Time out: tackling toddler tantrums

I used to think it was awful to name that period in a little one’s life as the ‘terrible twos’. Then I had a child, and upon that second birthday, I realised exactly where that phrase came from... somewhere around that day, what was previously an adorable, sweet-natured, gentle and compliant little tot turned into a tornado of anger, tantrums, screaming, unreasonable behaviour and general chaos. They are called the terrible twos for a reason!

Relax, it’s normal!

The good news is that a) your child isn’t a brat, and b) you are not a bad parent. Tantrums are in fact a normal part of child development. A tantrum is actually a young child’s way of expressing their feelings including anger and frustration, hurt or being upset. Crying, screaming, punching, kicking, head butting, throwing themselves on the floor, foot stamping, breath holding and throwing things are all standard in the tantrum repertoire. A tantrum is a reflection of your child’s inability to communicate with you (they have limited words, which is naturally very frustrating for them) and it is their way of expressing their emotions.

Thankfully, as the child learns more effective ways to deal with their emotions and their communication skills improve, tantrums will occur less and less. There are certain tantrum triggers that can make them more likely, such as being tired or hungry, feeling stressed or frustrated and being over stimulated.

As hard as it can be, staying calm is imperative. Remember that throwing a tantrum isn’t being bad or naughty, and children of this age don’t have the cognitive thinking ability to plan tantrums or use them as a manipulative tool. Tantrums are simply a physical expression of the child’s feelings. It is really important therefore for the parent to assist their toddler to come out of a tantrum and regain control of their own feelings until they can do this themselves. The moment the tantrum is finished (and turns into sobbing) is when the child needs the parent to console them and regain their dignity.

As the child develops and learns more about their emotions, the tantrums will become less frequent and the toddler will no longer need adult help to enable them to come out of the tantrum and calm down.

Staying calm? Easier said than done…

Battling a toddler in tantrum mode all day is exhausting, and can sure suck the joy out of motherhood. It’s even harder when you have to do it in public where every Tom, Dick and Harry is staring at you passing judgment on your parenting skills and mentally labeling your child a revolting little brat.

But as every mother knows, sometimes there is simply nothing you can do except wait it out. Especially when it’s the 15th tantrum the child has had before it’s even lunch time. And sometimes, for mummy’s own sanity and to stop her flipping out, ignoring it is the only option.

I know as a mum of two small children, that some days I have the strength to use all my parenting skills and know-how to work through a tantrum, whether it’s using distraction, changing the environment, swapping activities or simply trying to talk through it. But at times (usually towards the end of the day or after a particularly harrowing week) I just have nothing left. And as I know I am likely to have a melt down and yell, I simply wait it out, or ignore it and walk away.

I always find it encouraging to chat to other mums going through the same thing, as some days I feel like my two year old and I battled with each other and butted heads from the moment he woke up to the moment he fell asleep. I am by no means an expert, and it’s important to find things that will work with your child’s nature and personality, but here are a few strategies I have picked up along the way:

Quick tips

When the tantrum hits…

  • quickly change whatever they were doing. Immediately suggest another activity (play dough, painting, cooking something together, reading a story, building a cubby out of sheets…anything!).
  • offer food or a drink. Kids are obsessed with food and will usually forget their anger at the drop of a hat once food is mentioned.
  • be silly! Pulling faces, doing a funny dance or making silly animal noises and pretending I am a cat usually causes my toddler to burst into hysterical laughter. Tantrum forgotten.
  • act like you haven’t noticed the tantrum and in an excited voice suggest the child come and look at something (anything, it can be an ant… or invisible fairies... anything!) or suggest you go outside and see if there are any birdies or trucks or people (again, anything really, it’s just about rerouting them). Ignoring it really works - they are less likely to repeat a particular behaviour if you don’t react.
  • ask if they want a cuddle. Sometimes this enrages my son more, but often it is all he needs to get through whatever he is feeling and he stops the tantrum straight away.

Avoid the tantrums by… 

  • Tiring them out! I have realised that my two year old son is throwing tantrums a lot of the time because he just seems to have all this pent up energy and frustration. He is a ball of testosterone! As such, I have noticed that if we get out to the park in the morning and right at the end of the day before bed time, he has then had two really good sessions of running and playing and is far less grumpy and likely to throw tantrums.
  • Making sure your child is getting enough rest and sleep and has regular meals, drinks and snacks.
  • Being consistent with your parenting – this helps to avoid your toddler feeling confusion or frustration.
  • When going on shopping trips or to the supermarket packing toys (for distraction), food (for distraction and to avoid grumpiness) and try to get them involved with things like choosing products, putting things in the trolley or handing items to you at the checkout. Non-breakable things of course!
  • Never going to the shops around meal times or before sleep times. A hungry or tired child is a nightmare in an over stimulated environment such as a supermarket or mall.

No matter what works for you, or how you handle it, the best thing you can do is remember that this stage will end one day, and they will grow out of it (eventually). It’s different for each child, but before you know it you’ll notice that the excruciating outbursts and cringe worthy incidents in the supermarket are occurring less and less. Let me know if you have any novel suggestions or tried and tested strategies.

A word on time out

Now that my son is two, I have found that using time out as a disciplinary method is really effective (particularly as we don’t believe in smacking). However in my experience time out is only effective for discipline – not for tantrums. The main reason behind this is that tantrums are not ‘naughty’ or disobedient behaviour, they are simply an expression of an emotion.