The Toddler Is Strong...But So Are You
Toddlers are known for their ability to test patience and boundaries through almost any means necessary. The lengths to which they will go can sometimes try even the calmest adult's ability to cope with it. Although traditional tactics of physical punishment and timeouts are often resorted to, their effectiveness is marginal at best, and damaging at worst.
Why are they doing this?
One of the easiest mistakes to make as a parent dealing with tantrums is assuming the child is willfully trying to annoy you. While this can occasionally be the case, it is far more likely that your child has lost control of big emotions. Because it appears that they are just "throwing a fit," parents and other caregivers may get angry or lose control themselves assuming that the child will, and can, stop. In reality, young children often move into a territory of complete loss of control, and when adults join them there, the situation is only made worse. Parents can wrongly assume that their child is able but unwilling to "get it together," when the opposite is far more likely: They want to get it together, but they can't.
What can I do?
So, when your child is in the throes of a tantrum, what should you do?
First, it is important to know what NOT to do. Don't threaten or punish a young child for strong emotions. It won't help in the short run because they will become more upset, and it won't help in the long run because it will not teach them to deal with their emotions.
1. Make sure their basic needs are met: Sometimes, all a kid needs is a nap, or a snack, or a drink of water to become the sweet, loving child you know they are. Even adults can reach a threshold of hunger or fatigue that causes moodiness, so it only stands to reason that a young child would also be sensitive to this struggle. Even if the hunger, thirst, or sleepiness isn't the main cause of a tantrum, it may make it worse. Try meeting these needs first.
2. Stick to a gentle, stable routine and set predictable boundaries: Children do best when they know what to expect. This includes knowing what they can and cannot do. Set routines and boundaries in place that allow for some flexibility when necessary but are generally predictable. This allows a child to understand when they violate the boundaries and also helps them understand what their role is in the family and in the parent/child relationship.
3. Identify triggers: Especially if your child is having consistent difficulty controlling her/his emotions, pay attention to what happens before the tantrum. Maybe they always breakdown around the same time of day or around the same transition or person. Maybe certain foods or activities send them reeling. Pay attention to these circumstances, and be proactive in dealing with them. If you know that your child will break down around 5pm every day (which is very common, even among older children), it may be best to give them something low-key to do during that time and to make sure they have a snack or lovey.
4. Help the child feel in control: Younger children may have difficulty describing how they feel. One way you can help is to give them words to tell you how they are feeling and what they need in order to regain control. Sometimes, they are angry or disappointed, sometimes they are tired or sad. It may be more helpful to describe how the emotion feels physically as a color or a "hot" emotion. Giving them ways to describe it can help them work through it and even feel it coming on. These skills can be helpful throughout life.
5. Be calm, kind, and sensitive: Meeting a tantrum with a tantrum may feel good in the moment, but it rarely helps the situation. Remaining calm and kind in the face of a screaming toddler can help them understand that they are safe and sound. Talk to them about what they are feeling to give them names for their feelings. Tell them and show them how they can deal with big feelings in a positive way. Telling them not to cry or not to feel how they feel can have unintended consequences as they get older, so naming and dealing in the moment teaches them that feelings are good and normal and can be handled.
BUT REMEMBER, there's nothing in your parenting contract that says you have to stand there and take it. If you cannot meet your child with calmness while remaining in the same space, leave them in (or move them to) a safe place and let them get it out of their system. Calmly, put them in their room or otherwise away from you. In all likelihood, they will track you down soon. If you are in public and have the option of leaving (even if only for a few minutes), it is probably worthwhile. A stressful 10 minutes feels much longer in public, and it can get you to your breaking point much more quickly. Sometimes just sitting in the car or lobby for a minute can reset everything.
You're doing great, parents. Kiddos are learning to control their feelings and reactions, and their big feelings can't always be contained. Meeting their tantrum with one of your own or with physical punishment won't teach them how to respond to big feelings, it only teaches them to what not to do. Calm, warm, controlled responses are key.