Parenthood is an incredible journey filled with joy, love, and the occasional storm of emotions. One of the most challenging aspects can be navigating those inevitable toddler tantrums. While completely normal, and developmentally appropriate, dealing with tantrums can be frustrating and confusing. There’s a lot of information out there that suggests when a toddler is having a tantrum we should be ignoring the behavior. This might seem like a good idea, and is probably what a lot of us have been told to do. But research suggests this is not the best approach. Let me explain.
What do we mean by “ignoring the behavior”?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s clarify what we mean by “ignore.” Taking a moment for yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed is perfectly okay. In this article, we are talking about when parents or caregivers intentionally pay no attention to their child in order to try and stop their tantrum.
Understanding toddler tantrums
First and foremost, let’s remember that tantrums are a normal part of development. I’m going to say this again, because I think it’s so important: tantrums are developmentally appropriate. That does not mean we just allow them to tantrum and do nothing, of course. Its our job as parents or caregivers to help toddlers learn to manage big feelings in an appropriate way, but we have to remember that they are not doing anything wrong. They’re doing what their brain knows how to do.
A toddler brain is only a few years old. We cannot expect it to have the same thought processes as an adult brain, or even a six or an eight year old brain. It’s crucial to recognize that toddler tantrums are not intentional acts of defiance. Many people will say that they are just “acting out” to get what they want. For an older child this could be true, but toddlers are not capable of manipulation. They simply cannot think that advanced. Tantrums are a natural part of their development, and a way for them to communicate their overwhelming emotions. Everything is new and exciting, but sometimes frustrating for toddlers. They are feeling big feelings and they’re not sure what to do with them. Tantrums are their way of expressing these tough emotions, because they just don’t know any other way.
What happens when we ignore the behavior?
Ignoring the behavior during a tantrum may seem like a good way to show your toddler his or her behavior is unacceptable, but it’s essential to remember that toddlers are still learning how to regulate their emotions and control their behavior. They rely on us, their caregivers, to guide them through this process. When we ignore their distress, we’re missing a valuable opportunity to teach them how to cope with strong feelings in a healthy way. They’re essentially telling us, “I can’t handle this,” and when we ignore the behavior we’re saying, “too bad.”
By acknowledging their emotions and offering comfort and support, we provide a safe space for them to learn. This lays the foundation for their future emotional intelligence, setting them up for success in managing their feelings as they grow.
Connection and support
Once toddlers are at the point of a tantrum, they’ve lost all ability to regulate their emotions. Logic is out the window, and their brain is running purely on emotion. Expecting them to turn this off and “behave” is virtually impossible. They need to ride that wave, and we can help them do that by providing support and connection. Once the tantrum is over, we can discuss other ways to handle their feelings and review what’s okay and what’s not. In the middle of a tantrum though, the focus should just be on helping them through it.
A study published in 2022 showed that when teachers in a toddler classroom “used a combination of emotionally supportive strategies, 91% of tantrums were resolved1.” When we provide support and help them through tantrums, toddlers are able to move through them more quickly than if we ignore them and try to make them handle it on their own.
At the end of the day, you know your kid best, and you know what works and what doesn’t. It’s so hard when there is so much conflicting information out there, and when so many people say you should be ignoring the behavior. The important thing to remember is that research shows when we treat our kids with care and compassion, and understand that all their behavior has a meaning, we help them succeed.
Have you ever been told to ignore a tantrum? What are your thoughts on this?
- Shafer, A. E., Wanless, S. B., & Briggs, J. O. (2022). Toddler teachers’ responses to tantrums and relations to successful resolutions. Infant and Child Development, 31(3), e2304. ↩︎