A child behavior expert offers some practical advice on giving in to a toddler tantrum and what to do when you want to draw a line in the sand
With toddlers, tantrums are just a fact of life—it’s not a matter of if a tantrum is coming, it’s a matter of when. What many parents grapple with is deciding when to hold fast to their rules during a tantrum, and when it’s a “choose your battles” sort of situation where it’s better to just give in. Thankfully, Dr. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta, a child behavior expert on TikTok, has a new video that shows you how to do both as successfully as possible.
In an example in her video, Hauge-Zavaleta impersonates a tantrum-ing toddler who is freaking out because the popsicle she chose to have for dessert melted (in her mouth as she ate it—obviously). Now, she’s beside herself and demanding the other dessert, the ice cream her mom (also played by Hauge-Zavaleta) is eating. But the “rule” is that she only gets one treat.
“What am I supposed to do?” she says to the camera. “If I give her ice cream, am I reinforcing this tantrum? Or do I give her a bite of ice cream because it really doesn’t matter if she has one bite of ice cream?”
Hauge-Zavaleta notes that there’s no hard-and-fast “right” answer. You can say no to the ice cream or you can give in. But she offers two ways to go about this that both help defuse the tantrum.
Giving In (It’s Not That Big a Deal to You)
First, she says, try to connect with your toddler.
“Say something like, ‘Wow, that popsicle melted in your mouth. That’s awful!’ The feeling I’m going for is me and you against the popsicle,” she explains. Then, she suggests demonstrating how to ask for a bite of ice cream in a calmer, non-tantrum-ing way to try to get your toddler to follow suit.
“I’m looking for her to say, in a slightly different voice that would be more situationally appropriate, ‘I want a bite,'” Hauge-Zavaleta says. This, she explains, helps reinforce that the tantrum doesn’t get what the kiddo wants, even if you do choose to bend the rules this time.
Later on, you may want to add something like, “Wow, that was really tricky. I bet tomorrow we’ll remember [that] everyone picks one treat and popsicles are so melty.”
Not Gonna Happen (This Rule Matters)
However, if you decide to stick to the rules, you can also defuse the tantrum. In this case, Hauge-Zavaleta says, you still want to use a calm voice to connect with your toddler. This time, though, say something like, “Oh, your popsicle melted. Well, treats are all done. I’m putting the ice cream away.”
“Take the ice cream out of the picture,” she says. Trying to enforce your rule while continuing to eat your dessert right in front of your child isn’t going to help you land this plane. Then, carry on with your nightly routine. Even if your child continues with the tantrum, take them to pick out a book to read for bedtime. Since they’re on edge, give them two to pick from instead of all the options, and if they scream, “Neither!” you can pick for them. Calmly take them to brush their teeth (or at least attempt to—we know how those brushing battles can go). Put them in bed and get in next to them to snuggle. Read them a story despite their crying.
“A lot of parents are going to say, ‘Don’t I need to come back to this and address it—because she needs to know she doesn’t get to have a big meltdown because her popsicle melted and she wanted ice cream?'” Hauge-Zavaleta says. “No, you don’t! She already learned a lesson! You didn’t have the ice cream. She got her treat. She was upset about it. That’s it!”
Whichever path you choose, she explains, “how you show up in these kinds of moments is the thing that’s gonna make the biggest difference.” And suddenly we feel so much more prepared.