A Paediatrician Explains Which Tactics Actually Help With Toddler Tantrums

If your kid's hurling spaghetti at the wall, take a big breath and remember these tips.
Toddler tantrums are never pretty. But saying these things might only make them worse.
Natalia Lebedinskaia via Getty Images
Toddler tantrums are never pretty. But saying these things might only make them worse.

When your child has decided to fling themselves onto the floor in a fit of rage because you served them bow-shaped pasta and they wanted spaghetti, it can be pretty easy to dismiss them as being ridiculous.

But doing so might not be the best route forward, according to a toddler expert.

Dr Cathryn Tobin, a paediatrician of 30 years, says there are some knee-jerk ways of responding to tantrums that are best to avoid, because it’ll probably just make the tantrum worse – and truly nobody wants that.

One of the things she advises parents against doing during a tantrum is invalidating a child’s feelings, which is pretty easy to do because most of the time they are being quite over the top.

But telling your child to stop being upset because “it’s not a big deal” might only make matters worse, she suggests.

“Toddlers often get upset over the most insane things. But while they seem insane to us, they are real and crucial to your toddler,” said Dr Tobin in an Instagram post on the topic.

Tantrums are basically a way for children to let out strong emotions before they’re able to express them in socially acceptable ways.

While they can seem anything but ordinary when they’re happening, they’re actually a very normal part of childhood development and begin to diminish as a child gets older and becomes more able to communicate their wants and needs.

Dr Tobin, a mum-of-four, urged parents to take their toddler’s experience seriously during a tantrum and put themselves in their toddler’s shoes for a moment, considering how they would feel if they were upset about something and their partner told them to “stop whining because it’s not a big deal”.

It’s also important to avoid telling kids what they should feel, the paediatrician – who runs a Taming Tantrums workshop – advised, adding: “We often innocently and unknowingly negate our toddler’s experience. We tell toddlers not to trust their feelings.”

Some examples of things you might want to avoid saying include “don’t be angry” or “you have nothing to be upset about”.

Lastly, the toddler expert asked parents not to lie in the hope of avoiding a tantrum. One example she offered is suggesting something like a vaccine “won’t hurt” so the child sits still for it. “Trust is crucial. Better to tell the truth and offer coping strategies,” she said.

A recent study suggested giving a child a device or switching on the TV to quell their rage might make them stop for a second, but in the long-term it doesn’t help them learn how to regulate their emotions.

Researchers suggested a couple of alternative strategies instead, such as giving your child a book to read or telling them to name their emotions (this might include helping them to name their emotions if they’re still quite little).

You might also want to direct them to channel their energy into body movement or sensory approaches – so swinging, hugging, jumping on a trampoline or squishing putty in their hands.

Dr Tobin is also a big believer in the power of a good book to help kids calmly move on after a tantrum.

In a separate social media post, she urged parents not to ignore their kids during a tantrum and to try and respond with love. Easier said than done sometimes, we know.

She also recommended naming the feelings their child is experiencing after they’ve calmed down, and validating that it’s OK to feel those feelings (without validating their behaviour if it was bad). For example, you could say: “It’s OK to be angry but it’s not OK to throw the blocks.”

So next time you’re pulling your hair out because your toddler’s throwing rage shapes over not wanting to wear their coat, take a big breath and remember this too will pass. Plus, every other parent of a toddler is going through it. So you’re certainly not alone.