disarming toddler tantrums

Back when we were in France this Spring, Lily hit a really rough patch - a two-week-long tantrum phase. perfect timing, kid. She had had the odd tantrum before, and still has the odd one now, but she was acting out hourly in France and tantrums were her weapon of choice. I had anticipated this phase coming after her first couple tantrums before the trip, so I bought Becoming Toddlerwise, but it didn't cover everything I was experiencing.

The main thing that encouraged me in that book was that, for toddlers, "good obedience" can't be seen as 100% obedience. Due to a toddler's lack of communication and understanding skills at this age (especially Lily, who isn't talking), 60% obedience (aka, decently over half the time) should be the bench mark. If they obey you 60% of the time or more, they're obeying well. What a relief! I'd become so dismayed at Lily's imperfect behaviour, because she used to be fairly consistent, but missed her transition into toddlerhood and the changes this required. Even in France, which was the pinnacle of her tantrums, she was hovering around the 60% obedience mark, which allowed me to give her more grace and understanding.

Other than that tidbit though, there wasn't a lot of help dealing with or disciplining from a tantrum. So I was stuck, and very desperate. To give you some context, I'd also just read Brining Up Bebe and was convinced that every French family watching her tantrums was judging me. And they probably were. She seemed to be one of the only toddlers sitting or laying down in crowded French streets, refusing to get up, or screaming her heart out when we forced her to hold our hand (for her own safety). So the humiliation and cultural pressure pushed me to ask anyone and everyone for advice.

I went out on a limb and asked a stranger for advice. Jen Wilkin, whose parenting talks I've mentioned many times, seems to be the type of parent I can really get on board with. From discipline to public schools to limiting media and after school activities, I feel like the decisions her and her husband have made reflect ours very well. So I e-mailed her. No, we'd never spoken and she had no idea who I was. But she had to have some good advice! And you know what? Bless her, she e-mailed me back within 48 hours. Here was her advice (in her words, italics and subtitles are mine), and it worked WONDERS with us during our European Tantrum Tour.  Thank you, Jen!

DO NOT BE FOOLED! this beauty can sure throw a good one ;)

First of all, It's normal for a two-year-old to throw a fit because of her limited ability to express frustration verbally.  I knew this, but it's amazing to hear it. Maybe you need to hear that this morning :) 

Set The Expectation:

Set the expectation in the morning: "Lily, look at Mom. No arguing today, okay?" "Okay, Mom." If you argue, what will happen?" "Time out". "That's right. I think we're going to have a good day." **

Set it again when you go out in public: "Lily, look at Mom. No fits in the store, OK?" "OK Mom." If you throw a fit we will leave, OK?" "OK, Mom."** If the fits are linked to a particular thing, like asking for treats, set that expectation beforehand as well. The child’s verbal acknowledgment with eye contact is crucial: that is where the battle of wills is won. 

During The Tantrum:

Dialoguing in the midst of the conflict is a bad idea and tends to prolong both the fit-of-the moment and the behavior in general. 

At home: When the fit begins, calmly say “no fits” and walk away. Fits are only fun with an audience: when she sees that you don’t acknowledge the tantrum she’ll eventually give it up. Go in another room. If the tantrum follows you, say “no fits” and put her in time out (probably crib) until she calms down. If walking away from her is unsafe, say “no fits” and isolate her. The key to tantrums is to be as far away from them as possible. You want her to realize that a tantrum is a ticket to immediate isolation. 
When she has calmed down, go to her and say “Look at Mom. No fits, Okay?” “Okay Mom”.** Then she can return to normal activity. 

In public: When the fit begins, calmly say “no fits” and exit to an area with no onlookers (this was hard to do in France, but we tried). Sit calmly until the fit ends, without making eye contact or talking to the child. Trying to talk to a child during a fit will only prolong it – she will see the dialogue as evidence that she has gotten your full attention by throwing the fit.

When the fit begins to wind down, say “All done? Good.” And return to your shopping, etc. 

How you respond as the parent:

If the fit doesn’t stop, and you're in public, go home. And yes, go home even if you have to leave a shopping cart or a party. That is a moment where you have to make an investment in the long-term by sacrificing short-term comfort.  

As you have probably already figured out, it is so, so important for you to remain calm. Children throw fits to lure moms into an emotional battle. By remaining calm, using few words and removing yourself you take all the power out of fit-throwing. 

Look for and praise any signs of progress on your child’s part. (we've seen GREAT advances with this). Look for little victories and make much of them.  

Be sure you do start every day with new mercies toward her - resist the temptation to hold yesterday's failures over her head (in your mind). Start each day with the expectation that it will be a good one. I loved this point! So true! 

Finally, Be sure your child is getting lots of rest. Fit-throwing is worse when children are tired. Children between the ages of 1-3 need a whopping 12-14 hours of sleep a day. Earlier bedtime until the fits get better. It can even be a consequence. "Your fit is telling me it's time for nap/bed." Goodnight. (this has also been so true of Lily. Fits almost only ever happen after 4pm or when she's missed a nap)

 **this hasn't worked specifically because Lily isn't talking, 
but even getting her to nod in agreement or say "ya!" 
has helped and it's clear she's still, in some way or another, 
submitting her will.**


  1. Maggie3.10.12

    Everything about this is so true and so relevant, even in older kids. It's so much easier for my kindergartens to stay on task when the expectation has been set - "When we write our books, do we write in crayon or pencil?" "pencil." "Do we do our writing first or colouring?" "Writing." Totally helps them to be successful! Plus, when kids are acting out, often they just want attention...again, SO relevant in my class! You hit the nail on the head here, Em. :D

  2. I can totally vouch that this approach works. And as Maggie said it works in other circumstances in which a certain behaviour is expected...let them know what is expected and look at you and say "yes, mommy". Like, in van before going in the store: Remember, no running, touching things, fighting, laying on the floor...or whatever. Of course not 100% fool proof. Darius never really threw tantrums. Selena would do the throwing herself on the store floor etc for attention. Totally best to ignore and discipline sooner rather than later. She soon related "are you having a tantrum" to the consequences and that quickly ended. At home, on the occasional time she will still start having a fit (or Darius is whining WAY too much) and I send her to her room and she isn't allowed out till she can talk normally, in which time we can review what the problem was and address things accordingly. Keira is the worst of them all, and I am just starting to implement some of the ignoring etc and 'explaining'. She certainly has a mind of her own and likes to scream LOUDLY when things are going her way! So, this is a very timely reminder. Thanks Emily and thanks Jen Wilkin :)

  3. This is really great! Thank you for sharing today!

  4. thanks for sharing this Emily! This is a tool for my back pocket. I can already sense with Penelope that she has a strong will and is very vocal. I just know in my heart she will be an assertive child with a strong will, which is great...but we will need to train her to use her strong will for good! This is great and we will be for sure using this approach!

  5. I may have missed this, but have you had Lily assessed by a speech-language pathologist? In Ontario (I'm not sure how it works in Quebec), there is a preschool program which provides publicly-funded services to children up to age 5 for expressive language (getting their thoughts out), receptive language (understanding others' talking), and speech (making speech sounds, e.g., the "k" sound). There is usually an insane waiting list. Some SLPs are Hanen-trained (Hanen is an evidence-based program for early language development). Sorry if you've already done/written about this.

    -Hilary Kaine, MHSc, S-LP(C), Reg. CASLPO

  6. Anonymous10.10.12


    Does Lily have some words yet? What do you do when your child isn't able to speak yet? Can you write about this issue for those of us who are interested?


    1. Thanks for your interest Melissa, I'll be writing a post on her improvements soon :)

  7. We've had three non-fit-throwing children and then wham-o! The fourth one turned 15 months old and, to our horror, laid down on the floor and kicked his feet in anger. Tantrums have definitely brought all sorts of unexpected emotions boiling up within me! This is great, practical advice! Don't you wish Jen could be your backyard neighbor? I love everything I learn from her!
    *My brother lives in France with his family. I have heard many a story involving the opinions of French parents! Always shocking to see whippins' in a grocery store!

  8. Awesome, thank you! I loved this because it's so hard to know what to do, but I guess I'm doing some of the stuff you mentioned so maybe we are on the right track! We have boys (ages 4 and 2) and our 2 year old is totally in the independent phase where he doesn't want to hold hands in the parking lot, etc. His retaliation is to pull my hair. SOOOO painful and frustrating (and at times infuriating). Thanks for the advice!