How to Stop Toddler Tantrums in Their Tracks

There’s a part of parenting that doesn’t make it to the highlight reel on social media. It’s not usually the thing we lead with when we chat with friends, but it happens almost every day. Sometimes multiple times a day.

Tantrums. The screaming kind. The biting kind—the kicking kind—and all the kinds in between. Each child throws their own unique type of tantrum. Whereas some kids curl into a ball and hide, others will scream for over 30 minutes in a shrill, head-splitting tone. Some kids love to add throwing toys, kicking their parent, hitting, or even biting. Tantrums can be the most difficult time of a parent’s day—mostly because there’s really no adult control over what happens and when they end.

But what if there were? What if there was like a secret code for parents that could STOP a tantrum in it’s tracks before all the craziness begins. Well, we’re about to spill all our secrets—because guess what? There is.

But first things first. When a child is in the throes of a tantrum (see what I did there? haha), no one can stop it. It’s a pointless effort to shout, “stop it, right now!” as a child writhes on the floor. 

A tantrum is basically the loss of all control and logic, and while this is happening, it’s almost impossible to talk a child down. So don’t even try. 

Threats won’t work, bribery won’t work—even giving in to the thing the child wants and was denied will not work—the child is too far down the tantrum train to even hear you. During a tantrum, their limbic system (the section of the brain that regulates emotions) is going full throttle, which means they are truly being ruled by emotion. All that’s left is to ride it out: “I’m sorry you’re upset. Come sit with me when you’re ready,” and then just hang on.

You could also try some of our favorite phrases:

  • This is really hard for you.
  • I'm here with you.
  • That was really scary, sad, etc.

But, the big trick here, and the much easier way, is to get the child calm BEFORE the storm. When you see the clouds brewing, that’s when it’s time to step in, calm the child, and prevent the tantrum! Here’s how...

1. Routine is Your Best Friend

For a toddler or preschooler, a well-established routine will 100% limit those tantrums. For example, your child always takes a nap after lunch. Or, there is dessert with lunch but not with dinner. Or, there is one show before bedtime, and that’s it. Why is this so important? Little kids don’t have a lot of control over their lives. But when there’s a good routine, there’s predictability, which is the illusion of control.

Why does your child like to read the same book 100 times? Same reason: he knows what comes next and that makes him feel safe and in control. So, if you say, “After lunch, we’re going to rest and then you can watch your show,” each day, he will come to expect it, not fight it, and actually will welcome it.

Always verbalize the routine and tell your child what comes next, even if he doesn’t or can’t yet respond. He will hear you and feel safe with the constant reminders. Does this mean you can never deviate? No, but as they get older they’ll be able to have more flexibility with less frustration. If you do deviate when they’re very young, there will be some pushback. But at least you’ll know why.

2. Don't Expect More Than Your Child Can Give

If you take a child shopping when his nap time begins in 30 minutes, expect crankiness. If a hungry child has to wait in line for 30 minutes at the post office, expect drama. The ideal situation would be to schedule outings around meals and naps, but of course, that’s not always possible! Do the best you can. Pack snacks or a stroller so your child can rest if he’s really tired. Snuggles go a long way here as well as…

3. Verbalize and Validate

If your child starts to teeter into tantrum land, your first escape hatch is to talk to them and validate their feelings. “Oh, you really want another show! Me too!” (Pause) “I wish we could sit here longer, but it’s time to go outside. We always go outside after TV, and now it’s time to do that. We can watch another show tomorrow after nap.” Reiterate the routine and validate your child’s feelings. They’re allowed to be mad and disappointed. Sometimes, your child just wants to be heard, just like adults do.

4. Tackle the Transitions

Know the triggers for your child. Is it always after you turn off the TV? Bathtime? Bedtime? If you know what sets your child off (something we really study with clients in our coaching program), you’ll be able to prepare and play with the transition so it’s easier. For example, if your two-year-old hates getting his diaper changed, put something fun right after it. “If you lay down for your diaper, then we can go for a walk!” Use your routine, verbalize, validate, and…don’t forget to be silly and have fun! Kids love to laugh, so lightening the moment with stilly voices, and songs can go a LONG way.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting
SAVE MY SEAT!

There’s a part of parenting that doesn’t make it to the highlight reel on social media. It’s not usually the thing we lead with when we chat with friends, but it happens almost every day. Sometimes multiple times a day.

Tantrums. The screaming kind. The biting kind—the kicking kind—and all the kinds in between. Each child throws their own unique type of tantrum. Whereas some kids curl into a ball and hide, others will scream for over 30 minutes in a shrill, head-splitting tone. Some kids love to add throwing toys, kicking their parent, hitting, or even biting. Tantrums can be the most difficult time of a parent’s day—mostly because there’s really no adult control over what happens and when they end.

But what if there were? What if there was like a secret code for parents that could STOP a tantrum in it’s tracks before all the craziness begins. Well, we’re about to spill all our secrets—because guess what? There is.

But first things first. When a child is in the throes of a tantrum (see what I did there? haha), no one can stop it. It’s a pointless effort to shout, “stop it, right now!” as a child writhes on the floor. 

A tantrum is basically the loss of all control and logic, and while this is happening, it’s almost impossible to talk a child down. So don’t even try. 

Threats won’t work, bribery won’t work—even giving in to the thing the child wants and was denied will not work—the child is too far down the tantrum train to even hear you. During a tantrum, their limbic system (the section of the brain that regulates emotions) is going full throttle, which means they are truly being ruled by emotion. All that’s left is to ride it out: “I’m sorry you’re upset. Come sit with me when you’re ready,” and then just hang on.

You could also try some of our favorite phrases:

  • This is really hard for you.
  • I'm here with you.
  • That was really scary, sad, etc.

But, the big trick here, and the much easier way, is to get the child calm BEFORE the storm. When you see the clouds brewing, that’s when it’s time to step in, calm the child, and prevent the tantrum! Here’s how...

1. Routine is Your Best Friend

For a toddler or preschooler, a well-established routine will 100% limit those tantrums. For example, your child always takes a nap after lunch. Or, there is dessert with lunch but not with dinner. Or, there is one show before bedtime, and that’s it. Why is this so important? Little kids don’t have a lot of control over their lives. But when there’s a good routine, there’s predictability, which is the illusion of control.

Why does your child like to read the same book 100 times? Same reason: he knows what comes next and that makes him feel safe and in control. So, if you say, “After lunch, we’re going to rest and then you can watch your show,” each day, he will come to expect it, not fight it, and actually will welcome it.

Always verbalize the routine and tell your child what comes next, even if he doesn’t or can’t yet respond. He will hear you and feel safe with the constant reminders. Does this mean you can never deviate? No, but as they get older they’ll be able to have more flexibility with less frustration. If you do deviate when they’re very young, there will be some pushback. But at least you’ll know why.

2. Don't Expect More Than Your Child Can Give

If you take a child shopping when his nap time begins in 30 minutes, expect crankiness. If a hungry child has to wait in line for 30 minutes at the post office, expect drama. The ideal situation would be to schedule outings around meals and naps, but of course, that’s not always possible! Do the best you can. Pack snacks or a stroller so your child can rest if he’s really tired. Snuggles go a long way here as well as…

3. Verbalize and Validate

If your child starts to teeter into tantrum land, your first escape hatch is to talk to them and validate their feelings. “Oh, you really want another show! Me too!” (Pause) “I wish we could sit here longer, but it’s time to go outside. We always go outside after TV, and now it’s time to do that. We can watch another show tomorrow after nap.” Reiterate the routine and validate your child’s feelings. They’re allowed to be mad and disappointed. Sometimes, your child just wants to be heard, just like adults do.

4. Tackle the Transitions

Know the triggers for your child. Is it always after you turn off the TV? Bathtime? Bedtime? If you know what sets your child off (something we really study with clients in our coaching program), you’ll be able to prepare and play with the transition so it’s easier. For example, if your two-year-old hates getting his diaper changed, put something fun right after it. “If you lay down for your diaper, then we can go for a walk!” Use your routine, verbalize, validate, and…don’t forget to be silly and have fun! Kids love to laugh, so lightening the moment with stilly voices, and songs can go a LONG way.

Ready to transform your relationship with your child?

We know how guilty and frustrated you can feel when you want to be a "positive parent" but none of the textbook, one-size-fits-all strategies seems to work with your child. You deserve the tools and confidence to make positive parenting simple and joyful.

That's why we created a free masterclass on the 3 Secrets of Raising Your Strong-Willed Child Using Positive Parenting. In it, you'll learn...

  • Research-based strategies proven to work—even with strong-willed kids
  • How to move away from negotiating, bribes, and threats that just don't work
  • The biggest missing ingredient to your success with positive parenting

About the author

Dr. Sarah Davis is an author, parent coach, speaker, and podcaster. Her advice has been featured by Parents, MSN, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reader’s Digest, and other major media outlets. She is the co-author of Modern Manners for Moms & Dads: Practical Parenting Solutions for Sticky Social Situations and the co-creator of the Solar System Parenting Framework and Quiz.

Sarah holds a doctorate in education from Texas A&M University, a master’s in education from the University of San Diego, and a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College. Her advice stems from her professional experience, her research, as well as her “hands-on training” as a mother of four.

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