How to Stop a Tantrum with Toddlers and Preschoolers

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A full-blown tantrum can be scary, not only for embarrassed parents dealing with it in public, but also for the child. Your toddler or preschooler might feel out of control in their emotions and simply not know how to stop a tantrum. Sometimes young children need help getting out of their fit. But don’t confuse this with “giving in” as a parent. Yes, giving your kids a way out of their bad mood is helpful in the moment. But teaching them how to stop a tantrum gives them power over their overwhelming emotions in the future. Hopefully these positive parenting methods to stop a tantrum will result in happier kids!

Toddler girl holding toy baby bottles

Bag of Tricks to Stop a Tantrum

I call this the Tantrum Bag of Tricks because it’s good to have a full variety of techniques. What works to stop a tantrum one day, might not work the next. And what always worked with one kid, may not work for another. It’s important to have several tricks up your sleeve to try out!

Toddlers and preschoolers can smell fear. So if you’re starting to panic about the temper tantrum and starting to feel out of control yourself, expect the tantrum to last longer. It’s normal to get stressed out when an embarrassing meltdown happens in a public place! But if you’re able to stay calm and collected (even if it’s just on the outside!), the tantrum is going to diffuse more quickly. Act like you’re in control and your kid is more likely to give up the fight.

You’ll also want to start diffusing the tantrum before it’s full blown. You want to stop a tantrum before it’s a complete meltdown with your kid on the floor! Hey, that happens to the best of us. Using one (or more) of these temper tantrum diffusing tips can help stop a tantrum before it starts.

Squeeze the “Grouch” Out

This has been a favorite trick to stop a tantrum with every one of my kids. Squeezing the “Grouch” out is a loving and silly way to diffuse tantrums almost instantly. In fact, when my kids are in a cranky mood, they’ll even ASK me to squeeze the grouch out! Here’s how it works: 

Mid-tantrum just ask your child, “Do you want me to squeeze the grouch out?” Most of the time kids will stop fussing and say yes. Then just wrap your arms around them and wiggle, jostle and squeeze tightly for about 10 seconds! Ask your child if the grouch came out (they’ll usually say “No” because they want to be squeezed again!). Repeat as needed until the “Grouch” is gone. This tantrum trick has worked with each of my kids!

Toddler girl holding a baby doll

Distract and Redirect

The distract and redirect method is particularly effective with babies and toddlers. Little ones can be distracted from their tantrum with something positive like a toy, book or a snack. You could also use an outside distraction like pretending you’re on a phone call with a favorite family member (and having a conversation about your child, of course). I’ve even stepped outside to ring the doorbell which almost immediately makes my toddler stop to go and check who is at the door!

Distracting a preschooler from their fit can take a bit more creativity. With my 3-year old daughter, I’ll use distraction by saying I heard or saw something. While she’s screaming, I’ll say quickly and loudly enough for her to hear, “OH! I heard something!” This usually makes her stop the tantrum and either listen or ask me what I heard. From there I can use a redirect method and say I thought I heard the mailbox shut so we can go check the mail. Or that I thought I heard my phone ring, maybe it’s grandma calling?

Toddler playing memory match game
The promise of a board game can be a great temper tantrum distraction!

Brain Shift

I asked the question on my Facebook page, “How do you diffuse a tantrum?” My friend Breanne offered up this idea about when she helped a child calm down who was stuck in a swing at the park:

{I ask} 10 logical questions in a row. What’s your name? How old are you? Do you see my son over there? Do you know how old he is? Is he a boy or a girl? What color shirt is he wearing? What’s 2 + 2? Causing her brain to detach from the emotions and go to the logic side, caused her to settle down quickly…

Crystal chimed in with this response:

The fight, flight or freeze response is strong and calming kids/de-escalating emotions is key!

Use distraction to divert and redirect

Give Them a Job

Little kids love to know that they are needed. Sometimes feeling small and helpless in a busy family can lead to frustration. When my daughter is having a fit, I’ll often let her know that I need her help with something. She usually stops fussing right away to lend a hand.

If you’re doing household chores and your toddler or preschooler is having a tantrum, enlist their help. Even young kids can move laundry from the dryer to a basket or use a dusting cloth on furniture. Today my daughter was upset in the grocery store because I passed the treats without putting any inside the cart! I pulled out a plastic vegetable bag and asked her to hold it so I could fill it with green onions. She stopped the fit right away to hold the bag and didn’t ask again about the candy.

Preschooler helping put laundry in the washing machine
Preschoolers love to know they are helping out

Mirror Their Feelings

Using the reflection technique is one of the best positive parenting tips to stop a tantrum. This isn’t mimicking but rather letting your kids know that YOU know how they feel by putting their emotions into words. For toddlers and preschoolers that don’t have a broad language vocabulary, mirroring can be an effective way to stop a tantrum. Getting down to their level and looking at your child in the eye, try these techniques. This is how you can use mirroring:

When you’re feeling a tantrum escalate and your child is visibly upset, put into words how your child might be feeling. The goal is to use words that will get your child to stop crying/screaming/thrashing and to listen and converse back with you.

Asking the words like a question is ideal as it requires your child to reply (even if it’s just a nod of their head in agreement). Words could include, “You’re upset because you wanted a treat and mommy said no?” or “You’re angry inside and it makes you want to scream and hit?”

Next you can use words that show you understand that your child is upset. Words could include, “I know you’re mad about not buying a treat today and it makes you want to cry” or “I can tell you are upset because you’re hitting and kicking”. If you’re child is receptive, you can try touching them on the hand or giving them a back rub or a hug.

When your child is listening and the tantrum is waning, you’ll be able to close out the conversation and move on. Try using words like, “I understand that it’s hard to go to the store and not buy a treat. Sometimes we get one but not always.” or “It’s okay to be upset but we can’t use our anger on other people with hitting or kicking. Next time you get upset you’ll need to tell me with words when something is bothering you”. 

Follow this quickly with another one of these temper diffusing techniques to redirect and distract from the tantrum picking up speed again.

Make Them Laugh

One way to diffuse and stop a tantrum is with pure silliness. One that usually works with my kids (and of course, I only do this at home) is to pretend I’ve fainted. I’ll cover my ears, make a funny face and then drop in slow motion to the ground. To stop a tantrum with laughter, try dancing around (a booty shake usually gets them giggling). Put your child’s shoes on the ends of your feet and ask them if your shoes shrunk. Put a blob of toothpaste on the end of your nose, then ask your kid if there is something on your face. 

What you probably don’t want to do with sensitive kids is to mimic them. Mimicking their tantrum can make some kids angry and they’ll feel like you’re minimizing their feelings. You don’t want to mimic their meltdown in an attempt to diffuse the situation, it might even make it worse.

Don’t minimize feelings with mocking or mimicking

Change of Scenery

If you find yourself in a vicious tantrum cycle throughout the day, try a change of scenery. If you’re inside the house, ask your child if they want to go somewhere. 99% of the time when I ask my preschooler if she wants to go to the park/take a walk/visit the library/go on the patio, she stops a tantrum and grabs her shoes. The change of scenery does us both well!

On the flip-side, you might find yourself trying to fit too much into your routine and faced with tantrums in return. If you’re trying to get one more errand done for the day and your fussy kid is telling you otherwise, might be time to cut your losses and head for home. 

Blowing bubbles is a restful activity that often calms anxious kids.

Tell Them a Secret

When my kids start screaming, I get quiet. That is, I lower my voice so they can’t hear what I’m saying until they get quiet too. Use a whisper or even fake that you’re talking by moving your lips until your child stops shouting. Another trick is to tell them you want to share a secret. Get in close and whisper softly into their ear something special. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep but you could say, “Mommy’s going to make pudding in the kitchen, would you like to help?” or “I found a bottle of bubbles, would you like to go outside and blow them?”

Just Add Music

Turning up the volume on the radio to catch my daughter’s attention in the car usually stops a tantrum in its tracks (she’ll stop to hear the music or to sing along). At home, I’ll enlist the help of Alexa on my Echo Dot to create a musical distraction. I’ll call out, “Alexa, play Baby Shark” and I have one happy kiddo! Get up with your child and dance the blues away.


Toddler crying in a car seat

Preventing Tantrums in the First Place

Naturally there are reasons your child is having a tantrum. Getting to the core of the tantrum is key to helping prevent them in the future. These are a few reasons why a tantrum with toddlers, preschoolers (and even big kids!) happen.

Hunger

A grumbling tummy is definitely one of the big reasons that young kids have a tantrum. Small stomachs need snacks every few hours to keep mood levels even. But it’s not just about feeding your child. Don’t forget to offer plenty of water throughout the day. Dehydration can definitely lead to mood-swings as well!

On Facebook, Jessica had this to say about her 2-year old daughter:

A lot of the time it’s from being either hungry or overwhelmed. A quiet spot and a snack help us 85% of the time! 

Snacks should be well-balanced to keep sugar-levels even. Offer snacks that include a healthy fat, fiber and protein. Good snack combos include a cube of cheese and a few apple slices or some pretzel sticks with peanut butter for dipping. 

Frustration

Little kids get frustrated over seemingly small things but to them, it’s the end of the world. Frustration is another big reason that kids have tantrums. All the things that children learn daily (like potty training with toddlers) can add to frustration when they haven’t mastered it yet. Parents might even add to that frustration by getting mad at kids when they’re still learning (come on, we’ve all gotten upset with pee on the floor, right?)

Think about how you feel when your internet crashes just as you’re completing an online project. Or when you’re building that Ikea shelf and the instructions don’t make sense? Frustration can make anyone cranky! Put yourself into your child’s shoes and know that even tiny annoyances can lead to big tantrums. Offer help to your child when possible or at least guidance before frustration leads to a tantrum.

On the opposite side of the coin, your child may also be feeling frustrated at a lack of freedom. If you’re helping too much and they want to do it alone, see where you can allow some independence. Know where you can say “Yes” to them throughout the day, instead of always saying, “No”. 

Little girl wearing Peejamas potty training pajamas

A BIG Reason Tantrums Happen

Tired

According to the National Sleep Foundation, toddlers require between 11-14 hours a day and preschoolers should aim for 10-13 hours of sleep. This sleep number includes night sleep and naps. So where do your kids fall? I know my kids are a LOT less cooperative when they aren’t getting good rest.

I do sometimes struggle to get my daughter to take a proper nap in the afternoon. Then dinner comes and she falls asleep in her high chair! That’s never good because she wakes a few hours later after the evening nap and is raring to go until 10 pm! And of course she wants to sleep in the next day, which can’t happen when older siblings have to go to school. It’s a cycle that can be hard to get out of, resulting in mood swings and tantrums.

The late nap is never a good thing!

If your child is fazing out of a daytime nap, you may need to finagle bedtime and wake time earlier to compensate. Of course you can lead a toddler to bed but you can’t make him SLEEP! Having a few bedtime tricks can help, like using a “sleepy time spray” (lavender oil and water in a squirt bottle). I’ve just discovered Moshi Twilight sleepy stories, which I play on the Echo Dot.

More Reasons Temper Tantrums with Toddlers Happen

Needs Attention

When I’m busy with at-home work stuff and not giving my daughter close attention, I notice that tantrums and whining is at a maximum. A need for attention can cause kids to get moody. Instead of giving your child a “Time Out” for a tantrum, try a “Time In”. If you notice your child is craving some attention, drop what you’re doing (when possible) and have an impromptu dance party. Play a board game. Swoop her up for a tickle fest. Choose one of these best books for kids and have a cuddle story time. Good use of “Time in” can stop a tantrum before it starts.

Overstimulated

When my children have had too much of their share on electronics or television, tantrums are more frequently. Over-stimulation is a temper tantrum trigger. Cutting back on screen time might be tough at first but you’ll see the proof within days. My kids sleep better, bicker less and are generally in a happier mood when electronics are limited.

Over-stimulation happens frequently at parties, play dates and theme parks. Think about being in a location that’s swelling with loud music, exciting experiences and bright colors. It’s fun but for toddlers and preschoolers, it might be too much for them to handle. 

Try these tricks that I use in the post about controlling a Disneyland meltdown when your child is overstimulated.

Want to avoid the Disneyland meltdown on your vacation? Temper tantrums at Disney can be avoided by following these tested tips with advice for a happier kids. Includes a list of quiet places to rest inside the Parks and tips for kids with special needs.

Let’s Talk About It

If your child had a meltdown, you should always come back around to it and talk about it later. While a tantrum is happening is not the time to ask your kid, “Why are you having a fit?” Your child’s brain is not equipped to calmly discuss their reasoning while in the midst of a meltdown. However later in the day, when your child is calm and happy, bring it up again.

It’s okay to talk about mood swings and temper tantrums in a relaxed and safe way. Ask why they were angry/upset/sad. Talk openly about ideas and ways they can self-calm. Discuss things they can do next time to relax before they get to the tantrum.

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