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If you’re here, chances are you want to learn new ways for how to deal with toddler tantrums because what you have been doing so far hasn’t been working.
I have dealt with my fair share of tantrums, especially from my oldest son. My oldest had his first tantrum at about 10 months old! It was more of a mini tantrum, but I remember being horrified when he started banging his head on the ground while he screamed.
After talking with his doctor, I learned that while this isn’t super common, it is something that can be normal and is more prevalent in boys.
All that to say…it only got more difficult from there for a couple of years! But then it did get much, much easier and I’d like to share what worked for us.
My oldest is more of an explosive child. His younger brother is two and a half right now, and while he has tantrums, too, they are nothing like what I experienced with my oldest.
First of all, I want you to separate the word “discipline” from the word “punishment.” They are often are used synonymously, but they are separate things.
Discipline is the act of teaching and training.
Punishment is giving negative consequences for inappropriate behavior.
Discipline and punishment might be used together sometimes, but it is important to understand that one does not necessarily mean the other.
We need to focus more on discipline and less on punishment.
I’m not saying there is never a time or situation where a consequence isn’t required. There definitely is!
However, a consequence is useless if the child is acting out because they are unable to regulate themselves. We need to be proactive, not reactive.
That means we need to help teach our children and guide them in self-regulation.
When your discipline tactics revolve solely around punishment (spankings, time outs, etc.) you are teaching your child the only reason to obey is because they are afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
Sometimes fear is an excellent motivator, but for difficult kids, fear simply isn’t going to work.
And do you really want your children only obeying you because they’re afraid?
We need to be willing to do the hard work of helping our kids through the situations in which they lost the ability to self-regulate.
Because guess what? Toddlers are not good at self-regulation. This should be no surprise to you, but unfortunately, some parents have higher expectations for their children’s behavior than they do for their own as a grown adult.
When an adult gets frustrated, they often rant & rave, swear, yell, complain….
But when a toddler gets frustrated we shame them for their bad attitude. Hello Pot, meet Kettle…
Also, when your child misbehaves and you start yelling, threatening, spanking, or isolating your child…how are you being an example for your child for how an emotionally healthy person behaves? You’re not.
Traditional Disciple Tactics Don’t Work
When you are dealing with a difficult child, typical discipline strategies like spanking and timeouts just do. not. work.
They do not work at all.
If you feel that spanking and timeouts worked for your kid, well, I hate to burst your bubble, but you don’t know what it’s like to parent a difficult child.
Sounds like you have an average child and you got lucky that these strategies seemed to work well enough for you.
But when you have an explosive, defensive, or angry child…. these strategies do so much more harm than good.
When we discipline with time-outs, we often think that we are allowing the child to cool down and think about their behavior.
Children that struggle with emotional regulation are just not able to use a time out the way we think they should. They don’t know HOW to regulate their emotions, and they need our help. They need their parents to help them, and isolating them isn’t teaching them anything.
As for spankings, study after study after study after study says not to do it. Maybe for easy-going kids that have the emotional regulation to respond the way we want to fear-based discipline tactics, spanking seems like it can work.
But again, spanking is a punishment. It doesn’t teach your child HOW to behave. For a child that is TRULY struggling, spanking does more harm than good. Yet so many parents believe it is not only effective discipline but justify it with biblical scriptures.
As a Christian myself, I want to take a moment to address the latter statement.
First of all, if we are continually able to prove again and again that spanking does more harm than good, do we honestly believe that is what God wants for us? God did not make a mistake designing us that we have to overlook when we discipline because of what we think He commanded.
Rather, God designed us exactly the way he wanted us to be. If spanking is proven not to work, why would we think that is what God means for all of us to do?
I’m not going to get into this much more, but if you are interested, you can check out the book Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson.
There are also some others you may be interested in, like Grace Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel. While Tim Kimmel does not outright reject spanking, he does focus on the most important parts of discipline; how to parent with grace, love, and understanding to shepherd your child’s heart for Jesus.
Below are two books I HIGHLY RECOMMEND for all parents. I linked some religious ones above, but the following books have no religious association.
I’m not lying when I say these books changed our lives. The only frustration I have with No-Drama Discipline is that it is very long. That is a difficult read when you’re desperate–it’s a lot of info to get through. But I recommend reading it and not just getting summaries from the internet.
It is very difficult to accurately apply parenting strategies when you only read a summary. Do the method justice and read the book!
How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen is a wonderful compliment to No-Drama Discipline. It is based on similar strategies and helps you tailor some of the strategies down to the right age group.
My son went from destroying his bedroom or our living room in the middle of a giant tantrum to being able to regulate with my help. Our relationship is now stronger than ever, and he did a complete 180.
He is still the same little boy, so he still struggles with big feelings and gets defensive sometimes. But when I mentioned at his kindergarten parent/teacher conference that he used to struggle and has destroyed rooms in anger, his teacher said she couldn’t even picture him doing that!
This is not a “hippie-dippie” parenting tactic that makes people feel good. This is 100% scientifically supported and you can see a difference in your child’s behavior almost immediately, though overall it will be a process.
This is why taking the time to truly teach and coach your child in these situations is essential. Relying on punishment for your discipline cannot do this.
For those of you in the thick of it and need strategies to start NOW, read on!
Start With Yourself
First of all, your ability to deal with your child’s difficult tantrums and outbursts is 100% dependent on your ability to stay calm while you parent.
None of us are perfect. All of us are going to mess up from time to time. That’s okay.
But if you are in the habit of letting your anger and frustration show to your child, it should be no surprise an emotionally dysregulated child is not able to “just shape up” when you aren’t even able to shape up your attitude.
The first thing you should do is work on staying calm, even when it’s extremely difficult to do so.
Identify Possible Triggers & Be Proactive
An acronym the No-Drama Discipline book uses is H.A.L.T.– hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.
When we are feeling any of those things, it becomes very easy to have emotional outbursts.
Help make sure your child gets regular meals and snacks. If there are situations you know of that make him or her angry, avoid them for a while while you work to get this under control. Do not isolate your child, make sure you are engaging with him/her, and provide opportunities for socialization.
You should also make sure you have a solid sleep schedule and routine, and if sleep didn’t go well or your toddler refused to nap, it might be a good idea to avoid situations where your child may have an outburst…for both of your sake’s.
Assuming all of those things are in place, let’s move on to the next strategy.
When your child is struggling, connect with them! Don’t call them out or shame them. That will backfire on you.
Comfort your child and listen as he/she explains what the trouble is. Offer them a hug and just listen, even when it’s hard and you’re trying to push down your frustration.
Being empathetic goes A LONG way with difficult kids. While it may be really hard for us to truly empathize with the fact that they got the red cup and not the blue cup, listen to your child and be empathetic anyway.
Sometimes being empathetic was enough to stop my son’s outbursts. He would cry and scream, but I would comfort and empathize. Then he would calm down, and we would move on.
No-Drama Discipline does a great job explaining the “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain.” I won’t explain it much here, but I highly recommend you read the book. Working to engage our child’s “upstairs brain” with specific conversational strategies will help our children come to a more rational place.
Responding to misbehavior with immediate consequences or threats keeps them in their “downstairs brain” which prolongs tantrums and outbursts.
Make Loving Physical Contact
When connecting with your child, hug them, gently rub their back, or stroke their hair. This will reassure your child and help them let their guard down to let you in. This may seem like an obvious strategy to some, but in the moment it isn’t most people’s first instinct.
Sometimes, kids are just so angry they don’t want to be touched. Be respectful of that, but make sure you try before you assume they don’t want a hug right now. And then make sure you go back and offer physical reassurance at some point when you think they’re ready.
There were times I thought a hug would just make my son madder, but then I was surprised to find him melt into my arms and start to calm down.
You Can Have Peace Again
I hope my story has given you some hope. I gave you some strategies to get started, but you seriously need to check out the books No-Drama Discipline and How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen. Their strategies are amazing!
We are in such a better place now, and my son is a much happier child. His personality didn’t change, so he still has big feelings sometimes, but we are much better equipped to handle these feelings now.
Let me know if you have any tips or tricks for parenting kids prone to huge tantrums! Leave the tips in the comments below.