How to Tame Toddler Tantrums

"Skittles!" was the last word Suzanne Harris recalled hearing before she found herself, along with 12 other unsuspecting patrons at a local video store, staring in horror at her daughter. Perched on the lower shelf of the snack display and screaming in a pitch that could shatter glass, 4-year-old Avery was launching candy bars across the store, marginally avoiding an innocent elderly man's forehead with a loaded Snickers bar. "Apparently, 'no' wasn't the word she expected to hear," says Harris. "I was so mortified, all I could do was place my videos on the counter, collect Avery and run for the door."

Many of us recall falling witness to these episodes before having children of our own, silently declaring, "My child will never behave like that in public!" Eventually, we entered the land of Never-Say-Never ourselves, and in due course most of us found that, despite the most delightful of demeanors, nearly all of these little creatures are capable of outbursts that can leave strangers speechless and parents fleeing for the nearest exit.

And of course, Murphy's Law governs that the worst of your child's tantrums will take place in the company of your mother-in-law, who insists he's under-disciplined, in a crowded restaurant, or in a playgroup where everyone else's children seem to be wearing angel's wings.

What exactly is behind the infamous temper tantrum? Is it an insatiable need to triumph in a parent-child power struggle, or does it represent an inability to communicate feelings and lack of understanding of the rules?

Lesia Oesterreich, M.S., Family Life Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University says, "Toddlers throw tantrums for many reasons - some big, some small. A square block won't fit in a round hole. Shoes feel funny, and socks don't seem to come off right. And to make matters worse, you won't let them climb on top of the kitchen table." In short, she offers, "Toddlers have tantrums because they get frustrated very easily."

How Can Tantrums Be Prevented?

Dr. Warren Umansky, Child Development Specialist, published author, and internationally renowned speaker, has been counseling parents and children for over 25 years. "The best advice I can give any parent is to begin to teach your children appropriate behaviors as early as possible, before negative influences alter good behavior patterns," offers Dr. Umansky. "An important task of parenthood is to catch your children doing the right things and praising them for those."

He offers the following strategies on how to avoid, and deal with, temper tantrums:


  • Prepare Your Child. Give five and one minute warnings for coming indoors, sitting down to eat, getting ready for bed, etc.

  • Explain Expectations to your child for an out-of-the-home activity (e.g., going shopping, attending a friend's birthday party, going to grandma's house, etc.).

  • Offer Incentives. This may include such things as sugarless gum after traveling through the supermarket, or stopping for ice cream on the way home. Don't worry that the child will always expect some tangible reward. Rewards are useful motivators for children who don't understand why they can't pull out the bottom can in a food display!

  • Recognize, Acknowledge, and Praise. (But don't overdo it.)

  • Ignore, as long as the child is not hurting herself or damaging property. Most tantrums will cease if the child receives no attention at all. Tantrums are the child's way of testing the limits of her environment, and it can be a healthy lesson if she realizes it is not effective.

  • Talk. When the tantrum ends, talk with your child about better ways to act and express feelings. But be brief and don't sermonize.

  • Remove. If your child has a tantrum in a public setting, take your child to an isolated spot and say, "We'll stay here until you calm down and are ready to follow the rules." Again, follow up with a brief discussion of better ways to express feelings.

  • Get Control over tantrums at home first and practice your sound strategies before taking a child who has severe tantrums into public settings.

Dr. Umansky advises, "You should see dramatic changes in behavior in as little as one week after using these approaches consistently. Should they persist, it is wise to talk with your pediatrician."

Valerie Sweet, mother of two, swears that purchasing an inexpensive portable audio cassette player with headphones for her 3 1/2 year-old daughter, Grace, did the trick for her. "We bought it along with several children's music and storybook tapes and reserved it for errands only. She kept the headphones on and listened to her music in every store and actually looked forward to shopping with me."

Katherine Hutt Puschel, communications consultant and mother to Billy, 9 and Katie, 5, would join her children in their efforts by getting down on the floor with them and creating a tantrum of her own. "The sight of Mommy flailing around was almost always enough to get them giggling. Soon we'd both be hysterical with laughter." She empathetically adds, "Of course, big hugs of reconciliation end each session so they understand we are not making fun of them. My daughter knows the routine so well that she will sometimes ask for 'help getting my control back.'"

Regardless of your own tried-and-true strategies for taming your toddler's tantrums, most parents can rest assured that these pint-sized explosions are a temporary and very normal part of growing up. With a little ingenuity, patience, and above all, respect for our children, most of us will get through this phase and our toddlers will emerge with a clear understanding of what's expected of them.

Related Reading: 

Help kids blow away anger