Toddler tantrums: be prepared when they strike!

The inspiration for this post is my sweet, spirited, dump truck loving, “Nelmo” obsessed son. I would say that 98% of the time, Thatcher is a pure joy to be around. He is generally pretty fun loving and happy, and we have a fabulous sleeper on happy toddler | New Orleans Moms Blog our hands. Of course, like all children, Thatcher also has his – shall we say – moments. The vast majority of the time, we are able to distract or redirect him by asking him for his help. For example, if he’s pounding diligently on the refrigerator door begging for “gogurt” and it’s not yet time to eat (we’ve been trying to move to three meals a day versus all day grazing, a topic for another day), I can usually outwit the Toddler Monster from rearing his ugly head by saying something like “Thatcher, can you put this in the trash?” while I frantically look for something – anything – that needs to be thrown away. After Thatcher’s first major tantrum a few months back, I scoured the internet and learned that toddlers really thrive on the concept of helping, and that usually helps quite a bit. But other times? I am at a total loss.

This past weekend, Thatcher had not one but two major meltdowns in public. The first occurred while our family attempted to enjoy a nice lunch together on Friday. Fridays are my day off, and I generally keep Thatcher home from school for some quality time before his sister makes her appearance. We decided to try to meet my husband for lunch, which was a MAJOR fail. Nothing we tried worked. Not the dump truck, not the food I had diligently packed, not sitting in the “big boy” chair, not sitting on our laps, not even Nelmo on my iPhone (which is a last resort for me). Because we didn’t want to disrupt the other guests, we ended up taking our food to go, frustrated and defeated by the Toddler Monster. The next tantrum took place in Target because Thatcher wanted to “waaaaaaaaaaaaalk,” not ride, in the shopping cart. I tried handing him a Halloween book to no avail. Ultimately, we gave in and let him walk through terrorize the store. Desperate for strategies to try, and needing to know that we are not alone, I turned to one of my saving graces in life: my mom friends.

You are not alone!

I think the first important thing to realize when it comes to toddler tantrums is that we, collectively as parents, are not alone. We are not the first parents to have a child pitch a fit in a restaurant or store. Just listen to some of these stories from other moms…

Katie says, “The worst tantrum I’ve seen yet happened at Olive Garden. My mother-in-law wanted to take Colin (who was 20 months old at the time) and me out for lunch, so she picked us up as soon as he woke up from his nap, and off we went. Because it was Saturday and the restaurant was busy, we had to wait for a table. About five minutes into the wait, Colin Mom and son | New Orleans Moms Blogdecided he was done. He screamed at the top of his lungs, threw himself on the floor, and did his toddler tantrum version of the worm. I tried my best to wrangle him, but to no avail. He even went so far as to slap me across the face as onlookers stared in horror. I’m sure they were wondering just what kind of mom I am to allow such horrid behavior from my sweet little boy, and how irresponsible I must be to have another one on the way already. It was so embarrassing! My mother-in-law suggested we go somewhere else, but I was determined not to lose this battle. Long story short, we FINALLY made it to a table, and once we got some food in my monster child’s mouth, he was fine. My mother-in-law and I both breathed a sigh of relief, but we still ate quickly and got out of there as fast as we could, just in case Baby Hulk decided to make another appearance. He didn’t, and for that I can thank my iPhone. That’s right, I resorted to pacifying my child with technology. Never underestimate the power of an app that plays Old McDonald over and over. Hey, whatever works, right?”

Rebecca shared, “Eleanor knows exactly what to do to frustrate whoever in particular is watching her. For me, she gags herself until she throws up or gets her way. She was in the cart at the grocery store this weekend and wanted to get out and walk. I told her no. She proceeded to gag herself almost to the point of throwing up before I realized I would have no idea what to do with a baby covered in vomit in the middle of the grocery store so I let her out. She won.”

Another mom confided, “Our sweet 18 month old has what I would call “social tantrums.” Basically, whenever we are playing with other kids (at our house or theirs), our toddler decides that she wants a certain toy and then has a total meltdown about sharing it. They are usually worse at night, but they always happen in a social setting and are stressful for everyone. She’s inconsolable and cries and cries. Removing her or walking away doesn’t necessarily help, nor does trying to distract her with another toy.”

happy toddler and mom | New Orleans Moms BlogJenn confessed that on one particularly trying day, “I have no idea what went wrong. I just know that for an hour, yes an hour, he wanted to do the opposite of what I offered. The redirect technique offered no assistance. He simply cried to do what it was that we were just doing, no matter what it was and then cried if I tried to accommodate to do the other thing I had offered. I tried ignoring him for a while, and let’s be honest. I kind of suck at that. Maybe I should have ignored him longer, but I feel like such a complete jerk doing that. He wasn’t lashing out and throwing things (or himself).  He was simply crying and confused it seemed, and nothing I offered could fix that. In my heart I felt that ignoring him was ignoring the opportunity to help him work through his feelings. Maybe I thought about it too much!”

So how do I prevent the Toddler Monster from rearing his head to begin with?

The moms I talked to had lots of different ideas about how to avoid temper tantrums.

  • For us, it’s about having a schedule, sticking to it and knowing what’s a “good idea” or not. For example, dinner out (even at 5:00pm) is often a terrible idea. We are just setting him up for failure because he loves (and thrives on) his bedtime routine. Pushing him too long before a nap is another “no no” in our house. We get the best behavior when we have a well-rested and fed child who has had his needs met first.
  • Restaurants usually have a lot of quick fixes: crayons, ice cream, fish tanks, etc. Also, we have several apps on our phones and some favorite toys in my diaper bag to distract from whatever the issue may be. Distraction is key (and can often end the tantrum without rewarding the behavior)!
  • We take the all American cop out when at a restaurant: Micky Mouse Clubhouse on the iPhone. Works every time! (but you have to deal with judgment from the public around you because you are “plugging in” your kid).
  • Lessons learned from the great tantrum of 2012: always be sure your child is well fed, and if you know you might have to wait a while before he can eat, bring plenty of snacks. Never leave home without an emergency pacifier, even if you’ve sworn not to use it except at bedtime. Be confident in your parenting, even when people stare and give you ugly looks. Remember, your kid is not the first to throw an epic tantrum in public. It happens to the best of us. I promise.
  • Low expectations are also a must. We are no longer the young, fabulous, well-dressed, stay out as late as we want DINKs (dual income, no kids) and can’t eat out as though we are anymore. At least when cohabitating with toddlers.
  • If all else fails, restaurants also serve booze, which will not help your angry toddler, but will certainly help you!

But if the Monster emerges anyway, what is a helpless mom to do?

Let’s be honest: sometimes, regardless of what we do or say, tantrums happen anyway. So once they’re underway how do other moms stop them in seconds? (Wouldn’t it be nice if the tantrums actually stopped that quickly?!? We can dream…)

  • For me, it depends on where the tantrum occurs: in the middle of the grocery store, he gets what he wants, usually! It is too short of a time and too much is going on for me to go through the proper discipline steps. However, if we are at home or at a restaurant, I try to calmly, quietly and firmly tell him to adjust his attitude. I try not to ignore him when he is having a fit because I feel like that sometimes makes the tantrum louder and even more dramatic.
  • Regardless of whether we are at home, the playground or grandparents’ house, I get down on her level and tell her “No Ma’am, we do not say no to Mommy or Daddy or whoever.” She understands but doesn’t always listen. If she continues, I remove her and sit her down for a time out (she always gets up and cries but I think that makes the point more intense). If she is still misbehaving then I try to remove her all together (like go outside if we’re inside). I realize that she really just wants my attention.  If all else fails we go home.
  • I drink a glass of wine nightly. It doesn’t help my diet, but I need the added wind down. Most nights it’s two glasses if I am being honest!
  • We usually try to get on his level and encourage him to use words. We may say things like “we understand that you are mad / angry / upset right now. We would be upset if we couldn’t go outside, too. Can you use your words please?” A lot of times, tantrums stem from the fact that toddlers cannot verbalize nearly as much as they comprehend.
  • And our Contributor Linzy said, “We have not been at this long but I am at the end of my rope. I have no patience for it.  I am to the point where it is easier to leave wherever we are or not go at all in order to save the knock down drag out fight…when she challenges what she should be doing. I am doing my best to put her in time out and to tell her that mommy is not happy with the way she is acting. I am using a firm tone and not compromising on giving her what she wants.”
  • Kat shared, “I’m such a strict parent that most of the time when she throws something that even remotely looks like a tantrum (she hasn’t had any real big tantrums yet, though she does get frustrated and cries), I look at her like I don’t understand what she’s doing and walk away or just tell her to quit it. I don’t know if that’s “parenting” or just me being me but so far it’s working.”

The bottom line is that this parenting business is not an exact science. If it were, there would be one best-selling book on the topic, which we’d all buy and read and implement perfectly. Every child (and every family) is different, and what works for one child won’t always work for another (or it won’t work every time). For me, there is solidarity in being part of a community of moms facing the same battles every day and knowing that temper tantrums are, in fact, “normal.” At least we have each other to share stories, drink wine and laugh with!

So spill it! What is the worst tantrum you’ve experienced as a parent? And what strategies have you used with your children to prevent or stop a meltdown?

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Ashley is the Co-Owner of New Orleans Mom, Red Stick Mom and Lafayette Mom, now the largest network of parenting websites in South Louisiana. Proud graduates of the University of Virginia, she and her husband Blaise spent time in Tampa and Scottsdale prior to settling down back home in New Orleans, something they both said "would never happen." An avid runner, she'll try any workout at least once and is always up for sweating with friends. When she’s not shuttling her 3 very active kids to school, gymnastics or baseball, you can find her cheering for the Saints, trying new restaurants or spending time with family and friends. She's also not afraid to return mediocre books to the library before finishing them because life is too short for bad books. A native New Orleanian, Ashley loves exploring and discovering the beauty of South Louisiana through her growing children's eyes.

6 COMMENTS

  1. LOVe your writing…and what a great topic. I’m terrified of seeing a real tantrum – I’m not kidding you. I’ve seen my friends go through them and if P ever pitched one I think I would probably cry and hide.

  2. Fantastically timed post!! My typically mellow mannered 18 month old is rearing his little monster more and more! I have to agree with distracting or diverting his attention and sticking to his routine! Totally agree that if you think it’s a bad idea or risky than it probably is and you are setting yourself up for frustration and your kiddo up for a melt down!! Thanks for the support!!

    • Thanks, Kelli! Thatcher is much the same – pretty mellow – which is why I think the tantrums catch us off guard even more. He’s generally pretty happy and easy (although VERY active), so the tantrums are such a far cry (pun intended) from his usual personality it is hard to know how to handle.

  3. This is great! I can only remember one melt down with my son when he was about 3 or 4. We were at Walmart and he wanted a toy that I refused to buy him. He sat down in the middle of the aisle and started screaming and crying. I remember being mortified. I simply just walked away like he wasn’t even my son. I think it freaked him out and he stopped crying and ran to where I was and sat down and started crying again. So again, I walked away like I didn’t even know him. After a few times, I guess he realized it wasn’t going to work and came and walked by me –pouting the rest of the time. At least he wasnt screaming anymore!

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