What NOT to Do When Your Child Is Having a Tantrum
Tips on responding to difficult toddler behavior
This is an excerpt from The Tantrum Survival Guide, by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD.
DON’T invalidate your toddler’s perspective or emotions.
When parents describe their toddler’s tantrums, they frequently speak in an incredulous tone. “She completely freaks out over the smallest thing!” Parents constantly use this word, “smallest,” and the many synonymous words and phrases — “littlest,” “most unimportant,” “most trivial” — to describe the things that trigger their child’s tantrums. On their face, the reasons toddlers throw tantrums can be patently absurd.
And yet, when we are with our children, it’s important that we don’t laugh, that we take their reactions and experiences seriously...
DON’T tell your child how to feel.
This is a great general rule (to apply to toddlers, preschoolers, and the rest of humankind) and is particularly relevant for tantrums. These are comments that not only invalidate young children’s emotions and experiences but also instruct them to feel something different than they do — for example, “Don’t be angry,” or “Stop getting so upset!”
DON’T lie to your child to head off a tantrum.
Often parents lie — or, ahem, tell half-truths — to avoid simply saying no and having their child experience (and express, likely in tantrum form) disappointment or frustration. Are there times when a little fib is OK? Yes. Once in a while, you can, of course, tell your toddler or preschooler that there are no more cookies, even though you know there’s another unopened box in the pantry. But telling your child that the iPad is broken (when you just don’t want him to use it) or that the toy store is closed (when you just don’t want to stop there on the way home) doesn’t do your child, or you, any favors...
DON’T say that your child’s behavior is making you sad.
A child will begin to get angry or upset about something, and a parent will respond by making a sad face or pretending to cry, remarking, “You know it makes me so sad when you act like that.” Children are not responsible for their parents’ emotional well-being. This road goes in a single direction, and it’s the other one: parents are responsible for their children’s emotional well-being. Because of this, attempting to motivate your toddler’s behavior by noting the effect on your feelings is a slippery slope. Will it be important for him to learn that his behavior affects other people? Of course. Nonetheless, it’s developmentally inappropriate to ask that he act a certain way out of a sense of responsibility for your feelings...
DON’T take tantrums — and the things your child says before or during them — personally.
When your toddler or preschooler is having a tantrum, she may well pull out all the stops. What does that look like? “I hate you!” “You’re a bad mommy!” “I want Daddy, not you!” “Go away!” “You’re mean!” These things are never easy to hear, especially from your own child. And yet these comments are appropriate expressions of anger for children this age...
DON’T use sarcasm.
Although somewhat ubiquitous in this day and age, sarcasm is a rather sophisticated form of communication and one that young children are not able to understand. They may pick up on the fact that your tone doesn’t match your words (such as when “very funny” is stated in a bitter or ominous way), but they won’t know what to make of that. Sarcasm is frequently confusing for toddlers and preschoolers, as well as belittling...
For more strategies for surviving tantrums, and especially for heading them off, see The Tantrum Survival Guide. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, which specializes in helping kids and parents confronting a range of common early childhood challenges. She lives in the New York City area with her husband and two young sons.