Tantrum taming – in public and at home

Getting cross with a toddler in full tantrum can only make it worse. Check out some better ways to deal with it


Here’s a challenge. Next time your toddler is throwing a wobbly in public and all eyes are on you, don’t bow your head in shame. Be quietly proud. Your child’s outburst is a sign that she’s developing nicely, and that she’s starting to know her own mind and wants to take some control over her life.


Of course, viewing the behaviour of a screaming, puce-faced child as anything other than that of a monster is very tough. But it helps to try to see the situation from your child’s perspective.

Parenting expert Clive Dorman is a director of The Children’s Project, a group that supports preschool families. He believes that by showing parents why children behave the way they do, they will help them to respond appropriately.

‘Tantrums are brought on by anger when their desires aren’t met or their need for independence is interrupted,’ says Clive.

Remember that a toddler’s ability to reason is restricted. As Clive points out, ‘They’re still learning concepts such as time and patience. They live for the here and now. The words “soon”, or “later” have little meaning to them.’

It’s no wonder that frustration can build up so quickly and is expressed in the only way your toddler knows; by screaming, hitting out or throwing himself on the floor.

But it’s important not to classify every show of anger as a full-blown tantrum, advises child psychologist Penelope Leach. ‘A full-blown tantrum is the emotional equivalent of a blown fuse. She is overwhelmed by her own internal rage,’ she says. ‘She’s terrified by the feelings that she can’t control. However unpleasant your child’s tantrums are for you, they’re much worse for her.’

It’s easy to associate a tantrum with non-compliance and to respond in ways that vent your own frustration. However, if you act like this, you’re simply showing similar behaviour to that of your child, and it will make the situation worse.

‘Tantrums are frightening,’ says Clive. ‘But if a child sees the person they depend on getting angry with them, it’s even more scary. Try to stay calm and be consistent.’

And to help you achieve this, here are a few of his suggestions:

At home….

1. Allow your child space to calm down.

2. Try to meet your child halfway for a hug, and then distract them.

3. You may be rejected, but keep trying, as it takes time for children to calm down.

4. When the tantrum is over, try to work out what started it, so that next time you might be able to prevent it.

In public…

1. Remember that most other parents are likely to sympathise with you, rather than judge you.

2. If the tantrum is extreme, pick up your child and move him away from where the tantrum began. Distraction may then work.

3. If the tantrums become regular, it may be easier to avoid the situation. For example, if shopping is a trigger, try to arrange childcare so you can shop alone.

4. If this isn’t possible, involve your child in the activity through talking, bring distractions with you (toys, books, snacks) and praise them at every opportunity.

Learning to compromise

Experts agree that there’s no point in challenging kids with absolute ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, where a tantrum is the only option.

Take the example of a toddler who won’t wear her coat, even though it’s snowing outside. She can’t go without a coat. But what if you let her wear it undone for a while?

By helping your child manage her tantrums at an early age, you should save yourself problems later on. But don’t be tempted into giving your daughter what she wants to stave off a tantrum. Those Smarties might stop the wobbly for now, but what happens when you refuse to cave in next time? It’s a short-term fix that could create a longer term problem.

The fact is, being a parent to a toddler isn’t always easy. But it’s not easy being a toddler either, veering between anxiety and anger. But your child will soon learn to explain her needs and emotions.

In the words of Leach, ‘She will turn into a reasonable and communicative human being. Just give her time.’

When it all gets too much

When you feel you’re going to snap, there are steps you can take towards becoming in control again.

  • Walk away
  • Take a deep breath and count to 10.
  • Ring someone up for a chat and some sanity.
  • Take you and your toddler outside for some space. But if it does become too much to bear, help is available. Call Parentline’s 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 2222. Your GP will also be able to offer advice.


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