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Health and Wellness: Toddler tantrum survival guide

By Dr. Matt Allen - Utah Valley Pediatrics | Dec 1, 2021

If you’ve ever felt the eyes of everyone in the grocery store turn to you as your toddler screams uncontrollably in the produce section because you wouldn’t let them take a bite out of a potato, know that you are not alone. In fact, 20% of two-year-olds have a tantrum at least once a day, according to StatPearls. Tantrums are a normal part of development, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

As a pediatrician, I spend a lot of time speaking with parents about tantrums, and as a father of four, I’ve felt the frustration first hand! Here are some tips that have worked for me and my patients over the years:

  • Either give in right away or don’t give in at all
  • Avoid rewarding poor behavior
  • Model good behavior
  • Give lots of positive praise

Following these tips may help you and your toddler have a better experience until, before you know it, tantrums will be a thing of the past.

Either give in right away or don’t give in at all

One key to reducing the frequency and level of tantrums is consistency. Let’s talk about what to do before, and during, a tantrum.

Say you’re at the park, and you’ve told your 3-year-old it’s time to leave, but they ask to go down the slide one more time. They’re currently happy, but you know a tantrum could come if things don’t go their way. You have two choices, and both could be good options here:

  • Say “no” and encourage your child to walk to the car with you
  • Say “yes” right away

What you don’t want to do is say “No” and then change your answer to “Okay, okay! One more time!” after your child starts crying. Be consistent with yourself — for your sake and for theirs! When you are true to your word, your child learns they can count on you and that throwing a tantrum won’t change your mind. As baby sleep expert Cara Dumaplin says, “Make your word as good as gold.”

Avoid rewarding bad behavior

Life with a toddler can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Sometimes you have to give in a little to keep your cool. Just got back from a long road trip and your toddler insists on wearing their Captain America costume to bed? That may just be what’s best for everyone! However, some behaviors should not be tolerated.

“Do not ignore behaviors like hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing,” said Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP. “Have a zero-tolerance policy.”

A zero-tolerance policy will look different from family to family (it could be immediate time-out or confiscation of a favorite toy, for example), but the point, again, is to be consistent. Big feelings are hard for a little person to express, but they have to know that some behaviors are not okay.  Get down to their eye level and use a calm voice as you talk to them. As a parent, you can help your child feel secure within firm boundaries, which helps them learn to express their feelings in more productive ways.

Model good behavior

One of the most wonderful things about toddlers is how much they look up to their parents. But those watchful eyes can be a double-edged sword when you’re having a rough day.

“Before you lash out or blow your top in front of your child, think about this: Is that how you want your child to behave when angry?” suggested the experts at Kids Health. “Be aware that you’re constantly being watched by your kids. … Model the traits you wish to see in your kids: respect, friendliness, honesty, kindness, tolerance.”

Striving to model good behavior can also help you develop some empathy for your little one. Your young toddler, new to the world, is still learning how to respond to the things they can’t control (and when someone cuts us off in traffic, it may be clear that we are, too). When we strive to respond to life’s frustrations with grace, it helps both us and our children become better. 

Give lots of positive praise

“Get in the habit of catching your child being good,” said Lauren M. O’Donnell, PsyD, at Kids Health. “Reward your little one with praise and attention for positive behavior.”

We spend a lot of time telling toddlers “no,” but it’s good for them to hear “yes” and “good job,” too. Watch for opportunities to praise your child for behaviors you’d like to see more of. In my experience, affirming positive behaviors leads to more positive changes over time while focusing on correcting negative behaviors may not lead to long-term changes.

When you’re facing a toddler throwing a tantrum, try following these tips: give in right away or don’t give in at all, avoid rewarding poor behavior, model good behavior and give lots of positive praise. Following these tips has helped me and my patients make it through the toddler stage with all of its challenges and joys. 

Dr. Matt Allen is a pediatrician at Utah Valley Pediatrics, which has nine locations throughout Utah Valley.

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