Toddlers have tantrums primarily due to frustration and anger. Your toddler is probably very demanding and ambitious. Yet at the same time, she probably has a very low threshold for frustration. This volatile combination often leads to tantrums. When your child cannot do what she wants, or when you deny her something in what she considers a battle of wills, she naturally gets frustrated. But a two-year-old has few words to express her frustration. She may not even have the exact words to express what she wants in the first place. Denied verbal expression, frustration often comes out physically—through violence or tantrums.
Parents of toddlers need to keep one thing in mind when their child begins to have a tantrum: Your child cannot help it. Older children often use tantrums to show they mean business, to demonstrate how much they want something. But two- and three-year-olds do not yet have the capacity to manipulate in this way. When her frustration builds to a certain level, your toddler literally loses control. Think of your child as a pressure cooker: the steam of frustration builds and builds and builds inside her until it finally forces an explosion.
If it's frightening for you to see your toddler possessed by the demon of a tantrum, think how she must feel. It's not a pleasant experience to be overwhelmed by the force of one's own emotions. Tantrums—and the uncontrollable internal rage that fuels them-are very scary for your child.
An Ounce of Prevention
The best way to deal with tantrums is, of course, to stop them before they start. You will need to monitor your child's frustration and try to keep it at a manageable level. In doing this, you will function as the relief valve on your child's pressure cooker.
This does not mean you should do everything for your child so that he never experiences any frustration. For one thing, a certain degree of frustration is good for your two-year-old. Moving beyond frustration to succeed at a task is one of the most satisfying ways that your child can learn how to do things. If he can do it, working through frustration will teach your toddler a great deal about himself and about how to accomplish certain tasks. For another thing, your child may regard your interference as an added source of frustration. He wants to be able to master new tasks. If you won't let him try, he's just as likely to explode as if he had tried and failed.
You shouldn't protect your child from every experience of frustration, but you should try to keep it at a manageable level. To do this, you will need to pay attention to what your child is doing. Watch for signs of frustration and then try to head them off. If you do notice your child's level of frustration building, try one of the following:
Fatigue can decrease your child's level of competence as well as his threshhold for frustration. And that's a sure formula for tantrums.
- Offer help before your toddler reaches the tantrum stage. If he refuses your help, however, back off. Remember that you can add to your child's frustration by trying to take over.
- Encourage your toddler to take a rest and come back to it later with a refreshed attitude.
- Distract your toddler with a different toy, a snack, a book, or a video. This may be a good time to encourage some quiet time activities.
- Constantly try to teach your toddler words that will help him express his anger and/or frustration. The inability to express these emotions in words heightens the likelihood of tantrums.
Besides monitoring your child's frustration level from a safe distance, recognize that the limits you establish can be another external source of frustration for your child. Certainly, you shouldn't have to roll over backward to avoid offending your little angel. But set limits on your child's behavior primarily to insure safety and promote socialization. Try to avoid laying down the law arbitrarily or—with noted exceptions—absolutely.