Whole Parenting Family

Three Key Steps to Taming Your Tantruming Toddler

How’s your toddler treating you? Starting around 14 months or so, when children start to individuate from their mothers, and stretch their little wings, look out, parents, tantrums are on the horizon. I’ve written about tantrums since SuperBoy was around 14 months. I have an entire section of this site devoted to Toddler Behavior, mostly because I find it perplexing and fascinating all at once. I’ve written about everything from Teaching Toddler Independence & Toothbrushing to Tantrums Abound . . . HELP! and so much more in between.

SuperBoy is just over 2 years old now, and if you have a child around that age, and are struggling with dealing with the constant meltdowns and tantrums, here’s our 3 step method that may help you, too.

1) Tantrum sparks. You begin your mantra.

SuperBoy takes my hairbrush and bangs it repeatedly on the side of the bathtub while awaiting his turn for a bath. I ask him politely not to do that. He stops. He starts again a few moments later. I remind him. He pauses, then resumes. I ask him to hand me the brush (he refuses) so I remove it from his hands calmly while he begins to melt. I note, “I asked you nicely to stop. You didn’t listen to mama. You chose to lose the hairbrush.” He cries and screams for it back. I stay calm and ignore his behavior, but repeat my iteration of what happened so he gets an idea of the sequence of events. Emphasizing what I asked, what he did, and the consequences of his actions. In simple kid terms.

The really undesirable behavior isn’t the hairbrush banging, it’s the ensuing tantrum once he’s lost his hairbrush. Don’t give in and give back the hairbrush so your child stops crying. You’re missing an opportunity to teach him or her the valuable life lesson of internalizing discipline and coping with feelings of anger and frustration. Instant gratification got no one no where.

Try not to be mean in your tone, especially when you really are mad. That only compounds the issue and your child will be frightened of you, and probably try to react to appease you, which is emotional manipulation and not behavioral shaping. Keep your tone as level as you can (and yeah, I’ve been angry with SuperBoy and shown it so I’m no saint in this area). Don’t join in the tantrum.

2) Give him a reason to stop tantruming and make it easy for him to relax.

I tell him that if he wants to get into the fun bathtub where I have many toys for him, he needs to stop crying and whining. He is repeating “I need the hairbrush. I NEED IT!!!” I calmly say, “You think you need the hairbrush? You need to listen to mama. You need to stop crying. Then you get bathtime.”

And by dangling this “carrot” if you will, he gets that if he stops the undesirable behavior, he’ll get something that a) he needs to do, literally, because he’s dirty, and b) he wants to do because he only gets it on a condition. This breaks his attention on the hairbrush, and gives him a reason to stop tantruming.

Kids want what they perceive they can’t have. The more elusive, the more desirable. Simple human nature. Don’t promise that you’ll give the child a sweet treat or a special trip somewhere. Make it small but appealing: a book on mama’s lap, getting to help with X activity, playing with Y toy.

Then I say, “When you’re ready, you let me know.” And then periodically ask, “Are you ready?” {NO!} “Okay, let me know when you are.”

He continues his tantrum for about 4 minutes. All the while, I’m humming away, talking about the great bath toys that are in there. If he stops for a breath, I’ll sneak in a question like, “Don’t you want to see your cups and sailboat? {YES!} Well then, you need to stop crying. When you’ve stopped, we can play in the bath.”

The magic word is “I’m ready” or “Yes” in response to my questions if he is done crying and whining. I don’t make him expound upon that with a grand dissertation on how hitting hairbrushes is wrong, or screaming in your mom’s face is willful and obnoxious. I make it easy for him to win.

I firmly believe it’s important to help your child learn the action-consequence sequence. We use words like “choice” often. I.e., instead of saying, “I’m taking this damn hairbrush from you because you are driving me crazy,” I think it’s more effective to say, “You’re choosing to lose it because you didn’t listen.”

We were getting into the bath anyway, but instead of hauling a screamer into the bath and having a protest bath, I decided to make the bath a desirable thing and a reason to STOP screaming. This could be any sequence of events (getting out of the tub was a crisis too, so then the carrot was reading a story with dada, which apparently SuperBoy didn’t want to do because he kept crying).

3) As soon as you get the right answer, praise the positive turn of events.

As soon as he answers “I’m ready” or “Yes,” then I roll with it and don’t dwell on the past 5, 10, 15, 45 minutes of tantruming. Praise the positive turn of events. “I’m so glad you decided that you are ready to get into this great bath. Let’s have fun and play!” He had a great bath, until it was time to leave. I didn’t revisit the initially sparking behavior of the hairbrush whacking. Sometimes I will, once everything has settled down, to reiterate that “we” don’t whine and cry to get our way because, look, acting nicely gets us better things in life.

This provided lessons for him and me. Him in how to deal with loss of something (hairbrush), what’s acceptable behavior in our household, and how he can be empowered to make choices that positively affect his life (fun bath!). Me in how to keep my cool when annoyed (and tired and cranky), parenting effectively, and making what could have been a miserable and quick bath into an enjoyable time.

This works for SuperBoy at this developmental stage in life. It may not work for your little one, but the principles are fairly universal: you are the boundary your child needs to develop internally into a healthy and happy person. Don’t shy away from opportunities to shape behavior. And it takes getting it wrong a few times before you get it right with your individual child, as the particulars vary from child to child. And having a mom who raised five kids and is a psychologist certainly helps!



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  3. Amy @ Motherhood and Miscellany on August 25, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Your mom is a psychologist? I used to be a clinical/forensic psychologist before my babies. I’m not nearly as good at applying my behavioral principles (like these you wrote about!) as I should be 🙂

    • Natural Mama Nell on August 26, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      That’s so cool, Amy! Well, can any of us actually apply our training in adult-life to being a mom? the tempers fire up, the fatigue, and whatnot. 🙂

  4. Meg on September 24, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    I just happened upon this post and it’s exactly what I needed to hear. Intellectually, I knew the “best” way to deal with my screaming toddler, but I needed to actually hear the script of words to use to put into practice. Does that even make sense? Thank You.

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