Tantrums are an inevitable part of toddler-rearing. Stressful, frustrating, occasionally embarrassing, and at their very worst can really make you question what you’re doing as a parent. We’ve read countless pregnancy, baby, and parenting books, and we’ve found books on tantrums tend to be the most helpful. Our latest read, The Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler’s Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, really hit home on why taking time to read up on the topic is totally worth skipping Netflix for a few nights. Our Associate Editor, Lindsey Rickard, gives her takeaways on the read:
Understanding the science behind a tantrum has helped me remove my own emotional reaction from the situation. I’m no brain scientist, but understanding that tantrums are, at some level, a neurological episode that tiny people often have very little control over, helped me chill out a little. The part of the brain responsible for tantrums happens to be the same part we use for things like breathing and staying alive, so it makes sense that part of the brain is ready and rearing to go from birth. The higher part of the brain, where rational thinking and problem solving live, develops later. And on top of that, the connection between these two parts of the brain is also under construction during the toddler years, making it that much more difficult to reason with a toddler.
It’s good to know the role you’re playing, as a parent, in patterns of behavior. Through real-life examples that resonated with me, I understood that some of my tendencies, like being inconsistent with limits (you can’t have the candy, you can’t have the candy, ok fine you can have the candy), expecting my children to be grateful (spoiler alert: that can really backfire) and not pausing before I react can reinforce the behaviors leading up to tantrums, prolong a tantrum, or even send the wrong message after a tantrum.
It’s refreshing to read, from a totally objective standpoint, what your toddler needs. Toddlers crave independence and autonomy. They want some control over their lives, understandably so. While my littles need structure—and structure tends to be my focus—offering choices (a limited number, and those usually less central to the activity) can diffuse a tantrum by allowing them to stake some claim on their lives.
Beyond a big picture understanding, books like The Tantrum Survival Guide offer actionable tips to help while you’re in the trenches. Here are three tantrum tips from Rebeca herself:
Use “strategic attention” to combat tantrums (or, why it’s OK to pull out your phone when your kid is melting down). Rebecca says, “Ignoring behavior—like tantrums—that you want to discourage can be as effective as paying attention to behavior you want to encourage. If we follow the principle of strategic attention, we don’t want to use our phones when our toddlers and preschoolers are engaged in desirable behaviors. But when they begin to engage in undesirable behaviors – like, say, the beginning of a tantrum–phone time! Because the opposite of attending to a behavior is ignoring it, and sometimes if you ignore the behaviors that signal an oncoming tantrum (feet stomping, grunting), your toddler will get the message and cease and desist.”
Tap the power of distraction. “Distraction is deceptively simple in averting a tantrum,” Rebecca says. It involves shifting your toddler’s focus using the old ‘Ooh, look over there!’ or ‘Here’s something shiny!’ trick. Try asking a question that seems to come out of the blue, like ‘hey, do you remember what you had for breakfast this morning?’ Most kids won’t be able to recall right away (if at all), and their subsequent pause will serve the dual purpose of taking their mind off their distress and buying you time to think about where you’re going to take the conversation.”
When you can see a tantrum coming, like an oncoming train…Rebecca says, “Skip the rational explanation. Too often, when toddlers and preschoolers are on the verge of tantrums, we intervene with logic, with rational explanations or arguments intended to decrease frustration. And yet in doing so – with the best of intentions – we make things worse. Our little one’s initial frustration becomes compounded because she feels neither heard nor understood. Instead, label and reflect your toddler’s emotions–even if they don’t get what they want, they will feel heard and understood.”