One Research-Backed Way to Diminish Toddler Tantrums

All I wanted was to walk on the treadmill for maybe…20 minutes. Is that too much to ask? I had a great plan — I would hop on the treadmill in the basement while my son (age 2 at the time) played with the plethora of toys down there. Easy peasy.

Minute 5 rolled around and the whining began.

“Car on track…ahh.” My son couldn’t get the little Matchbox car onto the track the right way.

“I’ll help you in just a few minutes,” I said hoping he would calm down on his own. “Do it myself…urrgh, it won’t go,” my son continued. I could see the tension building but I decided the push on. I really needed some exercise.

Then I heard it — a loud “clunk.” My toddler had thrown the car across the room and it had hit the wall. Crying and fussing ensued. Oops, I had missed the point of no return. We were in full-on tantrum mode.

“Remain calm,” I told myself. “He’s just frustrated.” I try to calm him but to no avail. He pushed me away. He had to get it out. I told him to take some breaths but that just made him more upset. So I just stood by him and he eventually calmed down but it took a long time. My “20 minutes on the treadmill” had turned into a half-hour fiasco.

This is Him

I look back at this incident now and I see — this is what being a toddler looks like. He was trying so hard to assert his independence and he is very independent by nature. “I do it myself” is a constant refrain, even now at almost-4 years old. But…

This is Him Learning Toddlers are often testing limits, but they mostly do it because they are learning. They are learning new skills, new ideas and how they fit in their world.

Combine a strive for independence and limited self-regulation, you have a recipe for many potential high-stress situations. As parents, it’s tough to keep a calm attitude.

Well, a recent piece of research should give you a little hope.

Researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center recently published an article showing that parents who can keep their “cool” when their youngsters test their patience have a better chance of their kids not having behavior problems in the future.

The primary finding of the study showed that children whose parents who have a tendency to over-react and/or are quick to get angry with them, are more likely to have more tantrums and negative behavior at age 2. Is important to note that most children increase in their tantrum-type behavior during this toddler

period, but this study clearly showed that children whose parents over-reacted increased in this negative behavior even more than average.

Being the Model I Want Him to See

The good news for parents is that if you can maintain your “cool” while still setting firm boundaries, you are helping your child learn emotion regulation by your example. When a child misbehaves it is often tempting to react quickly out of emotion and not think about the consequences. It is often a struggle to keep your emotions contained, but if you can keep your composure and discipline the child with less intense negative emotion, the child will slowly learn how to regulate their own emotions as well. So take heart parents, we can survive those toddler years

without losing our sanity.

Knowing that my toddler was not intentionally trying to derail my workout was the first step in keeping a calm mindset. Most of the time, these little ones are not trying to “push your buttons” or make you upset on purpose.

  • Knowledge is power: if you understand what is typical for toddler behavior, it makes it easier to take it in stride (at least most of the time). If we know that they act irrationally and have little self-control, that helps us remain in control.
  • The “golden rule” still applies to grownups: it may sound simplistic but the old rule of “treat others how you would like to be treated” still applies to toddler-parent interactions (at least to some degree). We are modeling behavior for our kids with every action. If I yell at my toddler (which we all do from time to time), then we are modeling anger. However, if the other 90% of the time, we model compassion, patience, and self-regulation, they will eventually learn this.

Ultimately, we are teaching our kids how to treat us. It takes years modeling, growth, and maturity, but they will get the hang of it eventually.

In the meantime, hang on for a wild ride, and maybe get that walk on the treadmill while he’s napping.

For more help with toddlers…

Lipscomb, S., Leve, L., Shaw, D., Neiderhiser, J., Scaramella, L., Ge, X., Conger, R., Reid, J., & Reiss, D. (2012). Negative emotionality and externalizing problems in toddlerhood: Overreactive parenting as a moderator of genetic influences Development and Psychopathology, 24 (01), 167–179 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579411000757

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Originally published at on March 27, 2017.

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