Advice for coping with toddler tantrums

Most children between the ages of one and four years throw tantrums. These are triggered by frustration ("I want to do something, but I don't know how"), the urgency of primitive desire ("I want it now") and ordinary discomforts (hunger, thirst, boredom, fatigue) that the child cannot contain. The advice most commonly given is:

Don't panic: remember: your child is not dying; your child is not horrible; tantrums are normal.

Ignore the tantrum: attention, in the form of attempts to placate and reassure, is unlikely to be effective, and may encourage a child to use tantrums as a means of getting attention or getting his or her own way in the future. However, this good advice can be extremely difficult to follow. A child's cries are fine-tuned by evolution to demand attention and appeasement. If a parent is unable to soothe the angry hollers of a child, then the parent too may be flooded with rage.

Try to distract the toddler: get your child to look at something - a book, a toy, the face you are making. (Distraction can be effective, but a toddler is sometimes heavily invested in their tantrum, and won't give it up, even for a favourite toy.)

Do communicate that you understand them: it seems that even a toddler throwing a tantrum is soothed by the knowledge that a parent understands them. Dr Harvey Karp in the US has found that mirroring a toddler's words and feelings in a calm voice is remarkably effective in soothing a toddler.

Don't try to reason: explaining that he or she can have a sweet later is futile.

Don't give in: giving in not only sets a poor precedent - it often doesn't work.

Repeat the words the screaming child is using: saying, "I want, I want, I want sweetie now," communicates your understanding of your toddler's mental state, without giving in to their demands. This technique has been found to be remarkably effective. A child is never too irrational to fail to respond to a parent's empathy.

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