By Jessica Snyder SachsUpdated May 21, 2021
“I knew she needed a nap. But I just wanted to grab a few things,” confesses Toronto mom Angèle Gaudet. She decided to risk a quick dash into the grocery store with her three-year-old daughter.
Whisking down the cereal aisle, Gaudet knew she was in trouble when Maya lunged for Froot Loops. Gaudet took the box out of Maya’s hand. Maya flung herself on the floor, screaming, “But I want it! I’ve always waaanted it!”
Gaudet had to pick up her preschooler and leave, sans groceries.
Tantrums like these are common, even among normally well-behaved children like Maya. Studies show that between 60 and 90 percent of two-year-olds throw tantrums. The frequency peaks between 2½ and three years, when many children have them daily. By age five, most children have largely stopped, though it’s normal for older children to throw the occasional doozy.
“It’s important for parents to realize that they can’t control their children’s emotions,” says child psychologist Christina Rinaldi of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. What you can control, at least to some extent, are the situations that tend to trigger your child’s tantrums. Read on for five common tantrum triggers and how best to avoid them.
As Maya’s grocery-store tantrum illustrates, no child is at his best when tired. Worse, toddlers don’t understand why they’re feeling so funky, says Laura Oyama, a professor of early childhood education at Toronto’s Humber College. “They just lose it, often for no rational reason.”
That was certainly the case with four-year-old Erik. “He actually fell apart over having chosen juice instead of milk with his lunch three hours earlier,” says his mom, Samantha MacLeod of Calgary. “He didn’t want me to give him milk; he wanted to have had it!”
It’s best to respect bed and nap times, planning errands and playdates around them. But there will be occasions when you can’t avoid being away from home when your child grows tired. It can help to plan ahead by bringing a favourite sleep object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal. “Bring pyjamas if a visit is going to extend into the evening,” Oyama says. Then try to find or create a peaceful place where your child can rest his head, even if that’s your lap.
Kelowna, BC, mom Arianna Wentworth remembered to pack snacks when she drove to town with her daughter, Isabella, age two. But the errands ran too long, and the cheese cubes disappeared too soon. “Once we finally got home, she was so grumpy she wouldn’t even eat a snack while I made dinner,” Wentworth recalls. That’s when the mail arrived. Isabella wanted to tear open the bills. Her mom said no. Isabella ran over to her baby sister and hit her. Double meltdowns ensued.
Like fatigue, hunger reduces anyone’s ability to cope. “Hunger is an anxious feeling,” Oyama says. “It undercuts a young child’s need to feel safe.”
“In the future, I will pack extra snacks,” Wentworth vows. Also keep in mind that toddlers and preschoolers eat smaller amounts and get hungry much more frequently than adults do, Oyama notes. So even at home, remember to offer healthy snacks in between the day’s sit-down meals.
It’s normal for young children to crave parental attention — and occasionally throw a tantrum when they don’t get it. “But in this case, there has to be a balance,” Oyama cautions. “The whole world can’t always revolve around your child.” The key, she adds, is to acknowledge the plea for attention. “It’s the ignoring that fuels the fire,” Oyama explains.
Let your child know you understand why he’s upset, Oyama suggests. For example, say, “I know you want my attention and I want to give it to you. But first I need to finish this phone call to the man from the bank.”
Offer a distraction, such as a colouring or picture book, to help your child bide the time. Just remember to deliver on your promise of some undistracted child time as soon as you’re able.
I have to admit to this one. As a hard-driving working mom, I tended to fill our preschooler’s days with an efficiency better left in the office — adding dance and music lessons on top of daycare, with no wiggle room for dawdling. The breakneck pace of our days resulted in a few back-of-the-van tantrums.
Toddlers and preschoolers live in the moment and, as a result, need time to transition from one activity to another, the experts agree.
Avoid cramming your child’s day with scheduled activities, Rinaldi says. Also try to give her time to finish what she’s doing. “It’s so important as they strive to master new skills like dressing themselves,” she explains. Morning-rush tantrums, for example, can often be avoided by getting up a little earlier or helping your child lay out clothes the night before.
Like rushing, lack of forewarning robs young children of the time they need to transition between activities, Rinaldi adds. The unexpected “Time to go!” is a classic tantrum trigger. So remember to give those 10-minute and five-minute warnings, even if it takes awhile for the warning routine to sink in.
There were games, rides, prizes and food. Four-year-old birthday girl Chloe seemed to be having a great time until her mom, Kaila Burke of Calgary, asked her to get ready to blow out the candles on her cake. “No! I don’t want to! I can’t,” Chloe screamed, throwing herself on the floor.
Why are parties such a classic set-up for tantrums? “In overstimulating situations, every ounce of your child’s energy is being used to process what’s going on all around her,” Rinaldi explains. “She can lose the ability to stop and switch.” As a result, making a request — even something as pleasurable as “Blow out your candles” — can prove overwhelming for little ones.
Usually, less is more when planning exciting activities, such as birthday parties and playdates. “Toddlers and preschoolers are eager to try new things,” Oyama says, “but they can’t anticipate at what point they’ll become overwhelmed.”
Fortunately, parents can learn to spot when their children are hurtling toward overload. Burke, for example, has noticed that Chloe tends to grow quiet and withdraw just before losing it.
Whatever the signal, take it as a cue to gently lead your child away from the action, Rinaldi says. Just don’t try to force it!
Despite best efforts to avoid your child’s triggers, tantrums happen. What then?
“Don’t try to reason with the child once the tantrum has begun. He or she can’t ‘hear’ you,” advises paediatric neuropsychologist Michael Potegal, a tantrum researcher (yes, he’s made a career of it) at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Even more important: Remain calm. Losing your temper not only fuels your child’s emotional frenzy, it models behaviour you are trying to discourage.
As for the classic advice of ignoring tantrums, that’s spot-on when the meltdown stems from a child’s desire for candy or someone else’s toy. “To do otherwise is to teach children that tantrums get them what they want,” Potegal says. If necessary, gently remove your child to a safe place until the tantrum winds down.
But ignoring has the opposite effect when the tantrum is in response to a reasonable request, such as “put away your toys.” In such scenarios, every minute spent in a tantrum is a minute not carrying out the demand. Potegal recommends talking with your child on a separate occasion (not during or immediately after a tantrum) to explain that after you ask her to do something, “I will count to three, and if you have not done it, I will put hands on.” Then, if your child blows up, follow through by gently but firmly putting your hands on her hands to pick up the toys.