Help! Our Toddler Has Terrible Tantrums!

by Susan Stiffelman, MFT


Help! My toddler’s tantrums are wearing down the whole family. Why does she have

them? How can we get them to stop?


“An explosive outburst… occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon a

person outstrip that person’s capacity to respond adaptively.” (Ross Greene, author

of The Explosive Child.) In simpler terms, children have tantrums when they don’t have

the emotional or physiological resources to cope with whatever is frustrating them.

Ideally, as children mature, they become increasingly able to tolerate disappointments

or limitations. But meltdowns can and do happen at any age; in fact, I know many

parents who have had their share of tantrums when things have gotten to be too much!

Our job as parents is to do our best to avoid sailing into the rough waters that can

cause our little ones to lose their footing and fall apart. But no matter how hard we try

to prevent our children from having tantrums, there may still be times when they

cannot cope with whatever demand has been placed on them. Perhaps they’re tired or

hungry, or they could be feeling overly jealous or hurt.


Usually, there is a buildup of tense moments that warns parents to change course

before an explosion happens. But some tantrums seemingly appear out of nowhere;

one minute little Michael seems to be playing fine with his cousins, and the next minute

he’s rolling on the floor, howling with everything he’s got.


In addition, some children seem to be born with an easy-going, carefree nature. These

kids rarely have tantrums; they handle whatever life brings with ease, unaffected by

stress or over-stimulation.


And there are those children who are born with a fragile temperament. For these kids,

any disruption in the routine — staying up a little late, eating too many sugary snacks,

having a new babysitter — can send them into Tantrum-land. These little ones are more

vulnerable to change or sensory overload, and don’t have the internal resources or selfcontrol

to cope at all well.


Here are a few things to keep in mind:


Be flexible. If you sense that your child is teetering on the brink of having a

meltdown, forget about doing that final errand and take your child home for some

quiet down time.


Nourish your child with loving attention throughout the day. Some meltdowns

take place when a child is desperate for attention, and has figured out that a sure way

to get you to stop what you’re doing and focus on them is to have a tantrum.


Acknowledge upsets with empathy and connection. Sometimes a tantrum can be

avoided by simply bringing a shaky child onto your lap for a cuddle and a few words

that let her know you understand. “You really wanted your big brother to draw with

you, didn’t you, honey. It’s hard when he goes off to do something else when you’re

wanting him to stay…”


As children get older, they usually grow out of having tantrums when life doesn’t go

their way. With words to express big feelings and better self-control, most kids develop

the resources to handle upsets without the drama of a full blown meltdown.


If your child continues to have tantrums beyond the age of four or five, it may be worth

mentioning to your pediatrician, or seeking professional guidance.


For more information on Susan Stiffelman, MFT go here:

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