Toddler tantrums and how to manage them

Girl toddler tantrum

When it comes to dealing with toddler tantrums, rule number one is never give in. Imagine this: child sees sweeties. Child says, “Want it”. Mummy says, “No”. Child screams and hurls himself on the floor. Mummy looks embarrassed and says, “OK then”. By giving in like this, you are letting yourself in for years of misery. Now repeat after us: Never. Give. In.

A child who get his way by tantrumming knows which buttons to press and will keep doing it until you stand up to him. Alternatively, if you are firm with him, he will learn that screaming and tantrumming is a waste of energy and soon stop misbehaving. So tell yourself now that you won't give in to tantrums. Not now, and not in 15 years when he wants to borrow your car to get to college.

Ways of coping with tantrums

Ignoring (and staying calm)

Toddlers like to be the centre of attention and a lot of their bad behaviour is intended to get mummy or daddy's attention. If you make a big fuss about bad behaviour this in itself can be a sufficient reward for an attention-seeking toddler. One common approach to a tantrummy child, therefore, is to ignore him.

Distraction

Another weapon in your anti-tantrum armoury is distraction (best employed in the early stages of a tantrum, before the child is an incoherent hysterical wreck). You might use toys, books or coax him away from whatever has got his goat with gentle conversation – anything to avoid the explosion.

Parents who pander to tantrums are actually the cruel ones. Let your toddler know her tantrums are unacceptable and she'll soon get the message. It took my first daughter two weeks to learn this. After that, no more tantrums.

Praising good behaviour

Some children thrive on negative attention, so naughty behaviour to whip mummy into a frenzy is a reward in itself. If this sounds like your little darling, you could try giving them lots of your time and attention when they're being good and behaving well.

Time out (for older toddlers)

  • As toddlers get older, tantrums may need to be tackled with a different approach. Time out is really a variation of ignoring. Like ignoring, you're basically boring your toddler into submission.
  • Although confusion and frustration still play a part in tantrums, as your toddler gets older she needs to learn her behaviour isn't acceptable and to learn to control her rage and emotions a little better. At this point, time out is a good solution.
  • Time out involves a bit more exclusion, and so is generally a last resort, imposed when all reasonable requests have been stamped on and thrown across the room.
  • Some parents have a specific place for time out, such as the bottom stair or a quiet hallway, and some just sit the toddler down on a sofa, or in their bedroom. Essentially, time out has to be unrewarding and away from where all the fun stuff is happening.

Be consistent

It's crucial when disciplining children for bad behaviour – and incentivising good behaviour – that you are consistent. if you threaten consequences then you must follow through – however hard it is – otherwise your toddler won't take you seriously. Likewise, if you promise a reward then don't deliver, you will lose their trust and have a mutiny on your hands.

Be realistic and keep things in proportion. Don't promise to take them to Disney Land for good behaviour and don't threaten to cancel Christmas if they play up.

A suitable consequence for bad behaviour might be: “You can sit in the hall until you have calmed down.” Or if children are arguing over a toy then confiscate it and only give it back when they displayed good behaviour.

Star charts and rewards

Star charts are popular with Mumsnetters and are a proven way of encouraging children to behave themselves – both at home and, when they get older, at school.

Divide a wall chart into days of the week. On 'good' days, award your toddler a star or a sticker. At the end of the week, if the agreed target is met, give him a reward (perhaps a magazine or small toy). Obviously, there are lots of variations on this theme.

Here's what Mumsnetters say about star charts and rewards:

“Only do star charts for a specific thing e.g. going to bed. I find that, if I do charts for everything, my son soon gets bored.”

“Plan the rewards with your child and draw the chart together…That way the child knows what he or she is working towards.”

“We never make food a reward, our rewards are activities or trips out or little cheap things like a little car that he has had his eye on.”

“Make the target manageable. At three, our son was getting a reward after five stars.”

“One fun idea is to make a picture like a face or a boat or a car or something like that and number the places where the stars go (a bit like dot-to-dot).”

Alternative methods

The pasta jar. This works with older toddlers who understand the concept of exchanging something for rewards. Pasta is earned for good behaviour and lost for bad behaviour. One Mumsnetter explains: “Put five pieces of pasta in a glass jar. When your toddler is naughty, give them a warning. If they persist, take a piece of pasta out of the jar. When they display good behaviour, put a piece of pasta in. At the end of the week (or day), count up the pieces and, when you have hit the target (say ten pieces), swap the pasta for a small pressie. After a while, you will just need to hiss 'pasta' and this should be a sufficient threat to ensure good behaviour.”

Edible currency. All toddlers love chocolate buttons (if exceptions exist, we're yet to meet them). Using them as an incentive to teach your toddler good behaviour will also introduce them to the concept of money – although it's up to you to decide whether or not you think that's a good thing.

My toddler sobs after a nap. It helps when I put into words for him how he's feeling: 'You are cross because you're tired or hungry. I understand that must be hard for you.' Then I offer a cuddle.

Arguments against rewards

Some parents don't like reward systems. They think it's important children learn to obey rules for their own sake, rather than to earn rewards or, as they see it, bribes.

As one Mumsnetter explains: “I stopped using reward systems because I felt that my daughter needed to learn there are a number of things you just have to do and rules that must be obeyed because you have to, not because of what you get out of it.”

Mumsnetters on tackling toddler tantrums

“When he hits you, say 'no' firmly and put him down for 60 seconds and ignore him. Do it consistently. It's a game to him. It's not violence, it's toddlerdom. He is just exploring and expressing his new-found independence.”

“Use more positive words like: 'Can we put the toys into the box please?' Or, 'Play nicely'. This is better than, 'Don't smack.' I know it all sounds a bit hippy but it does improve the atmosphere at home. You don't shout so much and things are a lot calmer once you have the hang of it.”

“Praise the good and ignore the bad. My daughter is only two and I have found that really giving lots of positive attention is
the only thing that works.”

“I often feel like I should be working in an American burger bar, smiling sweetly and saying nice insincere things, while silently swearing and wanting to manhandle my son to get him to behave.”

“We only use the naughty step when our two-year-old does naughty things on purpose (like hitting or wilfully ignoring instructions). The idea is that it's supposed to teach her what's acceptable and what isn't. It seems to work. We tend not to use it for the small stuff, only when she can understand that what she has done is really wrong.”

“The only thing that works with my toddler in a real screaming tantrum is sticking him in his cot for time out. I leave him for a few minutes then have a cuddle.”

“Once you worked out your plan, make sure you go through the star chart rules with your toddler. Ask questions about it to be sure your toddler has got the idea and understands why they have or haven't got a sticker. Planning and understanding are very important factors in successful star-charting.”

“After several embarrassing 'do that again and we won't go on holiday/have Christmas/ever watch telly again' moments, I try to keep the consequence realistic and logical.”