How do You Deal With a Toddler Throwing Temper Tantrums?

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Answered by: John, An Expert in the Discipline and Behavior Category
You've seen it standing in line at the grocery store, probably more than once. A parent struggling to calm their unruly toddler who's incessant kicking, screaming, and downright unacceptable behavior. All because little Becky was told 'no' when she asked for her favorite cereal. Becky's parent quickly tries to diffuse the situation, make it through the checkout line, and get out of the public eye as quickly as possible. If you're a parent and you haven't already found yourself in Becky's parent's situation, prepare yourself. The time is coming.

Whether you're a new parent or a seasoned professional, dealing with your toddler throwing temper tantrums can be difficult to manage. So how do you handle these outbursts when they occur? If you're looking for a 'magic bullet' to calm your child's temper, you should go ahead and give up now. You're not going to find it here because it doesn't exist. Your kid is going to throw fits and there's really not much you can do to prevent that. You can manage it though.

First, it's important to understand why your toddler throwing temper tantrums happens in the first place. This is in large part due to a maturing process known in psychological terms as 'individuation.' In simple terms, this means he is beginning to learn about who he is, what he likes and dislikes, and what he's feeling. He's in the process of graduating from being completely dependent on mom and dad and learning to assert himself, and that's a very good thing!

The problem is, he's likely not able to effectively communicate his needs and desires due to his currently limited vocabulary. This creates frustration on his end; frustration that is only compounded by his inability to express it to you. Imagine having a feeling that you don't understand and being completely helpless to discuss it with anyone. As adults, the ability to express ourselves is something we take for granted. Not only does your child not fully understand how he's feeling, but he's also incapable of communicating effectively enough to get help working his emotions out.

That's where discipline comes in. Don't get too excited about the word, 'discipline.' There is more to this concept than just punishing your children. In fact, according to the Google Dictionary, the full definition of discipline is twofold:

1) The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

2) A branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education.

Assuming your toddler isn't already enrolled in college, you can safely assume it to be your responsibility as a parent to help them with the second part of this definition. As you can see, discipline is about more than just punishment. Part of effectively disciplining your children is helping them to understand. In this case, your child is experiencing feelings he doesn't understand. It's your job to help him do that.

While he can't necessarily verbally communicate, it's a good bet that he is, for the most part, more than capable of understanding what you say. You may want to consider sitting down and talking to him about what triggered his latest tantrum. Ask him questions and give him the opportunity to respond. In the case of the parent in the grocery store, little Becky probably isn't capable of saying "I'm upset because you won't let me have my favorite cereal and I don't understand why." But, if asked "are you upset because I won't let you have your cereal?" she will most likely be able to indicate that you're on the right track.

Once you've demonstrated to your child that you understand how they feel and why chances are they'll begin to calm down a bit. Don't stop there though. It's still important to help them understand why the thing that upset them happened in the first place. Grocery store mommy might say something like, "I understand that not getting your way upset you, but you already have some of that cereal at home. In fact, when we get home, if you behave, mommy might be able to give you some."

This isn't to suggest that you should reward bad behavior. But consider that the punishment must fit the crime and, once the price has been paid, it's time to move on. Discipline may not require any actual punishment at all but, if it is appropriate, it should be issued in the moment in an effort to help your child fully understand why it's happening and what the immediate consequences for their actions are. After that, move on and offer some sort of 'peace offering' to let them know that, although they didn't get their way, their feelings are still important to you.

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