Tackling toddler tantrums: 6 tips to make a big difference

Every parent knows tantrums can be really hard to deal with. Lorna Davis, our Speech and Language Therapist (and mum of a 2 year-old tantrum professional) tells us how language development can play into tantrums, and her top tantrum tactics.

“Toddlers have only just started learning language. A two year-old usually only has around 50-100 words - that’s not a lot to express all the complex range of emotions they feel. No matter how well you know your child, it’s easy to misunderstand what they are trying to say sometimes.

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“For a toddler this can be really frustrating, and is a common trigger for tantrums. If your toddler has a speech delay or disorder, this might be even more marked. But for all children, regardless of their speech development, a few key things can make a big difference.

Keep your cool

“I know, it’s easier said than done! But staying calm really can make a world of difference. Speaking firmly and quietly can be much more effective than shouting. It shows you are in control of yourself and the situation. It also demonstrates the kinds of behaviour you want to encourage in your toddler. Shouting matches usually only feed the fire – leaving you both with a sore throat and a headache.

Stop and look

“Make sure you look at non-verbal cues like gestures, facial expressions and body language before you assume what the tantrum is about. Try to understand what they are trying to express, then respond calmly with clear explanations. Is this an angry tantrum designed to get your child something they can’t have? Or is your child expressing his frustration because he doesn’t have the language to express his needs?

Help them express themselves

“Teaching your toddler to sign can be one way to do this, particularly if they have a speech delay. Ask them to show or point to what’s frustrating them. They might not be allowed whatever it is they want, but you can tell them you understand what they are saying, and explain to them clearly why they can’t have it.

Reward good behaviour

“Praise is such an important tool for parents. It’s so easy to get into the habit of ignoring all their good behaviour while giving lots of attention for all the shrieking and foot stomping. Toddlers crave adult attention, so by doing this you are inadvertently rewarding tantrums and teaching that poor behaviour is a very effective way of getting what they want. Pay attention to the little, everyday things they do well and make sure you praise them lots. Reward charts can be great for older children.

Be consistent

“Be clear on your rules are, and stick to them. If the consequence is timeout then make sure you follow through. Only say no when you really mean it – and be prepared to stop them doing whatever it is. Empty threats will only frustrate you, and your toddler will spot them a mile off!

Divert and ignore

“First, try to divert your toddler’s attention away from whatever has annoyed the m. Try noticing something else interesting in the room or giving them a fun job to do. If that doesn’t work, and if a tantrum is just for attention, then ignoring can be one of the most effective tactics. Sometimes this isn’t possible, or easy - toddlers usually pick the most public places for their biggest shows. But, if they are in a safe place, then minimise communication and eye contact, and make yourself really ‘busy’ and interested by something else. You might just be surprised at how quickly the tantrum burns out and they come over to see what you are doing.

And finally….tantrum or meltdown?

Knowing the different is critical to helping your child and keeping your sanity. Tantrums happen when a child is trying to get something they want or need. Meltdowns are a result of your child feeling overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings. They need to be handled differently.

Meltdowns can occur when your child is flooded by an overload of sensory stimulation. For example, a noisy restaurant, a busy shopping centre, or that too-hot sweater with a scratchy label. Children who have sensory processing difficulties can have a particularly tough time handling these situations. Their heightened anxiety triggers their ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This results in screaming, lashing out, or running away from the source of their discomfort.

A tantrum will stop when your child gets what they want, understands that yelling won’t get them what they want, or is rewarded for behaving more appropriately. A meltdown will only stop once your child exhausts themselves of if the amount of sensory input is reduced. Take your child to a quiet, calm place where they can recover. Stay with them and soothe them but try to be quiet. The aim is to reduce stimulation while they calm down.

If you’re worried your toddler’s tantrums might be caused by speech delay, call us on 0208 673 7930 to speak to Lorna or find out more about how Lorna can help.

Lizz Summers

Voice & Presentation Skills Coach