Toddler Tantrums – Who’s In Control?

Hi Janet,

I need some advice. Mia has gotten into screaming tantrums if we ask her to do anything she might not want to do: wear blue pants, come to dinner, brush her teeth. During the day I’m good at remaining calm, ignoring the tantrum, and then she stops really quickly.  Recently, she’s started screaming about staying in her bed in the middle of the night.  She wants to sleep in our bed… and she’s getting to. After much upheaval- hours sometimes – we give in… each night , it’s taken her less and less time to WIN.  I don’t want her to scream and writhe and cry either, but i don’t want her to think that that’s a way to get what she wants.  btw, she’s now in a toddler bed and was sleeping REALLY well in it for about a month. 

Also, after heading towards potty training… she’s completely avoiding underpants, training pants and the potty. 

I feel like both these things are about her being in control… everyone wants some control…but I feel like I’m not dealing with it well and wanted to hear your  thoughts.  Also, i had a lot of tantrums as a kid and my parents just got down to my level and fought with me… and the tantrums didn’t end for years… so i know how painful tantrums can be and would hate for her to end up like i was.

So here i am asking you for advice again. i appreciate it.

Thanks,                                                                                                                                                                                                   Nicole

Hi Nicole,

I’m sorry to hear you’re going through a rough patch with Mia.  I get the feeling (because of the way you ask questions and then sort of answer them) that you actually know what to do. You just seem a little unsure about when to give Mia some autonomy and when to put your foot down.  That’s confusing for many of us… I’ve been there!

During the day I’m good at remaining calm, ignoring the tantrum, and then she stops really quickly”. I wouldn’t ignore the tantrum so much as let it be. Trust her to express these feelings and support her with your acceptance. This is the same way to treat the screaming at night. Make a decision about what you’ll do beforehand, i.e., you’ll stay in her room, maybe lie down next to her until she goes back to sleep, or allow her to join you in your bed.  Make it your idea from the get-go, so that it is not about giving in to her demands. Staying in her room (though I know it’s a pain) is probably best if you don’t want to encourage co-sleeping. Either way, if you are decisive, calm and unemotional, she’ll pass through this phase quickly.

The problem with the nights is that we’re tired, groggy, lacking in clarity, desperate to go back to sleep. It’s harder to keep our irritation in check and remain neutral in the middle of the night. The hours of “upheaval” you describe turn the occasional, random night waking into a drama, a party, a battle of wills. If you’re one or two years old, this is something well worth waking up for regularly (like a favorite nightly soap opera!).

Sleep issues are reflective of our child’s entire day.  When I first read your e-mail, my instinct was that there might be stressors in Mia’s life triggering the sleep disturbances, tantrums, and toilet regression. So first I would…

Take a look at possible stress.

You recently told me a wonderful story about Mia’s preschool. It sounds like an excellent place and I know she’s thriving there, but keep in mind that for a two-year-old, school is enormously stimulating and tiring. If you’re not already doing so, I advise making preschool her only scheduled activity.

Adding other groups, lessons or classes can be too much stress for a child Mia’s age. Activities that sound to us like fun, enriching experiences (like dance or music classes, even going to see a show) present yet another set of implied behavioral expectations for a toddler to abide by, even if they are the most ideal, child centered, innocuous, undirected, “just play” kinds of situations.  Whenever our toddlers do anything outside the home – even a simple trip to the park – there are implied expectations attached. For now, keep expectations outside of school to a minimum — make her days as loose, light and breezy as possible with lots of free time at home to dawdle in her PJs or whatever, to balance the time she spends at school.

Keep changes in Mia’s life to a minimum also. Switching to a toddler bed is a big deal, and even though she was fine with it for a month, she may still be reacting to that transition. Her crib was the cozy, secure place she slept in as long as she can remember. Even if she was free to climb out of it, she didn’t feel as free as she does now. It can be distracting and overwhelming to a toddler to be able to wander out of bed anytime. Don’t add any other changes for awhile.

Whether Mia’s issues are stemming from outside stress or the internal developmental “push-pull” children often feel at her age as they become more independent, here are some thoughts about handling them…

Choose battles, give advance notice and choices.

Decide what is important enough to insist on, and whenever possible present a choice, so that Mia can feel participatory and regain the bit of control she needs.  For example: she can choose to brush her own teeth or you will brush them for her, but her teeth must be brushed.  She doesn’t have to sit with you to eat if she’s not hungry or stay at the table longer than she wants to, but she won’t be served again until the next meal. She can wear blue, green, or polka-dot pants, but she must wear pants (or a dress with underwear or a diaper). 

Try to remember to tell her at least a few minutes beforehand when you are transitioning to another activity. “After you play for five more minutes, it’ll be time to get dressed for school.”

Sometimes, regardless of choices and advance notices, you’ll have to insist on something and she may still scream or have a tantrum. “No, you can’t wear the dress-up heels to school…and it’s time to go. I’m bringing your sneakers to put on in the car when you calm down.”

I know how horrible it feels to have to carry a screaming child or insist she does something, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.  Believe it or not, it’s what she wants.

Acknowledge her displeasure (when she is quiet enough to hear you). “You didn’t want to wear these sneakers. It’s hard not to get to wear the shoes you want to school. But the high heels aren’t safe to play in, and it’s my job to take really good care of you.”

Accept regression.

Children need to regress sometimes, especially if they are dealing with transitions or stress of any kind. Just because we are able to do something doesn’t mean we always feel up to doing it.

Using the potty is something only Mia can control. Give her the power to decide when she can handle using the potty again. Trust her. Encourage her to wear her diapers and pull-ups and assure her that you want her to be completely comfortable. If toilet training or falling asleep (two areas that she controls) become power struggles, take away any reason to struggle. When she no longer has an “opponent” to resist, she can relax and decide to be autonomous in those areas again. And she will, soon.

Be a kind leader.

Mia, like all toddlers, needs gentle, confident leaders. As you’ve realized from experience, she needs you to rise above the fray when she has a tantrum and allow it, but not fuel it by lecturing, scolding, punishing, battling, or otherwise making it into more than the momentary outburst, the out-of-control feeling that it is.  Toddlers want a little control from time to time, but do not for a second want to be on equal ground with their parents. They need to know that we are in effortlessly in charge, won’t bend when they scream, and also feel our compassion — compassion that you evidently have in abundance for Mia.

Hopefully, readers will chime in with advice!

Take good care,                                                                                                                                                                      Janet

PS: A book I often recommend, 1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years, offers simple, helpful guidelines for handling limits, tantrums, transitions, and much more.


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

  1. This is a great post. Thank you. Its a tough one to know sometimes, is something going on or are they testing.

  2. We can all “take a look at possible stress” no matter in what stage is our child.

    It´s common to think that fun activities will always be cool and forget how they get much more tired when stimulated to their limit on something.

    1. Marilia,
      I agree. It’s hard to remember to see those fun activities from a sensitive toddler’s point of view. I learned this through my own mistakes and misjudgments. Our young children also need plenty of downtime to process and assimilate all the exciting, but taxing experiences we give them, like preschool.

  3. Great post, Janet! It’s so true that young children need choices, but we as adults have to remember to set the boundaries for those choices. You gave a wonderful, thoughtful answer!

  4. (Sorry I haven’t visited in so long, Janet.)

    You explain parent-options so well, Janet. I especially reinforce looking for reasons that continuous sleep has stopped and for waiting on potty training until other issues are resolved. Also, be sure her father is participating with you for consistent responses to her tantrums.

    Giving a toddler a choice is a powerful method for mitigating tantrums. Be sure you can live with both options you offer.

    If her tantrums don’t decrease after trying everything offered here, try to keep a diary of her behavior for better analysis.

    1. Barbara, so good to hear from you!

      Thank you for the reminder to give only ‘real’ choices — acceptable options only. And we have to be careful about questions like, “Do you want to go to Aunt Martha’s house?” because when our child answers “No”… we’ve got egg on our face!

  5. Thank you so much for your response. We’re fortified by it and are moving alas slowly back to a place of better sleep and fewer tantrums. Certainly the sleep tantrums have been calmer and we’ve been calmer.

    The concept of regression hadn’t occurred to me. So that was really enlightening. And she’d been telling me that. I just didn’t get it. Recently when I ask her if she’s my big girl. She says, “No, I’m a little girl.”

    Thank you so much.

    1. I’m so glad things are improving, and I absolutely adore Mia correcting you, saying, “I’m a little girl”. Oh my goodness, that is so wonderful!

  6. Cassandra says:

    This post has been very helpful. I work 2 days a week and F(2yrs) goes to Grandmas and nursery on those days. When I do then have him I feel like I want to do fun things with him and if I don’t he seems to go a little stir crazy at home and he’s eager to get out. We are having bed issues at the moment so perhaps I will try a month or so of less activity and then see if he starts going to sleep better. Many thanks

  7. Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for the insightful post. We too are going through this stage of tantrums with our daughter, Clara (2.5yrs). I have been trying to not let them phase me, but it is difficult. I have a couple of questions. While they are mid-tantrum, do you look at them? Or do you just calmly go about your business while staying nearby? Also, if they are doing something unsafe while tantrumming what do you do? Our daughter hooks her toes on the underside of her high-chair try and then presses with all her might. I’m scared that her tray will go flying and injure someone or break a window. Should I just calmly remove the tray, but leave her strapped in for safety? Lastly, how do you get your husband on board with letting her cry and scream until her emotions have worked their way out? He is the primary caregiver and is with her while I am at work. He has a hard time listening to her cry and will try to get her to stop by redirecting or putting her in her room to cry alone. We are definitely sending mixed messages, which are probably making the tantrums last longer. Thanks.

    1. Hi Sarah! I would not ignore your child while she is upset. By “ignore the tantrum”, I believe Nicole meant not engaging with the tantrum, just letting it be.

      If your daughter is having a tantrum in her highchair, I would definitely take her out of the highchair and allow her to move freely without danger.

      Hmmm… getting husbands on board is not my specialty, but perhaps an article like this will help:

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