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Should You Ignore a Toddler’s Tantrum

One of the most common advice given to parents dealing with toddler tantrums is to ignore them. The assumption is that a tantrum is an attention-seeking behavior or a manipulative tactic to get what they want. If you ignore them, they will stop due to the lack of an audience or desired outcome.

However, if it were that easy, you wouldn’t spend all this time reading article after article about how to stop it.

Most tantrums in young children cannot be effectively handled with a blanket strategy like this. 

The proper response to a child’s temper tantrums must be adapted to the context, the type of tantrum, and the child’s level of self-regulation.

While ignoring may work for some children, it may not yield the same results for others.

toddler having a tantrum

When ignoring tantrums can be a good idea

Ignoring a toddler’s tantrums is recommended by many parenting experts. It aims to discourage bad behavior rooted in the child’s attempt to seek attention or to manipulate the parent. 

By not giving the child the attention they seek, parents hope to de-escalate their child’s behavior and teach them that it is not an acceptable means of communication. 

It can also give the child space and time to calm down, increasing the likelihood of a productive discussion or resolution to the problem later on.

Therefore, ignoring a child’s tantrums could be a good idea when your child can handle their emotions and their tantrum is controllable.

The big assumption is that parents know how capable their children are of handling big emotions.

Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. Parents of young children are usually not good mind-readers. Their guesses tend to be inaccurate and overestimate their children’s social-emotional capabilities.

A study showed that 91% of preschoolers’ parents overestimated their children’s emotional competence. They believed their 4-year-olds had the level of emotional control as a 7-year-old.​1​

Most preschool parents believe their children can manage strong emotions and that tantrums can be controlled, while this is only true for older children.

When ignoring tantrums can be a bad idea

Many of us grew up in a no-crying, no-tantrum culture. We have the preconceived notion that a tantrum is a malicious, willful behavior that children use to manipulate parents to get what they want.

But the fact is tantrums are a part of normal child development.​2​

Young kids, especially those with more reactive temperaments, have tantrums when upset and do not have the skills yet to deal with their big feelings.​3​

Ignoring a child who doesn’t know how to self-regulate means the child needs to invent emotional regulation on their own. 

Inventing coping strategies is not children’s strong suit. Emotional regulation is a complex process that needs a lot of time, practice, and guidance from adults.

More often than not, children end up developing maladaptive coping strategies, such as suppressing their upset feelings, using aggressive behavior, or having tantrums until exhaustion or collapse.

Ignoring tantrums is a bad idea when your child cannot regulate themselves.

Effects of parents ignoring tantrums

Parents may think ignoring tantrums teaches children that it is inappropriate behavior, but children may not get that or may also receive other messages, such as the following.

Negative emotions are bad

The strongest message that comes with ignoring children is that expressing negative emotions is bad.

As a result, some children learn to suppress their negative feelings as a coping strategy.s

Emotional suppression is a maladaptive coping mechanism.

Concealing our emotions can sometimes be key to navigating the complexities of social norms and expectations, such as maintaining professionalism in the workplace or showing restraint in difficult situations.​4​

But regular suppression of emotions can have significant downsides emotionally, cognitively, and socially. It is associated with increased depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, worse memory, and negative health outcomes.​5​

We should ignore someone in distress

Ignoring a child amidst an emotional meltdown reflects an attitude of cold indifference. Instead of offering compassion and empathy when our child is having a hard time, we show them insensitivity and callousness.

Empathy and understanding are valuable qualities we want our children to develop. Showing them the opposite is teaching the wrong lesson.

Deal with it, but I won’t teach you how

Perhaps the most frustrating message for children is that tantrum behavior is unacceptable but they are not given any guidance on coping with the negative emotions that instigate the problem behavior.

There’s a common misconception among some parents that children intentionally devise tactics, such as throwing tantrums, to disrupt or manipulate their parents. 

But the reality is that children have limited skills and experience handling intense negative emotions.

When parents merely outline what is not allowed without providing the tools to cope with the disappointment when their needs aren’t met, it leaves children feeling helpless and frustrated.

I also won’t show you how

When a parent simply walks away from a child in the throes of a tantrum, the child doesn’t get to observe how adults manage their emotions when faced with difficult circumstances. 

If a child has never seen a good example of emotional regulation, they lack a frame of reference for their own behavior.

Experiential learning is also important. If a child’s tantrum is consistently shut down or never tolerated, they’re being stripped of the opportunities to figure out and practice how to soothe themselves naturally. 

They miss the lesson of moving through the emotion, experiencing it fully, and then returning to a state of calm.

Some tantrums may escalate

While ignoring tantrums might be effective for some children, it can backfire for others because it makes them feel dismissed or abandoned.

This sense of neglect may intensify the child’s emotions, leading to an escalation in their tantrum.

Without guidance and support, they will likely keep resorting to tantrums as their default method of expressing frustration.

For more help on calming tantrums, check out this step-by-step guide

Calm the Tantrums ebook

How to handle a tantrum without ignoring

Tantrums are unique learning opportunities for children. 

Providing care and attending to a child’s distress won’t reinforce negative behavior as long as you don’t give in to unreasonable demands.

Caring about your child, not the tantrum, is the best way to manage tantrums effectively.

When a tantrum starts, especially in a public place such as the grocery store, many parents focus on stopping it as quickly as possible.

Due to their own frustration, they often neglect to teach children the skills to do so.

The next time it happens, make teaching your child appropriate ways to manage stress a priority. Set clear boundaries and provide a safe place for them to express their feelings.

Take a deep breath.

Check on your own emotions to calm yourself. Be a good role model and show your child how grownups calm themselves in stressful situations.

In the long run, they will benefit tremendously from learning an effective way to manage emotions.

For more on how to help your child develop healthy ways to regulate emotions, check out these articles on co-regulation and emotional regulation in children.

References

  1. 1.
    Callan Stoiber K. Parents’ Beliefs About Their Children’s Cognitive, Social, and Motor Functioning. Early Education & Development. Published online July 1992:244-259. doi:10.1207/s15566935eed0303_4
  2. 2.
    Daniels E, Mandleco B, Luthy KE. Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. Published online July 2, 2012:569-573. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x
  3. 3.
    Giesbrecht GF, Miller MR, Müller U. The anger-distress model of temper tantrums: associations with emotional reactivity and emotional competence. Inf Child Develop. Published online 2010:n/a-n/a. doi:10.1002/icd.677
  4. 4.
    Gross JT, Cassidy J. Expressive suppression of negative emotions in children and adolescents: Theory, data, and a guide for future research. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 2019:1938-1950. doi:10.1037/dev0000722
  5. 5.
    Gross JJ. Emotion regulation: Taking stock and moving forward. Emotion. Published online June 2013:359-365. doi:10.1037/a0032135

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