If you haven’t had a kid throw a toddler tantrum in public, are you even a parent?
When it comes to universal kid truths, the fact that toddlers have tantrums pretty much tops the list (just ask this news anchor mom). On the flip side is another truth—handling tantrums can be really tough for parents. The good news is parents and caregivers can help little ones deal with their very big feelings that show up as toddler tantrums, using specific strategies that can benefit everyone.
1. Acknowledge (and Name) Their Feelings
The Situation: My daughter and I have spent a lot of time at the playground recently. If it were up to her, she’d play all day. Eventually, we have to go pick up a sibling from school or have lunch or do something else. She’s disappointed we have to go and isn’t afraid to show it. Cue the toddler tantrum.
The Solution: Julietta Skoog, nationally certified school psychologist and co-founder of Sproutable, a company that supports parents in growing remarkable kids through classes, coaching, and video content, explains that tantrums are a form of communication—one that lets parents know their kids don’t feel understood. She suggests validating and acknowledging those feelings. Use simple phrases like “I can see you’re disappointed” or “I know you want to stay at the playground.” Neurologically speaking, when our kids are losing it, their feelings are on red alert. Naming their feeling triggers the amygdala (the part of our brain that processes emotions) and helps kids flip the switch to green. It reassures them, lets them regroup, and returns them to the rational side of their brain.
Bonus tip: If possible, let your kid have a situational do-over after they’ve recovered, like saying “bye-bye” to the playground.
2. Model Behavior
The Situation: I’ve had more than one night where I’m juggling making dinner while helping my big kids with homework when my toddler melts down. Whether she’s hungry, not getting enough attention, or just feels overwhelmed, she’s had enough and I’m feeling stretched.
The Strategy: Dr. Alison Scott, a Seattle-area pediatrician and founder of baby doc box, a curated subscription box for baby’s first year, offers a great reminder for situations like these. Toddlers don’t have the coping skills we do. Scott suggests parents show kids how it’s done by modeling appropriate behavior. Try saying something like, “I see you’re having a hard time. I’m having a hard time, too.” Then take a few deep breaths or find a quiet place to sit down. Basically, do what you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Your kids will notice and eventually follow suit.
3. Let Them Know What They Can Do
The Situation: If you know a toddler, you know how wildly stubborn they are. When my daughter wants to play with her sister’s off-limits toys or insists on going barefoot in the middle of winter, she’s not interested in being told “no.”
The Strategy: For these moments, Skoog explains that framing the situation as a positive—one you can say yes to—is a way to be firm but kind. So when my toddler melts down because her sister won’t let her play with her doll, a simple re-frame is in order: “Yes, you want to play dolls. Let’s go get your dolls so you can.” Similarly, letting her know “we can go outside when you’ve put your shoes on,” helps her see what she can do, rather than what she can’t.
Bonus tip: Be selective about saying no and don’t give in to tantrums because it might reinforce unwanted behavior.
4. Remove Yourself or Your Audience
The Situation: If you haven’t had a toddler lose it in public, are you even a parent? For all the times I’ve been in the toy aisle at Target and my daughter spies a must-have toy I have no intention of buying, the tantrum potential is high. It’s hard not to give in when you know it would stop that toddler tantrum.
The Strategy: Scott recommends an “extract and distract” approach. Skoog expands, saying parents can remove themselves from the environment or ask those they’re with to give them a minute. Finding a more private place lets kids know that you’ve got time and space to deal with whatever is going on. Once you’re out of the situation, it’s time to redirect or offer comfort. The goal here is “connection before correction.” Try softening your approach and getting down on the same level as your kiddo for extra impact.
Bonus tip: It’s natural to view our tot’s tantrums as a reflection of our parenting. But tantrums are a natural part of development, and when we remove our feelings from the situation, we can be more responsive, attentive, and attuned to what’s really going on.
5. Be Consistent with Routines
The Situation: Like all kids, toddlers love routine. But with two much-older kids, there are days my two-year-old doesn’t get to follow hers. She misses naps or stays up past bedtime on the regular, thanks so the noisy tween and teen down the hall.
The Strategy: If you have to disrupt the routine, be prepared. Watch for your kid’s cues, Scott says, and try to prevent the outburst. Pack extra snacks, bring along a lovey, or try to distract toddlers on the verge. The bottom line is, there’s no “secret sauce” to prevention. In that case, ignoring the tantrum is an option. Make sure your tot is safe and let it take its course.