All too often, parents of toddlers know how quickly a leisurely trip to the grocery store can end with a full-blown temper tantrum. Just like that, your three-year-old goes from adorable to atrocious: arms flailing, lungs belting, tears streaming and whimpering between ear-piercing wails.
If the situation above sounds familiar, take comfort in the fact that you're not alone; in fact, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics estimated that a whopping 87 percent of children aged 18-24 months throw temper tantrums. Meltdowns can happen anytime, anywhere and for any reason at all. While most tantrums are short-lived—the average time is between two and five minutes—every second can feel like torture.
In addition to being a nuisance in the moment, tantrums offer greater risks down the line. The more a child turns to tantrums, the more he thinks it's okay to scream and react violently when situations don't go his way. From there, it seems fine to disrespect to you and others, which sets a precedent for future disobedience. But is it possible to avoid such behavior? Though it's not always doable, you can learn strategies to prevent and cope with the hysterical tot in the cereal aisle, and ultimately turn the tables on tantrums.
- Lead by example. Since outbursts are often a learned practice, don't give your child the opportunity to witness you or anyone close to him exhibiting tantrum-like behavior. Avoid raising your voice and screaming when angry, and never use violence of any kind as a way to resolve problems. Instead, narrate instances in which you resolve a conflict peacefully (i.e. "See how Mommy speaks calmly when she's upset about a mess?").
- Nix fiery friends. If your little one's tantrum-prone after seeing a particular pal, perhaps it's time to schedule playdates with a new group. When he witnesses meltdowns somewhere you can't control—at school or daycare, for example—do your best to explain that the behavior the other kids are exhibiting is unacceptable, and let him know that he'll be punished if he mimics their naughty behavior.
- Listen up. When your kid's on the verge of a conniption fit, pause and figure out what's setting him off. Toddlers often turn to tantrums because they're haven't yet learned to vocalize needs, or deal with situations beyond their control and emotional maturity level. If you sense frustration, tell your tot that you understand he's upset that there's only vanilla ice cream left. Sometimes all it takes is this simple acknowledgement to deflate an impending meltdown.
- Anticipate flare-ups. The self-centered nature of toddlers, combined with the comfort that comes hand-in-hand strict schedules, means every minor setback can feel like the end of the world. If possible, prep your little one for any breaks from routine (i.e. "You're driving with Daddy to preschool tomorrow because Mommy has a meeting,") rather than springing changes on him without warning.
- Offer options. If the tantrum continues, give your kid a constructive way out by providing him with options: say, "You know we can't buy the cereal you'd like, but I'd like you to choose between carrots or apples for snack." Offering a small number of options offers an immediate distraction from the meltdown and helps him regain a feeling of control over his environment.
- Don't fuel bad behavior. Never reward bad behavior with attention. If a tantrum turns nasty or violent, ignore your toddler as he screams uncontrollably, hits and kicks the floor. To reinforce the concept, let others close to you know that this is the approach you're taking, regardless of how awkward it is to disregard ear-shrieking cries and screams. If this doesn't work, send your child to a time-out spot, where he'll be alone without any spectators around to add fuel to the tantrum fire.
- Talk it through: Once your toddler calms down (and yes, it will happen eventually) you can begin to interact with him normally. Explain that his behavior was unacceptable, and explain that there are better ways of venting his frustration. Teach him breathing techniques, as well as the vocabulary he needs to communicate his feelings; words such as angry, hurt and frustrated.
When dealing with a meltdown in the moment, it may seem like you'll never escape the screaming hysterics and flailing limbs. Instead of admitting defeat, however, remember that tantrums are slayable monsters. With persistence and practice of the strategies above, you can be confident that you've found the key to turning the tables on tantrums!