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How to Stop a Toddler Tantrum

Tips on helping a toddler calm down and end the drama

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toddler girl crying and throwing a tantrum Thinkstock Images
Chances are, if you have a toddler, you've faced the wild, beastly phenomenon known as the tantrum. Screaming, whining, thrashing, and totally ignoring your attempts to discipline or appease are classic signs of the temper tantrum. Facing these meltdowns can be embarrassing in public, exhausting to diffuse, and worrisome to moms or dads who might wonder whether the bad behavior is a sign of something else.

The fact is, there are many, many reasons that toddlers crumble. It's important to consider the root of the problems, especially if you see a pattern of recurring tantrums that might be due to sleep problems such as snoring that can leave a small child exhausted and unable to deal with transitions or process instructions. In some cases, the bad behavior has to do with developmental delays that require special, empathetic reactions versus hard discipline. Some parents have also seen a link between dietary factors and bad behavior. Specifically, some believe that gluten affects ADHD symptoms and others that food coloring makes their child hyperactive or depressed, states that seem to result in a child being less likely to have the self control to avoid devolving into a tantrum.

Pinpointing the cause or causes of recurring tantrums can take a while. In the meantime, you have a bawling tot who WILL NOT take off her grungy old rain boots despite the fact that you are going to a family wedding. So what is a parent to do right now to manage this situation? Try these tried-and-true tantrum-taming tactics.

  1. Talk like a toddler -- If you're like me, bad behavior gets you on your high on a soapbox and ready to dish out loquacious speeches about why jumping head first off the couch is perilous to the soft nervous tissue housed within the prefrontal cortex, potentially causing severe neurological damage... My kid misses the entire meaning, of course, and just seeks out a higher perch. Let's take it again, though, using words that he will understand. If I step right in front of him, look him in the eye, and say, "Booboo to your head," he's more likely to make a connection between the jumping and danger. There is certainly a time and place to encourage language skills and build vocabulary, but when you need a toddler to really understand and stop being wild, you need to make your instructions as clear and easy to comprehend as possible.

  2. Be flexible -- In my dreams, Little Guy would sit still at church at least long enough for everyone around us to hear the sermon. But stillness is probably just too much to ask at this point. Sometimes cuddling him close will work, but most Sundays trying to force him to stay on my lap and not fidget will just lead to a loud screaming fit. I still try, but I am also realistic about my expectations. Playing with the books in the pew...seeing how fast he can swing his legs... I am willing to accept these behaviors while making it clear that he can't wander out of the pew or stand up on the bench and scream, "I want Teddy Grahams."

  3. Be consistent -- As tempting as it is to take out those Teddy Grahams to get Little Guy to give us some peace just this once, doing so would be a recipe for disaster. There is no way your toddler is going to understand that the snack is a one-time-only deal. Next Sunday he's going to demand those sweet honey crackers the second you sit down. You need to set the boundaries and stick to them. Never give in to a tantrum -- not because you need to "win" the fight, but because it will make it all the harder for your little one to understand how to control his behavior and what exactly is allowable in a given situation.

  4. Reward good behavior -- As soon as Little Guy does actually make it through a sermon, I'll have those Teddy Grahams open and ready for him to enjoy on the bench outside of church. A treat goes a long way to helping a toddler understand what she has done is good. If you don't want to use food as a treat, stickers or an official behavior chart can be used to reinforce good actions and self control.

  5. Remind toddlers of the "rules" -- I want my little one to be able to avoid having a tantrum not just because it makes my life easier, but because I think it makes him a happier, less stressed kid. So if I know a situation is coming that could potentially be high-stress and lead to a meltdown, I try to be proactive. For example, you can lessen the "I am not leaving!" shrieks by giving young children multiple warnings that you'll be leaving the playground starting 40 minutes or more before it's time to go

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