How to safely diffuse a toddler tantrum

When your kid spits the dummy, it's usually for a reason. It’s also usually in public. Here's how to deal.

toddler kicking ball with dad

A few weeks back, my youngest completely and utterly lost his shit while we were kicking the footy around at the park.

It started as most tantrums do: a sudden, sullen slump to the ground, before the tears and shrieks began.

The reason, from what I (and everyone else within a 2 km radius) could decipher: I’d kicked the ball when he wasn’t ready.

It was ball-shrinkingly embarrassing and, as the tantrum progressed into its fifth minute – with no end in sight – I reached peak frustration.

I have a short fuse at the best of times. This, clearly, was not the best of times.

When the tantrum finally came to its teary conclusion, things settled down and the footy started to flow again, I got to wondering why on earth he’d been so upset over something so bloody stupid.

Why do toddlers crack the shits?

There are a number of reasons toddlers descend into howling rages that are loud enough to wake the dead (and make you wish you were one of them) – and a lot of them are relatively easy to avoid.

One is hunger. This, by the way, was part of Tantrum at the Park – I’d forgotten to bring snacks, my little guy’s blood sugar was low and he snapped as a result.

The other part is that I had actually kicked the ball before he was ready. And logical, appropriate responses aren’t really a toddler’s thing.

Keeping a small stash of healthy snacks around the house (or in your bag if you’re on an outing) can – for real – save you.

However, snacks are for prevention, not treatment. Be seriously wary of offering treat-like snacks in a bid to stop junior mid-tantrum. Like chickens trained to peck at buttons to get a pellet of food, once kids learn that ‘tears = chocolate’, they’ll use that knowledge to their advantage.

They can be devious little bastards like that.

Being overtired or overstimulated can also cause tantrums – and there’s nothing on this earth that loses its mind as quickly and as savagely as a toddler who’s missed nap-time. So if you want to avoid the screams, don’t blow right through nap time, no matter how much fun your kid seems to be having.

Tantrums are also brought on simply because your kid has been faced with a situation that they mentally or emotionally just can’t cope with.

Their little brains – while bursting at the seams with new information – still aren’t the best at processing emotions, so it makes sense that they can’t express themselves or their feelings very well.

That leads to frustration – which leads to junior face-down on the floor screaming their guts out and refusing to stand up, or for the love of god just be quiet.

How to diffuse a massive dummy-spit

Dad diffusing toddler tantrum

Coping, while teaching your kid how to handle his emotions, is about balancing your response – you don’t want to ratchet up the stress, but you don’t want to comfort to the point of rewarding. So, fun times.

First off the bat, resist the urge to join in.

I know it can be monumentally frustrating when your kid’s doing his block and just won’t f*cking stop. But trust me, getting stroppy and joining in the shouting will only make the whole scene worse – and tell your kid that this is legitimate behaviour.

So, take a few deep breaths, plaster on a fake smile, and do your best to get to the bottom of what’s causing the tantrum so you can find a solution.

I would not recommend simply walking away as a strategy. I very nearly got banned for life from Woolworths a few months back.

Another option, if you can handle the noise without grinding your teeth down to useless nubs, is just to stay close to your toddler and simply wait the whole thing out. Toddlers run out of steam relatively quickly – especially if you’re there, sitting patiently.

This is where you have to take care though. It’s best not to sit too close or give them too much attention – as harsh as it sounds, you’d be basically rewarding your child for having the tantrum in the first place.

It’s the same deal if the tantrum explosion begins because junior wants something and you won’t let him have it – you’re in for a world of hurt if you cave in and give it to them to stop the tantrum.

They’ll learn to expect to get their own way each and every time they decide to throw a wobbly, and it can take a very long time to re-train them to think differently.

Preventing (or at least, reducing) future meltdowns

Toddler boy throwing a tantrum

All kids will, at some point, throw a tantrum. Like shitty nappies or bouts of gastro that roll through the whole family, dealing with tantrums is an unavoidable part of being a dad.

Your job is to do your best to avoid them – and that means a few changes to your own behaviour, as well as a few changes to theirs.

First of all, learn the triggers – knowing what’s likely to set them off and preparing can be half the battle.

With my own boys, when the call came to go home from the park, that was it. Both of them – howling and crying – because they didn’t want to go home. It made me dread taking them out to play, because I knew what was coming at the end of it all.

It turned out to be an issue of them feeling some level of control over their lives – and I was the bad guy because I was stopping them from having fun before they were ready.

So I tried giving them a sense of control – while remaining the alpha in the pack, of course. Now, 10 minutes before we’re due to pack up, they get a choice: “Do you guys want to play for five more minutes, or 10 more minutes?”

They always choose 10 (surprise!) – but by giving them a choice, they’re cool with the idea of heading home once those 10 minutes are up.

Also, pro tip: 10 minutes can really fly by, since toddlers don’t wear watches or have much concept of time – we average about four minutes from decision time to ‘righto, hop in the car’.

Secondly, take the time to talk to your kids once the tantrum is over, and encourage them (or teach them if they don’t know how) to talk about their feelings.

Learning about emotions is part of their normal development – and they’ll cotton on pretty quickly about anger. Acknowledging their feelings is crucial at this stage – it’s okay to be angry, but the way we show it is what really counts.

“Dude, be as angry as you like – but throwing things or having a massive dummy spit in the middle of a shopping mall isn’t how we deal with it.”

Above all, be consistent with how you deal with the tantrums – and that’ll mean talking about strategies and comparing notes with your missus. The last thing you want is mixed messages coming from mum and dad.

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