The number one reason parents struggle to calm their toddlers in tantrums is that they want to stop the tantrums quickly. Eliminating the tantrums is their main goal.
Many parents focus on the “what to do” or the “how to stop” their toddlers’ temper tantrums or try to prevent them from happening in the first place. While these measures may simplify daily parenting, they inadvertently bypass a crucial developmental milestone for their children: learning to regulate their emotions.
Emotional regulation is an essential life skill, one like walking or writing, that requires learning and practice over time to master and thrive.
To effectively help toddlers stop tantrums, the best approach is to focus on teaching them adaptive emotional regulating skills, not just stopping the crying immediately.
What’s wrong with the “how to stop toddler tantrums” approach?
Many parents desperately seek a magical strategy to stop toddler tantrums. Popular approaches often include ignoring the child or using time-out, practices even recommended by authoritative bodies like the CDC. Other parents turn to more coercive, hostile parenting to shut down tantrums fast.
The problem is none of these approaches actually teach emotional regulation. When ignored or tossed in time-out, most toddlers bottle up their feelings and fail to develop healthy coping mechanisms.
These children are not given the opportunity to understand their emotions, express them appropriately, and practice containing them in a healthy way.
Strategies aimed solely at “fixing” the child, with the goal of quickly defusing tantrums, often lead to frustration because they rarely work. Most tantrums are not voluntary behaviors children choose to do or not do. Emotional tantrums cannot be easily stopped with a simple “trick” or “hack.” When these quick-fix strategies fail, parents may lose their emotional balance, becoming poor role models of self-regulation for their children.
Why “staying calm” is the best strategy to calm toddler tantrums
Advising parents to “stay calm” during toddler tantrums can understandably ruffle some features.
“Give me something more useful,” they plead. Parents want strategies that work on their toddlers, not on themselves.
However, working on the parent first is precisely what’s needed to help toddlers build self-regulation.
Recent research analyzing 53 studies from 2000-2020 has found that parents’ ability to stay calm directly impacts their parenting and their children’s behavior in tantrums.1
A calm parent can adopt more sensitive and positive parenting behaviors that help the child learn to self-regulate. When calm, you can see the bigger picture and focus on the long-term benefits of helping your child rather than simply stopping the tantrum at all costs. You prioritize your child’s developmental needs over your desire to stop the tantrum.
Being calm also helps you avoid feeling embarrassed or upset. You know tantrums are involuntary emotional overflows, not willful manipulation or defiance.
Most importantly, being calm, you can take every tantrum as an opportunity to teach, not as a nuisance.
How to teach emotional regulation
Children can learn to self-regulate through co-regulating with parents.
Co-regulation is a bidirectional process in which the parent and the child’s emotions influence each other back and forth, helping each other manage feelings. The parent’s calmer emotions can soothe the child when upset. The child’s needs influence the parent’s responses.2
Do the following to co-regulate.
- Be warm and responsive, and show that you care even when they are in distress.
- Name and acknowledge their feelings.
- Model how to express negative feelings in an appropriate way.
For example, using a compassionate tone, you can say, “Oh, you wanted to have the snack, but you’re not allowed because it’s almost dinner time. How frustrating! I would be upset, too. You feel you’re starving, but I acted like I didn’t care. That must have hurt.”
Toddlers have tantrums because they have yet to learn how to control their emotions. The term “self-regulation” can be misleading because your child cannot develop the skills all by themselves. Regulation skills require support from parents and caregivers to develop. Your calm help and guidance will be critical in your child’s ability to learn adaptive coping skills.
Tantrums don’t mean your child has behavioral problems or you’re failing as a parent. Tune out any outside opinions about punishing your child in these tough moments.
Your toddler is counting on you to help them handle overwhelming feelings. By remaining steady through their storms, you model essential regulation. Your composed presence teaches as much as your words.
With repeated co-regulation, your child internalizes self-soothing skills. Your empathetic support during this process will be remembered. Years from now, your child will be grateful you chose compassion over ignoring or punishing.
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- 1.Zimmer-Gembeck MJ, Rudolph J, Kerin J, Bohadana-Brown G. Parent emotional regulation: A meta-analytic review of its association with parenting and child adjustment. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online October 25, 2021:63-82. doi:10.1177/01650254211051086
- 2.Butler EA, Randall AK. Emotional Coregulation in Close Relationships. Emotion Review. Published online November 6, 2012:202-210. doi:10.1177/1754073912451630