A while back, I wrote about my Magic Potion for Calming Toddler Tantrums. This magic potion is great for toddlers who are amidst a meltdown. It even works on parents! Back then, I recognized that my daughter was having tantrums because she did not have the vocabulary to communicate her thoughts and feelings. She was frustrated. I was frustrated.
All Aboard the Train To Tantrum Town
As my daughter grew, so did her vocabulary. She is able to put many different words to how she is feeling. We talk about her feelings and how they can be overwhelming. Reading picture books and doing role play have helped tremendously. However, just because she can assign a word to a feeling, does not mean she can handle the feeling itself.
I am sure you have been there with your toddler. They want this one thing, right now, and you tell them they can’t have it. You tell them they have to do something, like brush their teeth, and they don’t want to. Or you are at the park and it is time to go home and eat dinner. Cue meltdown. Sometimes the reason for their meltdown is big, sometimes it’s small, and sometimes there is no reason whatsoever.
As parents, we have to set limits. Our toddlers are constantly going to test these limits. It is normal and natural. They are going to cry and express audible anger and frustration. But you know those tantrums that just go too far? The ones where they stomp their feet, hold their breath, and you worry that they may slam their little noggins into something?
These tantrums exhaust our little ones as much as they wear us out. Or at least it’s close. I noticed that as my daughter approached her third birthday, she started having more tantrums instead of less. Instead of not being able to communicate, she can now communicate exactly what she wants. If I do not comply with her wily wants, we would hop aboard the tantrum train. I simply could not take it anymore and had to find a way to prevent these meltdowns before I started having tantrums of my own!
How to Prevent a Toddler Tantrum
I have found a trick that has actually prevented my daughter’s tantrums, but there must be several factors in place in order for it to work. For this particular trick, I went back into my undergraduate studies in Psychology. I also relied on my thirteen years of teaching elementary students.
There have been many things that I have learned throughout my education and career, but sometimes it is hard to determine the best strategies when it comes to your own child. I had to step away and look at my daughter and her behavior as objectively as possible. These are the questions I asked myself:
Have there been any changes in her diet or routine?
What sets her off?
Is there something I am doing or not doing?
What makes her happy?
What are her interests?
I highly recommend asking yourself these questions before determining the best course of action to prevent your toddler’s tantrums. You need to look at the big picture because there might just be a factor you have not yet considered.
1. Assess your child’s basic needs
This seems so obvious, but it is sometimes a factor I overlook. If your toddler is tired, hungry, or overstimulated, they are going to be more likely to meltdown. Try your best to make sure that you stick to a consistent naptime and bedtime routine. Life happens, but you have probably noticed that when their sleeping schedule is thrown off, they are more likely to tantrum.
My daughter went through a growth spurt was constantly hungry. Like nonstop. As with most of us, she would become “hangry” if she needed some grub! Ensuring that she was eating balanced meals accompanied with a variety of healthy snacks makes a huge difference. In France, kids learn to eat three meals a day with little to no snacking. As much as I love France, I have learned that my toddler needs snacks!
For some kids, it is difficult to tell when they are overstimulated. Some kids have an instantaneous meltdown and some just shut down. What starts out as a fun experience like going to the park, playing a game, or going out for ice cream can result in a tantrum if your toddler is overstimulated! You know those moments where you go, “Wait! You were just having the time of your life! Why are you crying right now?” That, my friends, is overstimulation.
To avoid overstimulation, simply watch your child for signs. Do they seem upset? Are they suddenly becoming quiet or avoiding eye contact with others? Are they starting to hit or throw things? If you notice some of these signs, try to remove your child from the situation for a few minutes.
You can try my magic potion, calm down breaths, or even just a hug. Talk to your toddler and let them know that they are not being punished, that you just recognize that they needed a little break. In time, through discussion and modeling, your toddler may learn when to take their own breaks from situations that are overstimulating!
2. What Triggers the Tantrum?
The trigger of a tantrum may be different for each child. It might have to do with any of the above situations or something completely unrelated to their basic needs. For example, my daughter melts down for one of two reasons. One, someone has failed to understand what she is trying to communicate. Or two, she is not receiving the amount of attention to which she is accustomed.
Possible Trigger: A Failure to Communicate
My husband and I are adept and decoding my toddler’s language. Her vocabulary is growing every day, but sometimes she wants to use a word that she cannot yet physically approximate. I appreciate her desire to use higher-level vocabulary words, but some of those letter combinations are tough for these little tykes!
If we fail to understand what she is trying to say, it is an instant meltdown. I get it, it is frustrating when someone does not understand what you are trying to say! But, the more upset she gets, the less we understand her…which leads to a tantrum of epic proportions. Also, she is hip to the “uh-huh” and “sure” type of responses that mean you really have no clue what she just said. Don’t try to pull one over on a toddler. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
When you are having a failure to communicate, try sign language or acting it out. Make eye contact and let your child know that you are listening and trying to understand. Ultimately, they just want to be heard and have their thoughts/feelings acknowledged.
Possible Trigger: A “Lack” of Attention
Which brings me to the toddler tantrum as the result of a “lack” of attention. Toddlers are completely egocentric and want to be the center of attention. I work from home and my attention is often divided between my work responsibilities and my toddler. This does not make my toddler particularly pleased.
Toddlers want all of your attention all of the time. There will come a time when these little people will want nothing to do with us. They will view us parental figures with a mixture of disdain and embarrassment. But, for now, we are everything to our tykes. It is a wonderful feeling until you need to actually get something accomplished.
To combat these attention-seeking ways, try to give your toddler your true undivided attention when you can. No side conversations, no screen time, no multi-tasking. Just complete focus on your little one. You can also ask them to get involved with helping you complete a task, so they feel like they are getting attention and you feel like you are actually getting things accomplished!
Whatever the triggers your toddler has for tantrums, try to identify them. Try to avoid these triggers, if possible. If they cannot be avoided, try to find appropriate problem-solving strategies to combat them.
3. Is there something I am doing or not doing?
We know that toddlers demand attention, so it is natural that your focus in completely on them for trying to figure out these tantrums. However, you have to look at yourself, too. Are you stressed? Do you get enough sleep? Have you eaten?
You have to examine your state of mind when your toddler melts down. These little guys are very attuned to us and our emotions. They are going to feed off of our stress. If you see your toddler start to melt down, try taking some calm down breaths yourself. The best way for your toddler to learn how to calm down is to watch
The best way for your toddler to learn how to calm down is to watch you model how to do it. I know…it’s hard when your toddler is completely irrational and you are in a public place! I’ve been there! But, believe me, the calmer you are, the calmer your toddler will become.
Also, ensure that your basic needs are met. I admit I am the worst at this. Do what I say and not what I do! Make sure you are eating balanced meals. Coffee and Goldfish Crackers do not count. Attempt to get some rest. Six to eight hours of sleep per night is probably only a mere daydream, but try to squeeze in a nap when your kids go down. When you are on your “A” game, you will be better equipped to parent your tantruming toddler!
4. What Makes Your Child Happy?
It is equally as important to identify what makes your child happy as it is to identify what makes them mad. Determining the things that make your toddler light up with joy or the things that interest them the most, will help you decide what to use for positive reinforcement.
Okay, I am going to take you back to my Psychology days here. Reinforcement, either positive or negative, can be used to change or shape behavior. Positive reinforcement is the addition of an item (reward) for exhibiting the desired behavior. For example, providing children an allowance or payment for successfully completing their chores.
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an item (stimulus) as a consequence for the undesired behavior. For example, taking away your child’s toy after they throw a tantrum. Confession, we tried this, it does not work. Negative reinforcement can work in certain parenting situations. However, I have found that it is not the most effective response for managing toddler tantrums.
This study describes how kids are especially reward-seeking. Basically, rewards activate dopamine in the brain and it makes you feel good. When you give your child a reward it makes them feel good. The more they feel good, the less they feel angry/frustrated. You see where I am going with this? The more your kids feel good, the less they will feel the desire to meltdown. I need a longitudinal study, of course, but it totally makes sense to me!
So, here is your task, parents. Find out what rewards will make your little one feel good. These do not have to be all material goods. I do suggest having some rewards be something they can feel and touch because toddlers understand the world in very concrete ways. But, you can have rewards that are things like time spent with you playing their favorite game, a trip to the park, or a playdate with a special friend. Use this list of rewards for the next step.
5. Try This One Little Trick
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As stated above, this little trick is much more effective if the basic needs of both your toddler and you are met. Toddlers are concrete, reward-based learners, so what they need is a visual reminder of what can happen when they demonstrate the desired behaviors. Positive, not negative reinforcement, is key.
I went with the jar of marbles. You may have seen this reward system before, but allow me to give you a few hints on how to really make it successful! I used colored tape and marked lines on a clear ball jar. Each line represents a reward. You can find ready-made marble jars on Amazon, but your child has to fill up the entire jar before earning a reward. By using tape, I allowed her to earn rewards more quickly and the tape is movable, so I can slowly space the rewards as she adjusts to the system.
You can find ready-made marble jars on Amazon, but your child has to fill up the entire jar before earning a reward. By using tape, I allowed her to earn rewards more quickly and the tape is movable, so I can slowly space the rewards as she adjusts to the system. Although if you have a smarty pants like me, hide the tape! My daughter tried to add her own line at the bottom of the jar!
My daughter earns marbles by exhibiting specific desired behaviors. This is really the most important concept of this reward system. Your child has to know specifically what he/she needs to do in order to earn marbles and it must be consistent.
The chart below is what I created so that my daughter knows specifically how she earns marbles. I used numbers that she is familiar with and I have noticed even greater buy-in by allowing her to count and add the marbles herself.
I also listed on the chart possible rewards. Sometimes I tell exactly what she will earn by getting to a particular level and sometimes a tell her it is a surprise. However, all rewards listed are rewards that my daughter and I brainstormed together. It is so important to know your child’s favorite things/activities. They will be much more willing to work for a reward if it something that they are truly interested in!
In order to prevent unwanted behavior, you can help shape your child’s behavior by offering positive reinforcement. It does not necessarily have to be marbles, but I do suggest using something that is a concrete visual. Be very specific in what the expected behaviors are and how your child will be rewarded.
Do not take away marbles, as that is negative reinforcement and will most likely cause your toddler to “lose their marbles” in a figurative sense. Focus on the positive to extinguish the negative instead. Yes, your child will still cry and become angry and frustrated. That is completely normal. What you want to avoid are those tantrums that make you lose your marbles! Try this little trick and let me know how it works!
Want to give this trick a try? Download this Free Printable Marble Reward Chart to create your own chart for your toddler! Do you have another trick that works for preventing toddler tantrums? Please comment and share below!