Inside: When your kid throws a temper tantrum, do you lose your cool? Get frustrated? Embarrassed? Next time, use these proven tricks for dealing with toddler tantrums.
A while ago, I heard a story that stopped me in my tracks.
A mom was in a grocery store when her child started throwing a tantrum. Some guy walked up to the mom and made a rude comment. But then another person saw what happened, spoke up for the mom, and wrote a post about what happened.
The best part in the whole story:
“A kid going berserk at a grocery store doesn’t indicate the quality of his parents, anymore than a guy getting pneumonia after he spends six hours naked in the snow indicates the quality of his doctor. Grocery stores are designed to send children into crying fits. All of the sugary food, the bright packaging, the toys, the candy — it’s a minefield. The occasional meltdown is unavoidable, the real test is how you deal with it. This mother handled it like a pro. She was like mom-ninja; she was calm and poised, but stern and in command.“
When I’ve been in the same situation as that mom, on the receiving end of toddler tantrums? The OPPOSITE of calm.
My face gets pink and hot, and I feel like everyone’s watching me while I flounder.
And now as I navigate the choppy waters of trying to keep two kids happy while I run endless errands, I need a better strategy than “leave the shopping cart where it is, exit the building as fast as possible, and NEVER GO BACK TO THAT STORE.”
I’m running out of grocery stores.
8 Ways to Achieve Ninja Mom Status During Toddler Tantrums
I’m in awe of that calm ninja mom. So I decided to do some research on how she handles her kids’ temper tantrums so well.
Here are the best tips I found. Try them out the next time your kid has a nuclear meltdown over a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and channel your own ninja badass mom.
1. Stave off the Hangry
This one’s easy. Bring snacks with you everywhere you go, and be mindful of your kid’s nap time.
When kids are hungry and/or tired, they have zero tolerance for any little disappointment that crops up. And in the case of toddlers, their language skills aren’t developed enough to politely ask for a snack and a nap.
“Imagine you have listened to one audio lesson in Swahili. Overnight you find yourself in Africa. You’re hungry, tired and grumpy. You do not like the situation one bit. How do you get your point across?
‘You don’t have the language,’ said Susan Epperly, an Atlanta-based parent coach and writer on early childhood. ‘Your brain is going crazy with all this new stuff, and you have no words.'”
Come to think of it, I’m not exactly a peach when I’m hungry and tired. And I’ve had lots of practice at functioning in society.
Solution: Stick a raisin box in junior’s hand when you get to the grocery store. And don’t push it trying to get stuff done when you know it’s past his nap time.
2. Watch and Learn
Does your kid freak out when she sees all the candy in the checkout lane? Do your attempts to get your little guy dressed before you leave in the morning end in screaming and tears?
Research shows that events leading up to a temper tantrum are critical to whether toddler tantrums actually take place.
Pay attention to the situations where your child tends to lose his cool. When you see a trend, brainstorm ways to avoid the breakdown.
- In the checkout lane at the grocery store, ask your little one to be your helper and count the grocery items as you take them out of the basket.
- If your mini-me begs you to buy every piece of candy or toy that comes in their line of sight, try this magic trick for getting out of the store tantrum-less.
- If you tend to do battle over getting dressed in the morning, try giving him a choice between two items: “It’s time to get dressed now. Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?”
- When your kid gets wiped out from running errands, try these stress busters: plan a quick break where she can run around or do something to make her laugh.
3. Loosen the Reins
So what if your kid leaves the house wearing polka dots and plaid?
A toddler’s crazy style doesn’t lock him into a lifetime of no fashion sense. You’ll have plenty of time to teach him what matches when he’s older. And if other people judge you for letting your kid dress himself, who cares? Not a ninja mom.
Save your energy for the stuff that matters, and don’t make a big deal out of the small stuff.
4. Secure Your Oxygen Mask First
Let’s say you’ve done everything you can to ward off a tantrum, but you start to see the warning signs of impending doom.
The worst thing you can do? Lose your own cool.
“My friend Mana Heydarpour of New York City learned this lesson the hard way: When she told her strong-willed 3-year-old, Ella, that she couldn’t watch her favorite TV show, she screamed, ‘I don’t like you! I’m so disappointed with you!’ ‘It made my blood boil so much that I couldn’t help yelling back at her,’ Heydarpour says. As a result, Ella’s fit lasted for half an hour. [Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist,] calls this the Anger Trap. ‘If you get just as mad and irrational as your child, it’s like throwing gas on a fire,’ he says.”
If you want the storm to pass quickly, take a few seconds to brace yourself. Some ideas:
- Take several deep belly breaths. “Make your insides as calm as you would like the child’s to become,” says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., an expert in childhood education and developmental psychology.
- Repeat a mantra. Come up with a simple statement to help you keep perspective, and think it or say it quietly to yourself. Becky Bailey recommends “You can handle this.” Your mantra could be “This too shall pass.” Or maybe “I am a ninja mom.”
- Check the time. According to Potegal’s research, the average tantrum lasts about three minutes. So glance at a clock, and add 10 minutes. Remember that as long as you don’t fall into the Anger Trap, the worst part should be over by then.
5. Don’t Do These 3 Things
To keep toddler tantrums as short as possible:
- Don’t give in. If junior is throwing a fit over a Snickers bar, don’t give him the damn Snickers bar. Sure, it may help you escape the situation this time. But giving in teaches him that all he has to do when he wants something is go berserk.
- Don’t ignore or punish. Research shows ignoring toddler tantrums doesn’t help, nor does punishing them with time-outs. Think back to a time when you were really upset. Maybe your boyfriend had just dumped you and you had been SURE he was The One. Or that time you got a talking-to from your boss’s boss and nearly crapped your pants. You probably met your best friend and confided every tiny detail – twice – and sobbed into your wine glass. Now imagine if when your friend first got wind you were upset, she turned away and pretended not to hear you. Or worse, she got up from the table, left the room, and shut the door behind her. Would you magically snap out of your emotional upset and be happy as a clam? Your kid doesn’t work that way either.
- Don’t reason. You can’t reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum. Her brain just won’t compute what you’re trying to say. Don’t ask questions, don’t use logic, don’t tell her “That’s not important.” The maybe-I-can-talk-some-sense-into-her approach will probably intensify the tantrum and make it last even longer.
6. Say the Magic Words
So what CAN you say?
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. This simple step can shorten the tantrum dramatically. And it makes sense, when you think about it. Going back to our example of when you’ve been most upset: Imagine your friend looks you in the eye and says, “You’re upset. You were hoping that Billy was the person you were going to marry one day.” And then she gives you a hug.
When we’re upset, we want to be heard. Labeling your emotion can help you calm down and move on. Your kid is the same way.
Here are a few examples of how to validate your kid’s emotions without giving into his demands:
- “You are so mad. You are showing me how much you wanted that candy.” (Source)
- “I’m sorry you’re (state the emotion). When you calm down, I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.” (Source)
- Use reflection. For example, if his arms are crossed: “Your arms are going like this (cross your arms). Your face looks like this (mirror his facial expression).” He will probably look at you, so take a deep breath. He might unconsciously take a deep breath with you. Then say: “You seem (state the emotion). You were wanting (state the desire).” (Source)
- “I can see you’re really upset. I wish I could help you calm down right now. Here, why don’t you draw a picture that shows me how mad you are?” Replace drawing with any activity you think will be soothing to your kid or will help them redirect their energy to something positive. (Source)
- “I love you no matter what you say, and you’re a good kid. But we need to take a break and then talk about this.” (Source)
7. Get the Heck Outta Dodge
This is usually my first choice when toddler tantrums strike. But I discovered I’m doing it wrong.
Not only have I been skipping the empathize step more often than not, I’ve been getting us out of the situation in a hissy fit of my own – clenching my jaw, picking up my girl like she’s a sack of sweet potatoes, and storming out of the grocery store. Turns out my job is to be a role model for the calm behavior I expect from my kids. PARENTING IS HARD.
If you’re at home, I love this advice to find a way to stay nearby your upset child and keep your cool:
“…stay within eyesight and direct your own attention to another activity until your child is calm. They will need you to role model how to calm down for them, so minimize your interaction until you’re both calm. If you can, try to role model calm activities by taking deep breaths, flipping through a magazine, or tidying up, for example.”
8. Circle Back
When everyone is calm again, it’s tempting to sigh with relief and put the whole episode out of your mind. But if you want your child to learn how to self-regulate her emotions, it’s important to talk about what happened.
This is a pain in the ass, and Abby pretty much hates it. But after we’ve talked, we’re always glad we did. (Yes, Abby, too.)
We do this to reinforce why we said no, why her behavior was unacceptable, and most importantly – more positive ways for her to handle her emotions in the future. For example, after she threw a tantrum at the store over a new toy, we waited until she was calm to suggest a creative fix for the next time.
Her favorite part of these talks: Role-playing. We’ll pretend to get upset and stomp our feet or slam the door, then we’ll ask her, “Is that what we do when we’re upset?” She’ll smile and say, “No!” Then she tells us or shows us the more positive ways to handle feeling upset.
Here are a few that we use, but this list of scientifically backed ways to reduce stress might give you some ideas too. (Two coolest tricks I’ll be trying: chewing gum and smelling some lavender.)
- Take deep breaths – at least three. Together, if she wants. Abby likes to count them out, too.
- Listen to music. When she’s feeling down, Abby loves Be OK by Ingrid Michaelson. Or here’s a list of 6 surprisingly soothing songs.
- Hug or hold hands.
I also love this idea I saw on Pinterest: the calm-down jar. The child shakes it and watches the glitter settle while they take deep breaths. More ideas for how to make your own calm-down jar are here and here.
For more ideas, check out How to Turn a Temper Tantrum Into a Teachable Moment.
Download Your Free Cheat Sheet on Toddler Tantrums
- Download this free cheat sheet: 5 Things to Do During a Tantrum – and 5 Things Not to Do. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter! Just click here to download and subscribe.
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Hang your cheat sheet somewhere handy like on the fridge.
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How do you channel your inner ninja when toddler tantrums strike? Share your tip in a comment below!
I’m a mom of four, a recovering perfectionist, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. Parenting is hard enough without all the guilt we heap on top of ourselves. So let’s stop trying to be perfect parents and just be real ones. Sound good? Join my mailing list and as a bonus, you’ll get 25+ incredibly helpful cheat sheets that will ease your parenting struggles.