a mistake (this teaches them it’s okay to admit when you are wrong and that even parents make mistakes). At the end of the day during nightly kisses or our last nursing session many times I’ve told my kids I’m sorry for losing my patience today, that I love them, and tomorrow I will do better. That’s the best any of us can do especially when we are dealing with multiple meltdowns a day.

More resources on dealing with tantrums:
Cry for Connection: A Fresh Approach to Tantrums
Abrupt, by Annie from PhD in Parenting
The No-Cry Discipline Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley
When Toddlers say No! - It's a good sign

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline

Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.

Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!
Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.

Day 1 - What Is Gentle Discipline
Day 2 - False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)
Day 3 - Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)
Day 4 - Creating a "Yes" Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)
Day 5 - Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)

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