Keeping Your Cool During Toddler Tantrums

Find loving ways to defuse stress in both your toddler and yourself.




The toddler period is surely a difficult one. That mostly agreeable little one has been replaced by a walking, almost-talking toddler who stubbornly wants to do things on his own. He insists on rejecting foods he accepted so easily before. He says "No, no, no" when you call him to the bathtub. He squirms to get down and loves to run, run, run all day so that you almost have to wrestle him down for a much-needed diaper change.
These behaviors can test the mettle of even the most patient of parents. You may find yourself feeling extremely angry or exasperated by your child's antics. Sometimes you may resort to using a sharp voice or scolding when your child dawdles or is contrary — or even feel like lashing out. What can you do to control these impulses?

  • Put Yourself in His Sneakers
    First, remember that this is a tough time for your little guy. Try empathizing with his impossible predicament. He wants nothing more than to be big, capable, and independent, but he still pees in his diaper. He still garbles lots of words so that it is hard to understand him. He still makes such a mess when he eats that you have to swab the floor all around his high chair. Try to understand how frustrating this is for him! He is struggling with his own sense that his skills are nowhere near good enough to say or do what he wants. Your empathy for his predicament may go a long way in defusing your angry feelings.
  • Anger Management
    As you undoubtedly realize, losing your temper with your toddler will only upset him greatly and make matters worse. What can you do when you feel your temperature rising? Here are some strategies to try:
    • De-stress. First, take a deep breath. Count to 10. Think of how hard it must have been for your own parents when you went through this difficult stage. If you feel tense, try flinging each arm out to the side and shaking out the stress. Your toddler may look at you in puzzlement and try to copy your funny exercise!
    • Use humor. If your toddler has just experimented with spilling some soup over her head (signaling that lunch is finished!), try to find humor in the situation: tell yourself that a vegetable beauty facial costs scads of money at a fancy day spa, and she just got it for free! Putting a funny spin on events (and taking pictures of the messy results for posterity) can help diffuse the upset and allow your affectionate feelings to come surging back.
    • Take a timeout. If you feel that your angry feelings are going to lead to harsh behaviors on your part, quickly take action to remove your child from harm's way. Put him in a playpen or crib where he will be safe, even if he protests. Make a cup of tea. Do some deep breathing and blow the anger out of your mouth as if you are blowing out birthday candles. Call a parenting hotline or a trusted friend. Remember that an adult who shakes or physically assaults a very young child can do severe damage to the brain and to the emotional health of that child. Meanwhile, try to find a caregiver who can provide a few hours of relief each week so that you can attend to some of your adult needs, such as going to the gym or having lunch with a friend.
    • Be loving, yet firm. You may find yourself ready to burst into tears of frustration as you hear "NO!" for the umpteenth time, even when you've announced that you're going to Grandma's house, where she generally loves to go! Cheerfully dress your toddler and buckle her into her car seat gently, firmly, and in a business-like manner, even as she protests. As you drive off to Grandma's, start singing some of her favorite songs and express your delight when she joins in from the back car seat. She needed to say no. You needed to get to Grandma's. Try not to feel mad, sad, or guilty. Toddlers with parents who can set firm limits calmly (and yet who shower their toddlers with lots of cuddles and hugs during the day) will grow sturdily through this period into their preschool years. And you, too, will survive this often demanding, yet amazing developmental period — with your sanity intact!
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