• Mike Hodson, MS, LMFT-A

Toddler Tantrums: Keeping Calm in the Chaos

As I write this, I am currently the parent of a soon-to-be 3 year-old. About 10 years ago I was warned about the “terrible twos” that young children go through. Now the new phrase seems to be “three-nager” since 3 year-olds can exhibit the level of obstinance stereotypically seen in teenagers. One thing that both toddlers and teenagers have in common is that they have to endure a barrage of life transitions (physical and emotional.) However, the difference is that toddlers are experiencing these adjustments for the first time. If you have had experience with a toddler, you are probably familiar with their logic patterns which include progressions such as this:

Me: Do you want meatballs or chicken nuggets for dinner?

Toddler: I want chicken nuggets.

Me: Ok, let’s make some chicken nuggets.

Toddler: (possibly on the brink of meltdown) NOOOO! I don’t want chicken nuggets!

Me: Then you can have meatballs.

Toddler: No! I want chicken nuggets!

Me: Sounds good.

Toddler: No! I want the yellow plate!

(and so it goes…)

This pattern of thinking is completely normal and reflects a desire to test or check limits and boundaries in order to feel safe. But, how does a nugget and meatball debate make a toddler feel safe? John Rosemond describes this paradox in the book “Because I Said So” in which he states, “In order for a toddler to develop an enduring, stable sense of security, his parents must first make him temporarily insecure. They do this by firmly, but gently, dismantling his egocentric point of view and building, in its place, one based on the premise they run the show” (Rosemond, 1996, p. 19). This gradual changing of a toddler’s belief of who is in control can be taxing on parents in the moment, but is worth it in the long-run. This power struggle is especially apparent when transitioning to new activities, places, or life events that require more responsibility on the toddler’s part, i.e., potty training, using utensils, picking up their toys, etc. So how do we as parents help our little ones (and ourselves) through these difficult situations?

1. Create routine: People are creatures of habit because habit and routine are predictable and safe. Since toddlers are creatures too, it would stand to reason that they need good habits. They will get this from you through dinner time, bath time, and bed time routines. These are just a few examples. If expectations and rules are made known before a transition or change occurs, and a consistent pattern of events follows each time, then the toddler will begin to latch onto those habits and even remind you if you forget them! Sometimes he/she will challenge the routine, which can be acceptable at times, but overall the rules and expectations should remain consistent in the family setting.

2. Provide options: Give your toddler power while actually keeping you in control. If we think about the paradox above, your child believes he/she is in control, but also needs you to reign him/her in. The parent is ultimately approving the options provided to the child. If the child does choose, the parent simply chooses for them from predetermined options. This creates predictability. The toddler learns, “If I don’t choose, they will choose for me.”

3. Don’t take tantrums personally. Tantrums and obstinance are normal and are used to test boundaries. If you take meltdowns as a direct reflection of your parenting capabilities, the toddler is the one in control. However, tantrums are typically short-lived and will come to an end when there is no more incentive for them to occur. When my toddler has “noodle legs” or goes full-on “dead fish” as I like to call it, it’s his last resort for not wanting to comply with a direction. As long as he’s not in harm’s way, he can sit or lie there until he gets bored of not getting his way. At that point we repeat the original direction or set of options and move on. Over time, there is less incentive to throw tantrums when there is no benefit that comes from doing so.

4. Know your limits. Be mindful of your own limits and boundaries. Whether you need your toddler to hurry up, slow down, make up his/her mind, or just listen, be aware of your temper limit and adjust for the situation accordingly. Modeling emotional regulation for your child helps them navigate his/her own emotions. By showing a stoic expression or having a directive tone (not yelling, but still stern), it communicates you mean business. If another parenting partner is around, it can be helpful to switch off if you feel as if you are reaching your limit. (Tag team!)

While this is by no means a comprehensive approach to dealing with all toddlers or all circumstances, these four tips can provide a starting point for managing those draining meltdowns as your toddler is coming to terms with his/her “insecurity” as mentioned above. By showing that you are in control of the environment and of your emotions as the parent, your toddler will learn that he/she can trust that environment and model his/her own emotions based on how you react in stressful situations.


Rosemond, J. K. (1996). “Because I said so!” :366 insightful and thought-provoking reflections on parenting and family life. Andrews And Mcmeel, 1996: Us.


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