Crying, kicking, punching, biting—they’re not called the “terrible twos” for nothing. Toddler temper tantrums can be maddening for parents and caregivers, especially if they happen multiple times a day, or without seemingly any rhyme or reason.
You can start by taking comfort in the fact that tantrums are basically a developmental milestone. They’re common during the second or third year of life, when toddlers start to feel a sense of individuality and independence combined with when their language skills start to develop. At this time they don’t really understand how to control their emotions, says Preeti Parikh, MD, HealthiNation’s chief medical editor and a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “They could be happy one second and have a complete meltdown the next.”
That said, there are definitely things you can do to minimize tantrums in the first place and nip them in the bud when they do happen.
Constructive Ways to React to Your Child’s Emotions
If you’re at home or in a safe place, just ignore the tantrum. It may be hard to do at first, but you have to let them know that if they kick and scream, they are not going to get their way, says pediatrician Dyan Hes, MD, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City.
If you’re in public, distract, distract, distract. If your kid throws a tantrum at the grocery store or in line at the bank, try to divert their attention to anything other than what they were tantruming about. Place them in a new environment, or replace the “forbidden” item that they wanted with a different one.
If they’re doing something good, praise them. Who doesn’t love some positive reinforcement? Get in the habit of rewarding your child with attention or praise when they’re being good. “They see that as, ‘Oh wow, I get attention for that?!’” says Dr. Parikh.
The Biggest Tantrum Mistake Parents Make
Don’t try to reason with them—it won’t work. “They’re toddlers, you can’t really rationalize with them,” says Dr. Hes. Also, as challenging as it may be, it’s important to have control over your own emotions as well. “If you start yelling at them, it’s going to escalate it. If you start being loud, it’s going to escalate it,” says Dr. Hes. Just remind yourself that it’s your job to keep your child calm, so you need to remain calm too. Your actions set the example.
“The toddler years can be challenging,” says Dr. Parikh. “Use distractions, use empathy, and know that it’s going to get better.”