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12 steps to handling toddler tantrums

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Does this scenario sound familiar? One minute your sweet adorable child is totally content, reading, playing and snuggling in your lap and the next, she’s throwing herself on the floor, arms flaying and tears are running down her face. Or worse— she’s having a meltdown in public and all eyes are on you.

Take heed. Toddler tantrums are perfectly normal but there are things you can do to make this trying time a little easier. Try one of these 12 tips:

1. Know what you’re dealing with.
Toddler tantrums are a normal part of every child’s development because the part of his brain that deals with managing emotions, problem-solving skills and delayed gratification simply isn’t well developed yet, said Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric health services at Montefiore Medical Group and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “They want what they want and they want it now.”

2. Expect meltdowns to happen.
Your child will probably have a tantrum most days or even several times a day. Tantrums can start to develop as early as 12 to 15 months, yet they’re usually in full force at 18 months and continue for the next year. Between 3 and 4 years old, they typically happen less often but may not completely stop.  

3. Be consistent.
“Inconsistently reinforced behaviors are the hardest to get rid of,” Briggs said. It’s hard not to give in to your child’s demands sometimes but if you do, your child will keep on trying and the cycle will continue.

4. Don’t overreact.
It’s easier said than done, but try to take a deep breath and avoid yelling.

“Children will start to understand that you don’t have to get yelled at to do the right thing,” said Carole Holmes Delouvrier, an etiquette expert and co-founder of Right or Rude.

5. Tag team with your partner.
Even if you and your partner have different parenting styles, it’s important to deal with the tantrum in the same way every time. By doing so, you’re teaching your child that the boundaries work with both parents.  

6. Divert their attention.
When your tot is in the throes of a tantrum, shift his focus to a new toy or ask him two questions that he really has to think about.
“You have to engage in distraction—it is the answer to every parent’s prayer,” Holmes Delouvrier said.

7. Take a timeout.
Timeouts are a great way to give your child a safe space to calm down and are also an opportunity to show your child she can calm herself down in a healthy way. Take advantage of timeouts to take a few deep breaths yourself.

8. Don’t blame yourself.
It’s easy to think you did something wrong or that something is wrong with your child, but remind yourself it’s as normal as their giggling fits.   

9. Stay calm
Kids look to their parents to help them simmer down so the more calm you are, the easier it will be for your kid, Briggs said.  

10. Don’t talk about it.
You might think you’re helping your child by talking through it, trying to talk them out of it or negotiating, but she doesn’t have the reasoning skills to understand what you’re saying, Briggs said.

“When we pay attention to behaviors, they continue,” Briggs said.

A better approach? Acknowledge it, empathize and then ride it out.

11. Prevent tantrums.
When your child is well rested and has regular healthy meals and snacks, tantrums might happen less often. Also, avoiding certain situations like bringing your kid food shopping during the witching hour can help too.

12. Get help.
Sometimes tantrums might mean that something else is going on with your child, like a developmental delay or health problem. Think about how long the tantrums last, how often they happen and if there are other behaviors like kicking, throwing objects or self-injury and then talk to you child’s pediatrician.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.