How to deal with toddler tantrums lovingly

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded ‘terrible twos’… Dealing with tantrums can be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting a toddler. Unfortunately they don’t automatically stop when your child turns three either!

Tantrums are a normal and common behaviour for toddlers and aren’t necessarily linked to misbehaviour or bad parenting.

However, when you’ve had to deal with a two-year-old who won’t stop screaming in the supermarket, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed and helpless.

Scarlett Gill is a clinical psychologist from the Health Psychology Unit at the University of Technology Sydney. She has some tips for how you can respond the next time your toddler chucks a wobbly.

1. Ignore the tantrum

 “Ignoring tantrums allows your child (and you!) some space to calm down after they have vented out their frustration. It also teaches your child that this will not get your attention.” However, “this is easier said than done,” Scarlett says.

2. Distract them with something else

Point something else out, like a passing car or dog, to take advantage of your child’s short attention span.

3. Give your child simple rules then reward good behaviour

Scarlett says this works well if you're in a public place like a supermarket.

"You say to them: ‘I want you to stay quiet, keep your hands to yourself, and listen to mummy when she says no. If you do good listening, then we can get milkshakes afterwards.'"

Scarlett says it's important to give positive attention to the behaviours you like to see, rather than giving attention to tantrums.

"You might say 'I like how quiet you are being! We are going to get that milkshake soon!'”
little girl with cup

4. Find the cause of the problem so you can decide how to deal with it

In many cases, the child may have difficulty communicating and you can help them physically express what they want.

They could also be experiencing fear, anxiety or frustration. In these situations, empathising with the child can help calm them down.

Scarlett advises “getting down to their level, giving them a hug and telling them in a gentle voice something like ‘I know it’s hard when mummy leaves you at daycare, and you get scared and sad. But I promise you I will be back before you know it.’"

5. Can you prevent the tantrum?

Try to keep track of daily patterns of tantrums, and notice situations that lead to tantrums. For instance do their tantrums  tend to be around mealtimes or when your child is overtired?

“If your child [throws a] tantrums when needing to leave the playground, have a treat or special toy that is reserved for the car ride after leaving the park,” Scarlett advises.

If toddler tantrums are impacting your life to the point that you don’t go out or it’s become a point of contention with your partner or close family, then it could be good to get some help. 

There are lots of strategies and therapies that have been shown to be effective with challenging toddler behaviours. Talk to your GP about a referral to a clinical psychologist or a parenting program in your area.

Scarlett adds: “It’s important to know that although it may not be your fault that your child has tantrums, you are the best person to be a part of the solution!”
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