Parenting Toddlers in the Tantrum Zone

Hi Janet,

Basically, we’ve been in extreme tantrum zone for about 6 months now. They can be over things that seem relatively small – usually around independence. For example, today my toddler had a tantrum because my husband put a straw in her smoothie instead of her doing it. Yesterday she had a tantrum because I was having an ultrasound and the technician wiped the jelly off my stomach instead of letting her do it. Both are things that she normally does herself, so these tantrums are not entirely unexpected. But most of her tantrums do tend to be to do with a certain rigidity in what her expectations are or wanting to do something on her own.

I was looking for guidance as to if I’m on the right track with what I’m doing, or if there’s anything else I could be doing to help her manage her emotions so we can work towards having less and less full-scale meltdowns. What I tend to do is this:

1) Remind her that she can say what she wants in a calm voice (sometimes this will head off a tantrum/meltdown before it happens)

2) If that doesn’t work, let her know that we can talk about what she wants when she calms down

3) If she’s unable to calm down, I will generally go with her to either a bedroom or outside until she is calm enough to talk about it (I don’t leave her anywhere on her own because I’m uncomfortable with time outs etc)

4) Once she’s calmed down (this can be relatively short or quite long and can involve plenty of kicking, scratching, hitting etc where I will tell her that it’s not ok and move away so she can’t hit me), we usually hug for a bit and then I’ll talk to her about what happened and what she could do next time. If she’s thrown anything during the course of the meltdown or tantrum we pick it up.

5) And once all that is done with we go back to what we were doing before

Thanks,                                                                                                                                          Zoey                                                                                                                                                                                                          

          Hi Zoey,

Ah, the extreme tantrum zone. Not a fun place to be.  But kudos to you for the way you are handling everything!  Wonderful that you are allowing your daughter to release her feelings without punishment or judgment, and being there for her when she’s ready to talk or hug rather than relegating her to “time out”. It sounds like you are being as patient, strong and understanding as humanly possible, allowing the tantrums to run their course without becoming emotionally involved or taking her feelings “on”, and stopping her from lashing out at you physically.  Goodness, all this and pregnant, too?!

Which brings me to what I believe might help you help your daughter “manage her emotions so we can work towards having less and less full-scale meltdowns”, and that is…understanding the context for the meltdowns and figuring out how to help her deal with that.  Is it a coincidence that you entered the extreme tantrum zone 6 months ago? Um…wouldn’t that have been around the time your daughter became aware of your pregnancy?

So, imagine this… a spirited toddler at a stage of life when her ability to communicate can’t keep up with her desire to express herself.  In toddlerhood, children also have a natural and healthy need to seek autonomy (the need for independence you’re noticing), an urge to control their environment, test their power. Frustration and tantrums are inevitable.

Now add another ingredient, a situation way beyond your daughter’s control. It’s very mysterious, worrisome and possibly threatening (to her sense of security). Her parents are having another baby.  For gosh sakes, she’s going to be a big sister! And isn’t she supposed to feel excited and happy? Everyone around her does! But she doesn’t. She’s worried, along with a bunch of other really confusing feelings. And in her attempt to get a grip on the situation, she goes into ultra-control mode.  Or, in other (bigger) words, your daughter’s developmentally appropriate need to experience autonomy and competence is amplified by the disconcerting impending change in her life. Either way, her family is forced to enter (cue foreboding music) ….  the extreme tantrum zone.

So, how to help?

The good news…because your daughter sounds expressive, self-confident and extroverted, you are not going to have to worry about her hiding her feelings —  pretending to be fine, perhaps a little quieter than usual, but hurting inside. She’s going to let you know.

From the little window you gave me into your world, I can’t tell if you are already doing these things or not, but here’s what I suggest…

Don’t feel responsible when your daughter doesn’t get her way and falls apart. She is a bit like a pressure-cooker right now, a pot full of simmering feelings, lid ready to pop at any time, hence the “rigidity” you’re noticing.  Yes, it’s great to try to remember to allow her to wipe gel and put the straw in herself, but it’s not always going to work out for her, and chances are that when it does she’ll find another reason to explode.  So, don’t feel you have to scurry around to please her and avoid an explosion. What she needs most of all (especially right now) are confident, stable, unruffled parents who project calm in the face of her storms (and the freedom you are giving her to have them).

Clarify the situation and make a plan. During more peaceful moments together, talk about life after the birth of the baby. Give her details about the changes that will occur, an imagined play-by-play of the day with the new baby.  Be honest and realistic.  Toddlers are way too perceptive to believe any whitewashing, and that won’t help her feel settled.  Tell her that although you will be very busy taking care of the baby and not be available for her all the time, you’ll make sure she always gets what she needs (through daddy, grandma, etc.). Tell her that you two will have some special time together each day and maybe once (or twice) a week a special outing that she picks.

Then, later, when you are busy with the baby and she’s upset you can say to her calmly and confidently, “I know you want me to do such-and-such with you now, but I can’t. I know it’s hard to wait, but we will have our time together in an hour (or whatever). I’m looking forward to it.”  She may have to keep testing that limit until she is certain you will hold your ground.

If you can make the outings work, I highly recommend them, even if you can only give her a choice between a walk down the street and a half-hour outing to the park. It’s not about what you do (or even the amount of time), just about being together. From my experience, those little one-on-one dates with your big girl will be very special, just the way dinner dates with a husband feel extra special once you’ve become parents.

Encourage her to process the feelings. Another thing to do in peaceful moments together is to check in with her about her feelings.  The goal is not to get her to label them, but to assure her that anything and everything she is feeling is normal, expected, perfectly all right.  You might put it this way, “When children have a baby brother or sister they have all kinds of feelings. Sometimes, even if they like the baby, they feel really sad or mad. Sometimes big sisters don’t like the baby — even hate him or her — and miss the way it used to be with mom. Those are all fine feelings to have. Whatever you’re feeling now or after the baby, please share it with me and daddy. We want to hear about it and help you feel better if we can. The baby will be hard for all of us, but one thing is certain… our love for you will only grow and grow.”

After the baby arrives, know how extremely postive it is for your daughter to get her feelings out in her way and time, even though they are difficult and unpleasant to hear. She may need to grieve the loss of her exclusive relationship with you, and these feelings will seldom come on cue or make sense in the moment. Whenever your toddler has an extreme overreaction or seems totally unreasonable, try to remember that she is processing her fear and grief as best she can. Encourage it. She will be all right.

I hope some of this helps. Please let me know if you have other questions (or tell me what I got wrong!).

Bless you and your family on this wonderful journey!

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                                        Janet

(Zoey blogs at zoeymartin.com.au

I share more about tantrums and other challenging toddler behavior in

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by Mel B. on Flickr)

16 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wonderful article, and relevant to my situation as well- 17 mo. old daughter with another daughter on the way in August! Great advice, I’m bookmarking this article as well 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. Great advice. We have been going through the same thing, sans the expectation of a new baby.

    Recently we had a 2 wk spat of my daughter having melt down after melt down at the slightest thing. I too feel uncomfortable about time outs so I created a “sad step” in the house where we would sit every time she went into melt down mode. Just sit together and let her cry. She could sit on the step or in my lap, which ever she wanted until the emotion had passed and then we would try and figure out what had happened. We would often be back there 10 minutes later and we of course weren’t always able to use the exact step, but the concept overall seemed to help.

    1. Natalia, oh my, I absolutely LOVE the “sad step”. In fact, I’d like to visit it sometime and have a good cry there. Thank you for sharing that!

  3. Hi Janet,

    What a wonderful post, and such excellent suggestions! I’ve been re-reading Dr. Alicia’ Lieberman’s “The Emotional Life of the Toddler” and I can’t recommend it enough to those who have toddlers! It really helps us recognize all of what is going on in the hearts and minds of young children…she even goes so far as to remind us that tantrums are actually GOOD for toddlers…they “take a child to the very bottom of his being, helping him to learn that anger and despair are part of the human experience and need not lead to lasting emotional collapse. If the parents can remain emotionally available, even firm in their position of denying something, tantrums also teach a child that he will not be left alone in his “dark night of the soul'” (p. 39).

    Then she goes on to talk about what happens for children when parents CAN’T always be emotionally available (because we’re human!). Truly, it’s an excellent resource, and I can’t help but also mention that Dr. Lieberman also happens to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming RIE Conference!(www.rie.org/conference…I hope you don’t mind the plug, Janet!)

  4. I love this

    Don’t feel responsible when your daughter doesn’t get her way and falls apart.

    Thank you. I’m working on this.

  5. Great post. I love your insights. My little boy was adopted and then I gave birth to a little girl a couple years ago. After she arrived, we went through a winter of a lot of extreme behaviors.. It was tough. Butwe did a lot of processing emotions through writing books about feelings. I also went back to rocking, snuggling, etc. with him (he was three at the time). I really think it helped and am so glad I did those things!

  6. avatar Linda Hinrichs says:

    Hello Janet and All,

    I finally made another moment to drop in again to your wonderful website. Thank you for all you are sharing! I also happen to be am in Tulsa, OK. at the International Infant/Toddler Conference and heard a wonderful quote today that applies, someone said, ” Toddlers don’t have tantrums, tantrums have toddlers” Thanks to the gentle parent who posed the question. You sound like you are doing a terrific job! Conference is over and someone else wants to print a boarding pass. Bye,

    Linda Hinrichs

  7. Just thought I’d pop back in and give everyone an update. We had a pretty intense two weeks of tantrums and meltdowns after I got home from the hospital, and then another week or two of sleep disturbances but now (6 weeks later and back to being home on my own during the day and in my normal routine) she rarely has a tantrum. In fact in the two weeks since my husband has gone back to work she’s had maybe one tantrum and definitely not of the absolute meltdown kind.

  8. Does she play with dolls? Role play may be able to help her play out some of her feelings.
    Mr. Rogers has written a book about becoming a sibling. The photos of real children that she can relate to can be really helpful, and Mr. Rogers has a way of explaining things so that kids understand.

  9. Janet, What might you change or add for a situation where a 2.5 year old is acting as Zoey describes (except, perhaps, less motivated by an interest in the “my do it!” focus) but there is no baby sibling on the way? I love the process Zoey follows but am curious what else might be added. And, I’m wondering how important it is to stay-the-course when I’ve said something needs to be done and get a meltdown response. And one more thing (sorry! We’re in the middle of tantrum-central, too)…I have read that when a child has a tantrum a parent should stay close and be reassuring, but let the child experience the emotions and calm down without parental direction or “it’s OK” kind of things. But what does ‘being there’ actually look like? sound like? Is it sympathetic looks? Smiles? Nods? Ignoring? ??? I appreciate and seek your guidance weekly. Thanks for the frequent posts and shares!

  10. The very best thing we can do is help wee ones understand their feelings – the investment pays off when they are adolescents and adults. I have found Dr Paul Holinger’s book “What Babies Say Before They Can Talk” an excellent source of advice and explanation about our emotional wiring and how to teach our children to express them. I give the book to new parents as a gift now instead of booties!

  11. avatar Eva Dalak says:

    Thank you for all these wonderful insights! Dealing with same issue with a 8 weeks old baby and a 2years old.

  12. avatar Stephanie Tovar says:

    Dear, Janet and other readers

    I am going to be completely honest about where I as a parent went wrong. I hope to be helped and not judged. I am in the process of trying to repair the relationship between my child and I. He seemed to be what some would call (bad, difficult, defiant) I had tried everything to get his behavior under control. I have just recently started practicing this type of gentle teaching “parenting” so for 3 years I was trying to make my son “listen/ behave” by punishing, time-outs, and even spanking. I am reluctant to admit that, but it is what I was taught and all I knew. Using your methods have helped me to repair our relationship and get him to better comply to request, he has deffinately been better behaved, but one thing I fear I have done that really damaged him was showing him that when I was angry at him or not getting him to do what I wanted, I would resort to spanking or (other physical punishment). Which I know now has taught him to (hurt/get physical) when he is angry or not getting what he wants. I have definitely stopped the spanking/punishing comepletely, but what I am doing does not make him stop hitting, kicking, and bitting when he is angry. Most times during a meltdown/tantrum when he becomes very mad and aggressive I can hold his hands and feet while telling him “I understand you are angry, but I will not allow you to (hit, kick, bite ect.) Whatever it is he is doing to try and hurt me, after continuing this for some time he will stop the behavior cry it out and come to me with open arms to be comforted. I comfort him until he is really calm and then talk to him about his feeling (validating them and excepting them) then I tell him it’s still not okay to (hit, kick, bite, ect.) He seems to understand, Then we move on. Until another meltdown/tantrum in which he has the same aggressive behavior. I am completely fine with allowing him to feel upset and angry but I am not fine with allowing the hurtful behavior. I guess what I really want to know is what alternative can I give him to express those feeling? I tell him “it’s not okay to… (hit ect.)” But, how do I give him a different outlet. He must be thinking “that’s all I’ve known and if now it’s not okay, then what is okay?” That I can not find an answer for and I know children need us to guide them instead of telling them “don’t…blah blah blah.” “They need to hear what they can do instead.” I don’t know how to teach him another way of expressing those feeling and after reading blog after blog I have not found an answer to my question. I do feel really guilty for ever teaching him to express anger or get compliance this way. I want to reverse what has already been taught. Please help!

  13. avatar Samantha Vinyard says:

    So how do I manage my emotions during these tantrums? I need help in that area. I know how I want to handle my son when he is emotional and throwing a tantrum but inside I’m throwing my own. This parenting thing is hard and seems to set my issues bubbling up to the surface.

  14. Remember> food allergies and or sensitivities could be playing a role in this…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations