We wrote a lot about toddler tantrums this year. And chances are, we’ll write a lot about tantrums next year, too. There’s a lot to dissect when it comes to why our little kids get so irrationally pissed off, how we can avoid the epic meltdowns in the first place, and then what to do when they throw a fit anyway, despite all of our best intentions, knowledge and tactics.
Let’s recap, shall we?
Why toddlers get mad
We can understand why toddlers become angry when we won’t let them do what they want. Even if the thing they want is to, say, play in the middle of a busy street, there is some logic to being upset over not getting one’s way.
But what about the times we give them exactly what we think they want and they’re still not satisfied?
Sometimes, though, when we give them the green cup instead of the orange cup—just like they wanted!—they cry anyway. A new study in published on PLOS ONE says that might be because of something called “recency bias.” When we ask them a question with two choices, they’re much more likely to answer with the second option; not because they truly prefer it but because they have trouble remembering the first option, particularly if the words or phrases are long.
How to avoid tantrums
Part of the reason why toddlers throw tantrums is because they have to wait for something. Eventually, they will develop at least some amount of patience, but if you don’t want to wait for it to happen naturally, you can actually help them strengthen their patience muscles with this method:
Finding yourself saying “no” a lot? Also finding that your “no” can lead to their tantrum? There’s another tactic you could try, but it requires a bit of effort and imagination: Steer the conversation toward an interesting story or offer a tangible alternative.
Here’s an easy one. When they want something but it’s not possible, switch out “but” with “and.” Because both things—whatever they want and reality—can both be true. It’s a softer sort of rejection.
How to deal with the tantrums you can’t avoid
Now that we’ve told you why they’re throwing a fit and how to avoid future meltdowns, we must concede that you cannot avoid them all. Exhaustion, hunger and passionate feelings will collide now and then in a fiery display of raw human emotion. And you know exactly when it’s most likely to happen.
We were in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. My daughter—who was two at the time—refused to get into her car seat. I tried coaxing her calmly, and then not calmly at all. Soon, it was a scene. She screamed as I wrangled her flailing body, my foot stretched out behind me to stop my shopping cart full of groceries from rolling away. People peered into my car, wondering what was going on. ‘We’re okay!’ I lied, my face hot and head dizzy.
You probably know exactly what time your kids are going to lose it. (In my house, we call it ‘naked o’clock’ because my toddler sheds both her clothes and her composure.)
But my favorite quick and easy way to end any tantrum? Is by tricking them into playing what one former children’s mental health counselor calls a quick “brain game.”
She used the technique with her own son when he became upset because he thought she wanted him to put away all his Duplo blocks, including the “inventions” he’d been working so hard on. (She only wanted him to put away the spare pieces that littered the floor but that direction was lost in toddler translation.) After unsuccessfully “reasoning” with him and empathizing and putting words to his emotions, she switched gears.
And remember: Don’t post it on social media
Now that it’s over, you are so tempted to share about the experience on social media, complete with a photo you managed to snap of them, mid-wail. Don’t do this.
I know, it feels good in the moment—and you’ve earned a good laugh for what you just went through! But you can share it privately with your partner or a friend and avoid the moment, several years later, when your kid discovers all the embarrassing pictures you’ve posted of them.
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