Confident & patient success responding to toddler tantrums

Modest disclosure about myself… my happy place is at the beach.  So when providing advice to my other ocean-loving friends about how to better approach their toddlers’ tantrums (especially because they were happening in public most of the time),  I came up with a comparison of the toddler tantrum to the ocean.

If you have ever spent time swimming at the seashore, or perhaps if you’ve taken a surf lesson before, this will be particularly salient to you. Let’s dive in to the anatomy of a toddler tantrum; and what the adult can do.  It is possible to respond lovingly, patiently, and yet confidently while remaining in charge of the situation, even when your toddler is having a complete emotional wipeout.

When you stand at the shore and watch the ocean, you will notice that the waves come in sets that will keep rolling in, without fail.  Some days are calmer days. Some days the waves are really pumping.  You might have some longer pauses between sets, but the sea is inevitably always ebbing and flowing continuously, waves lapping onto the shore.  This is a wonderful metaphor of toddler emotions. They are always there.  It’s how they will present that affects us as adults.

Sometimes the emotions compounds with every wave in a set, so to speak.   If the conditions are just right, every now and then you get a colossal wave that violently crashes onto the shore.  The stormier the conditions are, the crazier the waves tend to be. So goes a tantrum with a toddler.

Now let’s imagine that your little toddler is out in this dynamic ocean, learning how to swim or surf for the first time ever.  This is what it’s like for them to learn how to express and manage their own emotions.  Experts call this skill “emotional intelligence” — the ability to learn emotional self-control, coping skills through one’s own emotions, to learn how to read other people’s emotional cues, and how our behavioral choices could trigger an emotional response in others.

I’ve watched little kids tumble around in the surf.  They basically half-drown the entire time, but they just keep throwing themselves back into the crashing waves that frankly sometimes terrify me as a grown adult.  The beauty of little kids is that they inherently approach life in a “let it all out”/ “go big or go home” kind of way.  They are fearless, and don’t know failure until they reach a concrete limit that stops their forward momentum.

As adults, we are basically like the “surf instructor” or “swim instructor” for our little kids’ emotional coping skills.  Now, if you’ve ever taken surf lessons, you will know that a highly experienced, highly capable surfer tends to be your instructor.  You don’t go out there with someone who is just as clueless as you– they always know better than you, and yet they are patient, wise, calm, confident, and competent at guiding you through the situation.  They are an adept surfer and a strong and confident swimmer.  They know how to read the waves for you ahead of time where your ignorance, inexperience, and complete lack of skills falls short.

The surf instructor knows which waves to let you into, and s/he will never hesitate to yank your leash and hold you back from paddling into a wave if s/he believes you are going to fail,  if you’re in danger, or if the wave isn’t actually going to produce the proper momentum for you to ride.  Assuming you’ll technically be fine short of your bruised ego, the instructor will challenge you to just “pearl” (try to catch waves and fail, over and over) until you get it.

The thing is, despite all their wisdom and instruction, the instructor can’t do the surfing for you.  At some points (usually when you’re on your way back out into the surf after riding a wave to the shore) they have to just let you be out there on your own and do what you can.  Especially when you’re in a group situation and there is only one of them and say, four people in a surf lesson, you’re going to have to depend on your own efforts.   Part of the experience is that sometimes, it’s up to you to get yourself back out into the surf, and back up on to your board, without the instructor being right there next to you to guide your every move every single moment.

And the truth is, when you’re in the ocean trying to get past the breaking waves, sometimes a wave comes that is just too powerful for you to handle or paddle over.  Not knowing what you’re doing or how to be in control, you basically get knocked down, and completely spin out of control under the water while the wave tumbles you around like a rag doll. This is what they call “going through the washing machine”.

If it sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is, LOL.  And there is nothing you can do really, except try your best to remain in as calm of a state as you can through the panic until the set passes and you can resurface, take a breath, pull your exhausted body back onto the board looking like a jellyfish-meets-drowing-baby-cat with a terrible hairstyle, regain your bearings, and try again.

People, this is an exact parallel of a toddler going through  a tantrum or meltdown. The toddler tantrum is basically when enough triggers have piled up to where a giant wave of emotions overtakes your toddler and sends them “through the washing machine”.  And they have completely lost control.

It could be one giant event that sets them off, it could be a series of small events that has compounded over time that finally erupts into a tantrum.  It could even be an event that happened “a long time ago” that all of a sudden surfaces like a rogue wave manifesting in this huge meltdown.  But either way, sometimes in the actual moment of a tantrum, it can feel incredibly helpless from our position as adults until the wave(s) of meltdown eventually pass.  Or worse, the adult gets sucked in and starts tumbling in the chaos right along with the toddler when it was originally only the toddler spinning out of control.


Here are some tips I have learned after working with toddlers for more than a decade, be it in a Montessori capacity or otherwise, for how to lovingly, patiently, calmly, and yet firmly (by which I mean remaining in charge) guide yourselves through a toddler tantrum.

~Try to not let the situation escalate in the first place if at all possible, by perhaps unknowingly setting them up for failure or a trigger. For example, if your child is obsessed with screens, and you learned that they’re gonna lose it when it’s time to leave the store, don’t even go into the TV  aisle at Target if they are with you.  If you know your child thinks they are entitled to a toy every trip to the store, prime them and have a thorough but simple conversation way beforehand that you are NOT going to buy a toy today.  “Are we getting toys today? Noooo.  What are we getting?  Milk, Cereal, Toilet paper, and that’s it”.  Repeat this preparatory conversation over, and over, until the actual moment occurs.

~ Calm love, compassion, and patience are critical ingredients when approaching a young child in tantrum.  If you’re not in a patient, observant, loving, and compassionate state, it’s almost best to literally walk away or give that child space.  I am fully guilty of losing my cool, which I did just the other day actually.  But adding negative vibes to the situation (getting sucked in and going under too, if you will) won’t make it any better.  Using a negative tone of voice, getting angry, tense touch–none of that is going to help or improve the situation.  You’re at still at the surface when a tantrum erupts.  So take a deep breath, calm the (beep) down, and stay above the chaos while you peacefully keep swimming.  You’re not the one tumbling out of control, they are.

~ Give them a place they can go. Unlike the ocean,  during a tantrum there is often always somewhere you can go to allow your toddler to tantrum in an appropriate place until it’s over.  In my classroom I created something I call the “soft spot” (a pillow on top of a small rug).   Or we step outside  of the classroom space (into the foyer or outside) until the child has sufficiently calmed themselves back down.  At home, maybe it’s their bedroom.  Out in public you take a trip back to the car if you can, or you step to the sidelines of wherever you are so your child can tantrum out of the spotlight of onlookers, and have some mild dignity preservation.

~ Cue into your child’s tantrum or meltdown “style”, or coping “language”.  Every child pretty much has a tantrum or meltdown “language”, if you will.  And here’s the thing–  they will let you know exactly what they need in order to come out on the other side of a tantrum.

Some children need space and zero touch.  Some children need to be picked up and placed somewhere safer.  Some children need a nearby adult presence.  Some children just need to be heard.  Some children honestly need to be held and have their back rubbed, even if this seems super counterintuitive.

What it comes down to is that it’s pretty much the exact same way that you as an adult know that you have just “had it” with something, and you have a coping language.  Just ask yourself what you do when you’ve reached your emotional breaking point, and what you need.  The only difference though is that us adults know how to discharge tension from our bodies.  We also know how to talk things out, and how to rationalize.  Toddlers don’t really know how to do any of this.  That’s why they erupt like little volcanoes.

I say this particularly so that adults don’t rule out the possibility that even in the midst of the biggest sh*tshow of a tantrum you have ever seen them present, some toddlers need tender touch, to be picked up and held, they need a hug, and a snuggle– even if they are basically raging and pissed the f*ck off.  

~ Try your hardest to not get sucked in, and always keep your own head above water. You can’t help guide someone else if you, too, are out of control.  One thing about surfing I can promise you — only a lifeguard will dare to go through the washing machine to save drowning people.  And they  certainly can’t let themselves lose control because the ocean is already inherently dynamic and unpredictable when trying to guide others to safety.

Likewise, we as the adults can’t lose control just because we’re getting frustrated by a toddler tantrum.  It is best for the child if we stay in control.  And that takes work, let me tell you.  It is a practice to remain more mature than the child at all times.  It is a practice not to feel so bothered, even if these tantrums are completely predictable.  When a tantrum happens, that usually communicates to me that the child either reached their coping limit, or the child fully understood a limit that the adult is setting.  Neither of these are reasons that I need to share the emotional investment of a tantrum.

~ While lovingly recognizing and acknowledging that the child is going through it, the adult will continue to hold all logical limits that apply in your classroom, at home, or in the public space.  It doesn’t matter that they’re raging– the limits are still the limits.  “(I know you’re upset but) I’m going to move your body away from the door, because all of your classmates are arriving to school right now, and they are going to walk through that door”.  No matter how many times this child tries to violently throw himself at the door, I will go back and remove him from the door 110% of the time.   If the child tries to throw things because their angry, I’m not going to let them.  If they try to destroy anything or hurt anyone while angry, I’m not going to let them.  Learning does still happen even in the thick of a complete emotional meltdown, I promise you.  The child is still paying attention somewhere in there on some sort of subconscious level,  even if their conscious attention seems very dimly lit at the moment.  It’s still there.

So next time that tantrum happens (which it likely will, probably around the same triggering situations), they’ve learned what the adults will and won’t tolerate, no matter how psycho they get.  This helps their emotional intelligence grow.  It helps them learn what’s appropriate, and what’s inappropriate to do when you’re pissed off.

Sometimes redirection can be successful as the child is starting to come down from the apex of a tantrum.  Usually reading books or narrating what others are doing around the room can be very helpful.  Especially if the book is somehow related to feelings or why they’re upset.

One of my former students taught me to always be open to new and unexpected possibilities for quelling a meltdown or tantrum. This little girl resembled a human baby doll, OK? She was almost too perfectly cute and such a pleasure to have in the classroom.  But some days, if her dad dropped her off and she was not having it with separation, she would fly off the handle, cry, and scream so hard and loud that her little body would shake from how hard she was screaming.  Like the exorcist, LOL.  And this would continue on for trying lengths of time at first, that tested everyone’s patience.

At that time as a newbie (dare I say, wanna-be know it all) AMI 0-3 guide who had foolishly tried to mimic what a lot of what other leads before me did, I really wasn’t one to pick children up too often in general,  or carry them knowing that they worked for literally an entire year just to know how to walk and stand up independently.  Particularly if a child was  in the thick of a tantrum screaming their little heads off, I almost especially hesitated to give that child any type of tender touch because I was afraid to reinforce this highly distracting, maladaptive behavior.

Well one of the times when baby doll had one of her major separation tantrums,  she was screaming her little head off, and I was literally getting equally pissed that she would not stop.  Her intensity level was not dropping whatsoever.  So in my exasperation I picked her up to carry her outside (normally I would just take the child by the hand and lead them to wherever, making them walk there by themselves) and then something unexpected happened– suddenly as soon as she was on my hip, she just put her head down against my shoulder, snuggled in, (stfu, LOL)  and let out a huge long sigh of relief.

She just needed to be picked up and carried in order to calm down and know that it’s going to be OK.

The crazy part is that my own rising frustration also immediately melted along with a simultaneous a-ha moment and lesson in humility.  How many of us can think of a time in our adulthood where we are just so over it we just wish someone we loved would just stfu and hold us?  Or when the situation is so overwhelming we pretty much need something (God, our partner, our family and loved ones) to carry us through it?

We don’t always know what’s best for every child at every point in their lives when they’re going through a tantrum or meltdown.  What may have worked for an entire decade’s worth of toddlers in your career may not always be what this one new child now in your care needs when she’s going through the washing machine.  What may have worked on your child when they were younger (12 months) may not work anymore now that they’re older (the terrible two’s, the threenager, … the teenager.  Wait for it, ’cause that’s on the horizon for every parent out there).  Be open, observant, and flexible; ready to meet them wherever they are.

Always remember that your child is always learning.  They’re learning how to manage their own emotional states, how to communicate, and how to cope.  It’s an ongoing practice, it’s not a “you got it and you’re good” kind of thing.  These are skills we are all basically all practicing through our lifetimes.  The only difference between us and them is that they are brand-spankin’-new at this skill.  And they don’t talk very well so all they can do is show us how they feel.

Good luck, and I hope this helps!




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