This original story was shared by The Local Moms Network Contributor Harvey Karp, M.D.
Toddler truth: Tantrums usually peak at 18 to 24 months, subside a bit, then crest again around 3.5 years. So, knowing how to prevent—and quell—these meltdowns now will for-sure pay off in spades down the road.
Toddlers and tantrums are like puddles after a rainstorm…inevitable, messy, and natural! But with a little forethought, planning, and even some avoidance tactics, you can weather any storm Mother Nature or your toddler has to offer. The key to tackling toddler tantrums? Understanding that they’re an expected part of growing out of babyhood and into the exciting—and oftentimes frustrating—world of Big Kids. That’s not to say your child’s toddler years are destined to be riddled with tantrums! Once you start to recognize what sets off your toddler’s storms, you’ll be better able to subdue and even sidestep them all together. Here’s how.
Common Toddler Tantrum Triggers
It’s true that tantrum triggers can be as unique as your child, but there are some typical causes that tend to knock toddlers off balance, including fatigue, hunger, and being cooped up. Many kids (and adults!) get ornery if they miss a nap, sleep poorly at night, or it’s been a bit too long between meals or snacks. That’s why keeping a consistent sleep and eating schedule (and always having healthy snacks on hand) can work wonders at averting tantrums. (While doling out snacks, avoid items with caffeine, like cola, iced tea, even chocolate milk, since they spur meltdowns, too.) Another big tantrum trigger: Being stuck inside! Toddlers thrive on outdoor play and if they can’t roam the backyard or park two or three times a day they can get unbearably grumpy and primed to tantrum. Beyond afternoon outdoor playtime, consider bookending your day with some fresh air. Morning light and outside time are like vitamins to a toddler…and looking forward to a before- or after-dinner stroll could be a wonderful, relaxing tradition for your household.
Prepare Toddlers for Unexpected Changes
Out-of-the-blue changes can rattle even the calmest of kids, but shy or sensitive toddlers are often especially sensitive to unexpected schedule shifts. And you know who tends to hate abrupt changes the most? Toddler between 24 and 36 months! These tots are working so hard to figure things out and when their usual routine changes, they’re all “C’mon! I just finally got it…Don’t go changing it on me!” The good news is that you can sidestep potential tantrums simply by reviewing your next day’s plan, mentioning any changes in routine that might occur.
Feed Your Child’s Happiness Meter
Toddlers demand a lot from parents and that can be overwhelming…for both of you! And when your tot’s pay-attention-to-me needs go unmet, well, that’s tantrum time. But take heed: You absolutely do not need to drop everything you’re doing each time your tot tugs at your pant leg begging you to play. Instead, pepper your kiddo’s day with bite-size periods of focused attention. Make a silly face at them while preparing dinner, pull them in for a hug, say a few encouraging words (“You did a great job putting your stuffed animals away!”), offer 5-minute play sessions when you can—all these strategies are marvelous ways to feed your child’s happiness meter. And, when kids feel good, they’re more cooperative, and tantrums are less of an issue.
The Golden Rule of Avoiding Tantrums
Another key element all parents need in their back pocket for avoiding and stopping tantrums: Toddler-ese! This is a style of talking to your child that combines your tot’s native tongue (short phrases and repetition) with you mirroring about one-third of your toddler’s feelings with your tone of voice and gestures. (“You’re mad! Mad! Mad!” “Scared! Scared! Big doggie!” “Candy! Candy! You want it…now!”) When you ditch your long, adult sentences (and even your calm, rational tone) and gently reflect your child’s emotions back at them—eye-to-eye—they, quite simply, feel cared for and understood…and when kids feel that way, tantrums simply don’t arise. Amazingly, most parents automatically use Toddler-ese with young children when they’re happy. (“Yum! Yum! You love that strawberry, don’t you?!) But we forget to use it when they’re upset!
Hold Your Advice and Logic…For a Bit!
During a toddler tantrum, combine Toddler-ese with what I call the Fast-Food Rule. You know how fast-food workers repeat your drive-through order to you before you can move to the next window?
They do this to ensure they understand everything you said before saying: “That’ll be $12.50. Please drive up front.” Apply this way of communicating to anyone who’s upset, including your tantruming tot: Always repeat their feelings first (with Toddler-ese!), before offering your own comments or advice. After all, agitated toddlers are terrible listeners! Big emotions turn your little one’s brain off…but once they’re allowed to express their feelings—and those feelings are acknowledged—their minds swing back open, and they can pay attention to the good suggestions you have to offer!
In the end, remember that you are both learning to navigate the world of toddlerhood! And with patience and love, together you can create a space that helps keep big emotions in check and tantrums at bay.
About Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO of Happiest Baby Inc.
Dr. Harvey Karp is one of America’s most-trusted pediatricians and child development experts. He is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Karp practiced pediatrics in Los Angeles for over 25 years. He is the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech and parenting solutions company that invented the SNOO Smart Sleeper, a responsive bassinet that mimics the sounds and motions of the womb to extend infant sleep by 1-3 hours. Dr. Karp is also the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, The Happiest Toddler on the Block and The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep. He is an advisor to Parents, Ser Padres and American Baby magazines and a pediatric expert on BabyCenter. He has appeared numerous times on Good Morning America, CNN, Today Show, The View, Dr. Oz, etc. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, LA Times, Parents, People Magazine, among others.