One of the toughest things about raising a toddler has got to be, without a doubt, the tantrums. Few things can make a parent’s blood pressure rise like a full-blown, ear-splitting, kicking-and-screaming tantrum.
And a tantrum that happens in public? Like in the middle of Target on the Saturday before Christmas, when what seems like everyone in your entire city has come to buy last-minute gifts? Yeah. Even worse. (Ask me how I know…)
Fortunately for you, parents of toddlers, tantrums are the topic of today’s blog article. Why do our toddlers throw tantrums? Why do tantrums often happen around nap time and bedtime? And, most importantly, how do we parents handle tantrums without resorting to some tantrum-throwing of our own?!
We’re answering all those questions today. Read on, readers! 🙂
Why Do Toddlers Throw Tantrums, Anyway?
Your toddler’s tantrums may baffle you, and that is understandable. Admittedly, it’s hard to untangle the logic behind why the raisins he devoured yesterday are “gwoss” today. But don’t worry; according to researchers and pediatric experts, tantrums are perfectly normal.
In fact, when you look at things from your toddler’s perspective, tantrums are downright rational. Your toddler finally has the motor skills he needs to really explore his world — he can run and jump and climb. However, he doesn’t yet have the knowledge he needs to keep himself safe. In his mind, scaling a 7 foot tall bookcase is fun, man! So when you pull him down to safety, he doesn’t understand that you are helping; all he knows is that you have betrayed him by thwarting his climbing adventure.
What’s more, the frontal lobe of your toddler’s brain (the part that controls logic, reasoning, planning, judgment, self-control, and emotional processing) is underdeveloped. Here your little guy is, feeling frustrated and angry that he can’t climb the bookcase, but he can’t mentally process those feelings. He lacks the self-control necessary to keep those emotions in check. And he certainly can’t express his feelings verbally, the way an adult would. Therefore, he resorts to kicking and shrieking and throwing things, because those are skills he does have.
During the toddler stage, your little one is also learning that he is separate from you, and that he has his own desires — which sometimes look very different from yours. As he figures this out, he’ll start to assert his independence in a big way.
Three Types of Toddler Tantrums: Frustration Tantrums vs. Exhaustion Tantrums vs. Temper Tantrums
All tantrums are not created equal, parents – in fact, toddler tantrums are usually divided into 3 categories – frustration tantrums, exhaustion tantrums, and good old temper tantrums.
Frustration tantrums are those fits your child throws when she’s in the midst of learning a new skill. Not surprising, right? She’s trying SO hard to walk/run/climb/etc., but while everyone around her has got these skills down pat, she struggles. Frustrating indeed! And, for a toddler, cause for a major meltdown. Frustration tantrums also rear their ugly heads any time the word “no” enter the picture. When you remove your child from a dangerous situation (like climbing the bookcase, or jumping off the furniture), or you end an activity she has been enjoying, a frustration tantrum may very well follow.
When it comes to frustration tantrums, it can be good to sympathize with your child, to let her know that you understand her frustration. However, stand firm and enforce the rules – this is the best way to minimize tantrums, because your child will come to learn that you mean what you say.
Exhaustion tantrums are different – they’re meltdowns that are borne out of pure fatigue. Exhaustion tantrums often happen at nap time and bedtime, when a toddler is overtired and therefore resisting sleep in a big way.
The best way to deal with exhaustion tantrums is to get your child in bed and asleep quickly! But even better is to prevent exhaustion tantrums from happening in the first place. Strive for an age-appropriate bedtime, and resist the urge to skip or shorten naps. Be sure your toddler is getting the number of naps she needs. Making sure your toddler is well-rested is a sure-fire way to prevent exhaustion tantrums.
Finally, temper tantrums are just plain old “bad mood” tantrums. Temper tantrums can be set off by the tiniest of things – an itchy shirt tag, the “wrong” snack, etc. These tantrums are just the worse, because they often have no real cause, and there’s no “fix” for these tantrums. These are the tantrums that generally make us parents want to lose our minds! The best way to manage temper tantrums, in my opinion, is to put your toddler in a safe place (like her crib) and let her cool off before talking about what’s wrong.
Tantrums & Sleep: Nap Time and Bedtime Tantrums
Tantrums can happen at any point in the day, but many parents report that their toddlers’ tantrums often happen before nap time and bedtime. And that makes sense; no toddler wants to miss out on the fun going on around them! Even if she looks worn out and is clearly fighting sleep (rubbing her eyes, yawning, etc.) your toddler may still resist going to bed.
As mentioned before, if your toddler is exhausted, she may be more prone to tantrum-throwing. An overtired toddler is even less capable of handling frustration or disappointment than a well-rested toddler; the smallest of events can trigger a full-blown meltdown.
In fact, an overtired toddler may throw a tantrum for no discernible reason at all. Our toddlers aren’t exactly great at understanding and verbalizing their own needs, so instead of saying “I’m tired”, your toddler may convey her weariness by pitching a fit. In this way, what seems like a straightforward temper tantrum may actually be an exhaustion tantrum in disguise.
So if your toddler has taken to having hysterical outbursts before naps and bed, take stock of her sleep – is she getting enough? If not, strive for earlier bedtimes and plenty of naps. If she’s getting plenty of rest, though, the sleep time tantrum may simply be happening because she doesn’t want to stop and sleep, and miss out on the fun. But remember that even though she doesn’t want to settle in and go to sleep, sleep is exactly what she needs in that moment.
“Toddlers can be tricky, because sometimes they throw a tantrum at nap or bedtime due to being over-tired and sometimes parents haven’t readjusted timing of their two or three year old to compensate for the fact that he can now stay up longer. Even if your toddler could say ‘I’m not tired.’ who would believe him or her? 🙂
Tantrums & Sleep: How to Handle Your Toddler’s Tantrums In 5 Simple Tips
Have a little tantrum-thrower of your own at home? Try these 5 tips:
- Give your toddler choices, when possible. Play into your toddler’s growing sense of independence by offering him options when you can. Let him choose which shirt to wear, or what cup to drink from. This will help you avoid power struggles over the small things. However, be careful about offering choices regarding the timing of naps and bed. It is important that you establish consistent, regular nap times and bedtimes as part of your daily schedule, so avoid letting your toddler choose when he sleeps. Instead, let him make choices about parts of the nap time and bedtime routines, like which books to read, or which pajamas to wear.
- Institute a countdown. Transitions are prime times for tantrums. When you’re moving from one activity to the next, or from the house to the car, or from playtime to bedtime, your toddler is more likely to melt down. However, if your toddler knows what is coming next, and when it’s coming, she may feel better about making the change. So institute a countdown before a transition takes place: “3 more books, and then it’s bedtime” or “5 more minutes to play trucks, and then we have to stop and eat lunch”.
- Avoid attempts to reason with your toddler. Remember, your toddler is not a creature of logic. At all. So don’t waste everyone’s time trying to convince him of all the reasons why he needs to wear sunscreen, or why he needs to take a nap. Instead, calmly and firmly offer a short explanation that he can understand (i.e. “You need to take a nap now so that you have energy to play this afternoon”) and then repeat it as necessary.
- Remain calm and consistent. I know. Oh, do I know. Witnessing your toddler’s tantrums makes you feel like your head might explode. But when your toddler is flipping out, it is important that you remain as calm as possible. If your toddler sees that she is not able to get a rise out of you, she will probably calm down faster. It is also important that you remain firm and consistent – avoid giving in to your toddler’s demands when she’s throwing a tantrum. For instance, if you have told her that bedtime is at 7:00, don’t cave in and push it back to 8:00. If your toddler knows that she can manipulate your behavior by throwing tantrums, you can bet she will be throwing them frequently! If you need tips on how to set limits and enforce boundaries with your toddler, check out this past article for suggestions.
- Avoid overtiredness. Easier said than done, I know! But try to watch for your toddler’s sleep cues. Is she rubbing her eyes? Yawning? Looking glassy-eyed? If so, then get her to bed quickly. It is worth repeating: an exhausted toddler is more likely to throw a whopper of a tantrum before nap time or bedtime than a toddler who’s well-rested. So try to stay ahead of the overtiredness, and make sure she is getting the rest she needs.
For even more toddler help, check out these toddler resources in our VIP Members Area:
- The Tired Parent’s 5-Step System To Better Toddler Sleep e-Book
- Basics of Toddler Sleep tele-seminar featuring Nicole Johnson
- Advanced Concepts in Toddler Sleep tele-seminar featuring Nicole Johnson
- 16 Limit Setting Tips For Your Toddler
- 4 Top Toddler Sleep Questions Answered
- Case Study With 17-Month Old Toddler (Transitioning from CoSleeping)
- Case Study With 16-Month Old Toddler (No Cry Sleep Coaching Method)
- Case Study With 14-Month Old Twins
Need Toddler Sleep Help? We’ve Got You Covered!
Toddler tantrums, especially at bedtime and nap time, can be downright overwhelming. But you don’t have to manage bedtime and nap time drama on your own – we are here to help! Our team of consultants has helped countless families work with their toddlers to achieve better sleep. Take a look at our consultation packages, and see which one looks like a good fit for you. Once you purchase, you will immediately receive access to the Helpdesk, and you can set up your account, fill out your Sleep History form, submit it to a consultant, and get started on the journey to better sleep!
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