Where did your sweet little baby go?

How to Tame a Defiant Tantrum-Throwing Toddler

by Kathryn Walsh

The next time a childless, well-rested friend looks on critically as your toddler screams "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO," resist the urge to make a rude hand gesture in her direction. Your toddler's defiant tantrums are miserable to endure, but they're a natural part of his development; in fact, HealthyChildren.org lists defiant behavior as an emotional milestone for 2 year olds. While his behavior might be normal, it's still obnoxious and needs to be corrected. Until he's past this period, though, hang out with other parents of toddlers -- this war will be easier if you're not in the trenches alone.

Go to your imaginary happy place when a tantrum begins. Spend a few seconds mentally walking down a beach, getting a massage or guzzling a martini with friends as you take deep breaths. Lower your shoulders and unclench your jaw and fists. To a defiant toddler, your irritation and engagement is like oxygen for his fire. Starve his tantrum by staying calm.

Pick him up and carry him to a place where he can throw his fit without incurring hospital or home-repair bills. Cart him out of a store and place him in the car or on a bench, or tote him over to a desolate corner of the living room or a deserted hallway of your home.

Sit with your flailing red-faced anger ball until he's calm. Hold him on your lap if he'll let you, or sit next to him until he starts to quiet. As he runs out of steam, use a conversational voice to talk about whatever set him off. Say something like, "I can tell that you were really mad when I asked you to clean up your toys. I'm sorry you felt upset, but play time is over and it's your job to clean up your own mess." If he's still wound up or starts getting upset again, continue the time out until he's ready to acquiesce.

Maintain your stance on the subject that caused his tantrum. If he freaked out because you wouldn't buy him ice cream or let him jump up and down on Daddy's sleeping body, you can't reverse your position just to appease him or he'll learn that tantrums pay. Once he's calm, offer an alternative if possible; for instance, say "It's not safe for you to help me with the oven, but you can help me wipe the table and fold the napkins!"

Keep hold of your frail grasp on sanity by heading tantrums off before they begin. Offer a strong-willed child plenty of choices so he'll feel he's in control; give him a choice between a few lunch options or let him pick out his own clothes each day. Distract him with a new activity when he starts to get frustrated with his current toy. Take a tip from ZerotoThree.org and refrain from asking him questions when he doesn't really have a say. Rather than saying, "Are you ready to take a bath?" try saying, "Now it's bath time," so he doesn't have the option of answering in the negative.

Praise his cooperative behavior whenever you witness it. Reward actions as small as walking to the car when asked. Saying things like, "You just did a great job listening! I like the way you followed directions!" teaches him that the way to get your positive attention doesn't involve screeching like a velociraptor.


  • Your toddler's defiance and tantrums are probably signs of his normal development, but if his tantrums seem really extreme and everything is a fight, you could be seeing warning signs of a larger problem. According to the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder can show up as early as infancy. If you suspect your tot's moods aren't typical, consult your pediatrician.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

Photo Credits

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