Curbing Toddler Frustrations and Tantrums

by | Jan 2, 2011 | Anger Management, Discipline & Behavior

Parenting advice that helps reduce little ones’ frustrations and temper those tantrums (work for grown-ups, too!) that I shared on Dr. Phil

REALITY CHECK: Did you know that research shows that the most active (and aggressive) time EVER in our lives is between the ages of two and four? Now you know why you’re tired! Toddlers are always on the go and need you to help them soothe and regulate impulsive behaviors. There are strategies parents and caregivers can use that are effective in reducing frustrations and tantrums.

Toddlers: they’re adorable, lovable, and absolutely precious (at least most of the time -right?). They’re also unpredictable, impulsive and can be absolutely exhausting. These little critters are like energizer bunnies except their batteries just never seem to run out. You can’t reason with them: they don’t have the cognitive development. You can’t tell them to “calm down”: they don’t have the internal regulatory system. You can’t talk them through most of their issues: they don’t have the vocabulary.

My Intervention on Dr. Phil and Raising Sextuplets 

I’ve received so many requests from parents asking for “toddler tips to reduce frustrations.” I decided to put make a list of my top Toddler Tamers. These are the strategies I pass on the most to parents and they’re also the tips that have come in very handy in two recent national television family “interventions.”

Dr. Phil asked me to help a mom and dad with an “out-of-control” toddler and I was sent to their home for a makeover. (That’s me in the green jacket with Dr. Phil and the parents). I can’t tell you how many emails I received from parents saying their family had the same problems and asked for my help.

The WE-channel also asked my help for their show “Raising Sextuplets.” The two-year old sextuplets were all biting, tantruming, hitting and nonverbal. Phew!. Here are tips I offered to to those families to reduce toddler frustrations.

10 Tips to Reduce Frustrations and Temper Tantrums

Here are my favorites “tamers” for this unique age group. (Just a word to the wise: they do grow up all too quickly! Enjoy now. Your little one will never be this active or cuddly).

Toddler Tip 1. Name the upset feeling

Telling a two year old to “Calm down!” just won’t cut it. But it sometimes helps to play “emotion coach.” (Note the “sometimes” – you really have to experiment with what works – but this is worth the try).

Name Feeling Using Exaggerated Tone

At the first moment you see your toddler’s frustrations coming on, get down eye-to-eye and in an exaggerated tone, name the feeling. “You’re soooooo angry!!!  Johnny is soooooo mad!!!” Or “Mad! Mad! Kelly is mad!” (Use an exclamation point at the end of your statements. Toddlers love exaggeration!)

Verbalizing an upset feeling to a nonverbal kid can be empowering and helps to reduce the frustration. It’s almost as though you see your little one look up at you with a, “Well yep. That’s how I feel! Glad you finally caught on!”

Toddler Tip 2. Don’t overuse “NO”

If you catch the Raising Sextuplets tape you’ll hear both parents admit that saying “No” to their two year olds (all six!) is no longer effective. They overused the term and so it wore out the impact. This is the copy-cat age and toddlers are experimenting with words. “No” is one of the easiest words to say and because they hear it often (from Y.O.U.) they will pick it up. So one of the first tips I taught the parents was to not overuse the word, “No!”

Save No For Red Flag Moments

Save “NO” for those moments when safety or health is at risk, you want an immediate response, or your little one has really crossed the line. You could substitute the word, “NO!” with a clap, the word “Danger!” or “Safety!”

Teach Hand Gestures for “Stop” and “Gentle”

You could also teach a hand gesture or sign language.I taught the Sextuplets the sign for “Stop” (hand straight out in front) and “Gentle” (palm softly rubbing the top of the other hands). The nonverbal sextuplets started using the signs with each other and aggressive behaviors such as biting and hitting were greatly reduced. (Best yet, the producers called to tell me that the parents were using the sign with each other after I left. How cool is that?)

Toddler Tip 3. Lower voice to a whisper to give requests

Toddlers love variety and fear loud noises. So try using softer voice tones. A little one usually responds. They also love you to make your voice sound like Daffy Duck or some other character. Go for it! Your toddler won’t tell.

Turn Your Hand Into a Puppet

Turn your hand into an instant puppet and make your hand talk. Come on – try it! This is a magical age when you can use their imagination to your advantage.

Toddler Tip 4. Turn DON’T to DO

Toddlers are in the “Constructive Faze.”  Little egos are just forming and their little independence streak is churning, so watch out for negatives. You’ll get far better responses if you turn your “Don’t run” into “Let’s walk.” Or “Don’t pull the doggy’s tail.” Instead “Watch Mommy. Pet the doggy like this.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Also SHOWING what you want a toddler to do is always better than TELLING. Model!!!! They are great little copy-cats.

Toddler Tip 5. Anticipate frustration

Get to know your child so you can intervene when he is most likely to have that meltdown. (Believe me, there is a pattern and most times you can predict the frustration). You’ll reduce many of those meltdowns by taking him shopping after the nap or eating a snack, or letting him play with something while you wait. ANTICIPATE!

                             Identify the Pattern

Ask yourself the key question: “What happened right before?” The biggest frustration triggers for a toddler are fatigue, hunger and boredom. But what is your child’s tantrum trigger?

Toddler Tip 6. Don’t try reasoning with a tantruming toddler

Once that flail or wail or exorcism begins, forget trying to reason with your child to reduce those tantrums. Doing so is like trying to reason with a goldfish. Remember that when those strong emotions kick in the “reasoning” part of their brain tunes out. Just let him wind down.

Toddler Tip 7. Respectfully and selectively ignore attention-getting

Toddlers are attention-getters and they love to figure out what pushes your buttons. If you’re not careful you’ll discover a lot of things do bug you. So when those annoying behaviors kick in (the whine, pout, screech, your best response is NO response. Pretend your toddler is invisible and that you are deaf. I’ve coached many parents on this one and most won’t believe me. So I tell them, “Watch.” The first sign the toddler tries a whine I just turn and pretend to do something else. And within seconds the toddler stops the behavior. Why? Simple, it doesn’t work.

Once Tantrum Starts, Ignore

Boston College found the more attention you give a tantrum, the longer it lasts. Once a tantrum starts, make sure your child is safe and if you recognize it’s attention getting or just due to mere frustration most research suggests you ignore, ignore, ignore. Track the behavior. You should see a gradual diminishment in the attention-getting behaviors. If not, seek help!

Toddler Tip 8. Use calming rituals

Toddlers need “transition” time. They don’t have an internal brake system and need you to help calm them down. Because they don’t have an internal clock, they will rely on you: “Let’s start putting our toys away. It’s almost time for lunch.” “When we’ve finished singing Twinkle-Twinkle it will be time to brush our teeth.Beware: Not giving an adequate warning that a change is coming is one of the fastest ways to cause a meltdown. Give calm warnings!

                         Follow Active Activity With CalmerUse a preschool-teacher’s secret: always follow an active activity (running, jumping, marching, etc) with a calming activity (reading a book, giving a massage, singing a quiet song, doing a finger play). Those blankeys and teddy bears do work to help them self-soothe. Offer them!

Toddler Tip 9. Teach feeling words

One way to help reduce the biting and hitting is to teach emotion words and the best way is always in context: “You’re sad! Is Johnny sad!” “Look at that little boy. He’s happy. See his happy face!” “Let’s look at the pictures in our book. See Sally’s face. She looks scared. Make your face look scared!”

You can teach little ones sign language for emotions. (And don’t worry about purchasing some fancy book with sign gestures, just make up your own signs. My doctoral dissertation was in trying to determine the emotions toddlers and preschoolers are able to identify and the developmental sequence. I interviewed hundreds of two to five year olds and discovered that the four emotions toddlers learn first (in in this order) are “sad, happy, mad and scared.” I also discovered that toddlers frequently confuse sad, mad and scared.

Beware: Hitting and biting are common with toddlers. In fact the top reason toddlers are “expelled” from day care or preschool is biting. Though common, it doesn’t mean you should allow the behavior. Aggression becomes a habit.

Toddler Tip 10. Be calm so your toddler can mirror your calmness

Toddlers are active and so their frustrations can quickly escalate. And they don’t yet have that little brake switch inside to help them stop and cool down.So be their brake system. The fastest way to escalate a toddler’s frustration is to yell or be upset yourself. The faster way to slow them down is to get eye to eye and calmly mirror their emotions. Be calm to help your toddler be calm.

Final Thoughts

Of course, the real trick is to find out what works best for your toddler. Once you discover the secret use the same trick over and over.  Toddler Tamer Trick #11: Toddlers love routines!

Never forget Toddler Tamer Trick #11: PRAISE. PRAISE. and PRAISE what your little one does right! Just use an exaggerated voice and add an exclamation point to the end of your acknowledgement.


Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips to raise strong kids from the inside out in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Believe me, there are dozens — the book weighs over two pounds but is designed as a complete reference guide for raising kids from sandbox to prom. The chapter on tantrums will be particularly helpful which is where many of the tips from this blog are from.