Use words and gestures to communicate your message. Words alone may not be enough to get your toddler to stop an unacceptable activity. This is because your toddler’s ability to show self-control is limited. To help your child understand your message, use a low, authoritative (not angry or screaming) voice. At the same time, use a “stop” or “no-no” gesture along with your words. Keep in mind your toddler may not respond the first or even the second time. It takes thousands of repetitions, hearing the words together with the actions, before the words alone will work their magic.
Recognize your child’s feeling or goal. Use words to show that your child that you understand what he wants to do: You want to play with the water, but you can not spill the water from your sippy cup on the floor. Or, You are really angry. You want to stay longer at the playground, but it is not okay to hit mommy. Hitting hurts.
Re-direct your child’s attention. Help your toddler express his interests or meet his goals in an acceptable way. It’s not okay to throw blocks. Someone might get hurt. Let’s throw these pillows instead.
Teach alternatives. Tell and show your child acceptable ways to channel his energy. If you interrupt your child’s behavior, but do not offer an acceptable alternative, the unacceptable behavior will probably continue. This is because many toddlers are not yet able to identify other (more acceptable) activities on their own. So for a little one who loves to dump his sippy cup, take him outside or put him in the tub to give him acceptable ways to play with water.
Be consistent. Consistency with rules is key to helping children learn to make good choices. If every time a child throws a toy it gets taken away, he quickly learns not to throw toys. But when the rules keep changing, it is hard for young children to make good choices. If one night a tantrum means he gets to stay up late, but the next night it doesn’t work, your child will be confused about what choice to make: Should I keep making a big stink tonight? Maybe this will be the night daddy does let me stay up if I keep it up.
Avoid negotiating. It happens for the best of reasons. We want to make sure our children feel heard. We want them to see us as open-minded, good listeners. We want to be flexible. (And sometimes we are just tired!) But negotiating about family rules is a tricky road. Often, a child who is frequently allowed to negotiate for extra cookies or a later bedtime will quickly learn that this is a very effective way to get these “fringe benefits.” Having consistent rules—about things like holding hands in a parking lot, sitting in a carseat, brushing teeth or taking baths—actually help children feel safe and secure. They come to understand that there is structure, logic, and consistency in their world.
Give your child a chance to figure things out before stepping in. Whether it is finding the right place for the puzzle piece she is holding or negotiating who gets to go down the slide first, let your child try to figure out a solution first, before you step in to help. You may be surprised to see how capable she is at managing conflict and dealing with the challenges she encounters. At times, of course, she will still need your support and assistance, but as she gets older, you may be amazed at what a good job she is doing all on her own!
Provide your child with appropriate opportunities to make choices—about what to wear and what to eat (within reason), what to play, who to play with. This gives her a feeling of control and reinforces her developing sense of confidence and competency (a sense that “I can do it”).
Look for ways to help your child “practice” self-control. There are many daily moments when you can give your child the chance to practice self-control. For example, turn-taking games such as simply rolling a ball back and forth require children to both wait and control their impulses. Take turns hitting a soft foam ball off a tee. Play “sharing music” where each of you chooses an instrument to play and set an egg-timer for 1 minute. When the timer goes off, switch instruments and set the timer again.
Suggest ways to manage strong emotions. When your child is really angry, suggest that he jump up and down, hit the sofa cushions, rip paper, cuddle up in a cozy area for alone time, paint an angry picture or some other strategy that you feel is appropriate. What’s important is to teach your child that there are many ways to express his feelings in healthy, non-hurtful ways, and to help him practice these strategies.
Empathize with your child. It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes the choices he is being offered are not the ones she wants. We have to leave now to go to Ms. Kelly’s house. I know you want to stay home with daddy. You miss me and I miss you when we are not together. But staying home is not a choice today. Daddy has to go to work. But when we get home, we will finish the puzzle we started and have a yummy dinner. Do you want to get into the car seat yourself or do you want me to put you in?
Give your child a visual to help him cope with waiting. If your child has to wait until his oatmeal has cooled down, show him the steam rising from the bowl. Tell him when the steam goes away, you can test the oatmeal on a spoon to see if it is cool enough. If you need to help your child brush her teeth for 2 minutes each day, use an egg timer so she can watch the countdown. Need 10 minutes to fold some clothes? Set a kitchen timer so that your child can keep track. It’s also okay to acknowledge the obvious: It’s hard to wait sometimes, isn’t it?
Plan ahead. Bring books or a drawing pad to the doctor’s office. Offer lacing beads and string to your toddler while you feed her younger brother or sister. Give your child a pot and wooden spoon to stir with while you are cooking dinner. When you offer your child something to do while she waits, it shows her how to cope with feelings of boredom or frustration.
Look for patterns in your child’s behavior. By being a careful observer, you can identify patterns such as what situations are difficult or stressful for her and can begin to anticipate when a “blow-up” might occur. Then you can take steps to prevent the break down. For example, if you notice that your child breaks down every time he has to get into his car seat, you might give him a warning 5 minutes beforehand and then let him choose a special book or toy to bring in the car to help make the transition.
Help your child understand her feelings and behavior. This self-awareness helps her learn to manage her feelings in positive ways. For example, you might say to a child who has a hard time moving between activities: It’s hard for you to get in the car to go to childcare. Why don’t you pick out a favorite book to read, or we can play ‘I spy’ while we drive. Which do you want to do? Over time this helps your child learn strategies to cope with situations that are challenging for her.
Think prevention. Use what you know about your child to plan ahead. For example, if you know that she feels very shy meeting new people, you may want to start flipping through the family photo album in the weeks before you attend a big family picnic so she can start to recognize extended family members. During playtime, you can act out having a picnic with her Aunt Betty and Uncle Bert. You might also want to pack your daughter’s “lovey” as well as a few of her favorite books to bring with her. When you get to the event, help your relatives connect with your daughter by suggesting that they don’t rush in for a big hug, but wait for her to “warm up” first. Using these strategies is not “giving in” to your child. You are helping her manage what, for her, is a very challenging situation. This helps her learn how to cope when she encounters new people in a different setting, such as school.
Stay calm. This is the essential first step. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be. Children take their cue from our responses. When we get agitated, upset, and frustrated at their tantrum, it increases their upset. They need you to be their rock when they are “losing it.”
Try an interrupt. If your child is agitated past the point where he is able to respond to what you are saying or doing, try an interrupt. This is an unpredictable response the child isn’t expecting, like asking a child who is shouting angrily to join you in a game. Or just go to him and give him a big bear hug.
Take a break. There is a value to giving children a break. Some children actually calm down much more quickly when they are breaking down by being by themselves in a safe place. This is not punishment. It is an important strategy to help children learn to soothe themselves and regain control—a critical life skill. Some families call this safe, quiet space the “cozy” corner. It might have some pillows, stuffed animals, books and small, safe toys. When your child pulls herself together, it is very important that you acknowledge it by telling her what a good job she did calming herself down.
Reconnect after a tantrum:
Use a warm and supportive tone of voice.
Give your child a kiss and hug.
Tell your child what a good job she did calming herself down.
Discuss what happened. Ask for details, and help your child think through the choices she made: You were really angry and you hit your baby brother. What made you angry? It’s okay to feel angry, but in our family, we do not hit. Hitting hurts.
Brainstorm different ways to handle the situation next time. The next time you make a tea party, let’s give you brother some of his own cups and pretend food to play with so he won’t take or mess up yours.
Do not talk for too long or ask too many questions. Keep it short and to-the-point.
End with a kiss, hug, and an “I love you.”
Offer choices to head off misbehavior. For example, when a child is having trouble sharing a ball, you might say, You have a decision to make. You can choose to take turns with the ball or put the ball away. When you give choices, remember to:
Offer these choices in a positive, respectful way. Avoid sounding angry or punitive.
Make these choices realistic and establish fair consequences ahead of time. You can decide to put your puzzle away and then we can play with the trains. Or, we can keep playing with the puzzle. But we cannot take the train tracks out until the puzzle pieces are back in the box.
Keep your language simple and at your child’s level.
Do not use the choices as a threat. Presenting the options is a way to help your child know that she has choices and that every choice has consequences. It is way to help children think more rationally when they are upset.
Model self-calming. I just spilled ketchup all over my shirt! How frustrating! Okay, let me take close my eyes and take a deep breath. After that, I will need to go change.
Recognize your own feelings. Try making a habit of taking 15 seconds to be still and not act when you are in a “hot button” situation with your child. Use those few seconds to think: What is my goal here? What do I want my child to learn? Even waiting and thinking a few seconds before acting will help you respond in a calmer, more thoughtful, and more helpful way.