Tantrums, fussing and whining—these “big three” items often top the list of the most frustrating discipline problems during the early childhood years. In fact, all children master their own version of these behaviors—some are expert whiners, some have kicking and screaming down to an art—and while these misbehaviors appear and disappear at various ages and stages, every parent has to deal with them at some point!

Even though there are times when you want to bang your head against the wall, convinced that your child has it out for you, most often tantrums, fussing and whining are caused by your child’s inability to express or control his emotions. When he’s stressed in any way—be it hunger, tiredness, boredom, or frustration—he’s more likely to lose control. These “sparks” which often instigate whimpers and tears can often be avoided or modified by careful scrutiny. When he begins a meltdown ask yourself—is it past naptime? Is he due for a snack? Is the puzzle too much beyond his ability level? Solve the base problem and you’ll be better able to help your child gain control of his emotions. Be flexible, and use the following tips to help you handle those inevitable bumps in the road along the way.

  • Get eye-to-eye. Avoid temptation to make a request from a distance—if you holler room-to-room, your kid will likely ignore you, if he hears you at all. Instead, walk to him, kneel down to his level, look him in the eye and spell out what you’d like him to do—ensuring his full attention, and eliminating any excuse he has for not cleaning up the toys. Noncompliance—whether intentional or not—creates stress, which leads to fussing and tantrums, so be sure your child understands the task at hand.
  • Avoid focus on what not to do. Kids hear far to many nos, don’ts and stops—and these negative words are often met with defensiveness and resistance. Instead, explain exactly what you’d like your child to do in a positive, specific way, so he has simple instructions to follow. Try saying, “I’d like the two of you to find a fair way to share your toys,” instead of, “Stop bickering over your toys!”
  • Offer the freedom of choice—within limits. Avoid power struggles by giving your child more of a say in his life. Indulge his craving for independence by asking whether your kid would rather put on his coat or bring along a sweatshirt, instead of commanding him to zip his jacket on that moment. That way, your child’s happy he’s involved in decision-making, and you’re in control of his growing need for individual freedom. Win-win!
  • Validate his feelings. Since kids tend to lose their cool because of an inability to express their feelings, give your little one the words he needs to identify and understand his big emotions; “You’re sad. You want to stay here and play. I know.” Acknowledging his feelings doesn’t mean giving into his request, but letting your child know that you’re understanding and sympathetic to his problem may be enough to help calm his woes. Follow the validation with a brief explanation and instructions, “The bus leaves soon, so take one last turn down the slide before we leave.”
  • Teach the “Quiet Bunny”. Physiological symptoms of stress—including muscle tension and rapid breathing—keep kids in an agitated state once they’ve worked themselves up. Teach your child how to relax using the “Quiet Bunny” approach, and then remind him of the technique when fussing begins. Have your child sit or lie comfortably with eyes closed, and tell a story that he’s a quiet bunny. Name different body parts (feet, legs, tummy, etc.) and have your child wiggle it, and then relax it. Once he’s familiar with this process, you can use it during times he’s agitated. Crouch down to your child’s level, put your hands on his shoulders, and look him in the eye and say, “let’s do our Quiet Bunny.” Then, talk him through the relaxation process. Eventually, simply mentioning the exercise will help him slow down and calm the physical symptoms of a meltdown.
  • Distract and involve. Take advantage of your tiny tyke’s short attention span by distracting him during a tantrum. When he begins whining or fussing, look past the tears and try viewing it as an “activity” that he’s engaged in—and offer an alternative. Your kid’s not a good multi-tasker, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to end the conniption fit with the recommendation of something different, like reading a favorite book or going on a walk outside.
  • Invoke his imagination. If your child’s upset about the no-toy rule at Target, it can help to vocalize his fantasy of what he wishes would happen: “I bet you wish we could buy every single toy in this store.” By replacing wheedling with wishes, there’s a good chance that he’ll forget to focus on what he’s not getting, and will work on coming up with a list of dream demands instead.
  • Preventative measures. Tell your child what behavior you expect before leaving the house, beginning a play date or when entering a public building. Be positive and specific, and you have a good chance of preventing outbursts from happening.
  • When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t hold a grudge—after a tantrum, let the episode go and move on. Don’t feel you must teach a lesson by withholding your approval, love or company. Children bounce right back, and it is okay for you to bounce right back, too.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.