Sometimes having a two-year-old is a little like living in your own, private version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute he’s speaking in a perfectly reasonable voice about what he wants for lunch, say, and the next minute he’s lying prostrate on the floor, kicking his legs and screaming about Swiss cheese. It can be, to put it mildly, confusing.
Your two-year-old’s tantrums are particularly difficult because, without your ever meaning to, it is most often you that is the cause of the epic meltdown. And it is always you to whom he is appealing to solve his seemingly life-or-death issue. But be warned: Even though, in the moment, it may seem that the most prudent course of action would be to stop his yelling at all costs (if only so you can hear yourself think), that would be a mistake.
The very worst thing to do with a tantrum is give in to it. But that’s easier said than done. When you look at this tiny person consumed with rage and frustration, you feel an overwhelming urge to help him. To make it better. To calm him down. Because he’s your baby and you hate to see him so upset. It’s frightening!
And, honestly, what he’s asking for isn’t really that big a deal. You’re not even sure, now, why you said he couldn’t have Swiss cheese on his sandwich. There’s some in the fridge. And giving him the cheese (or the iPad, or the lollipop, or whatever it is he wants) will definitely make him stop screaming and flailing around like some sort of giant fish out of water. But please, for everyone’s sake, don’t give in!
A tantrum is a two-year-old’s way of asserting control in a world in which he is basically powerless. When you tell him he can’t have something that he wants, he really has no way to get it himself. He can try sneaking into the fridge (or the cabinet, or wherever) when you’re not looking, but chances are you’ll catch him and he’ll be right back where he started.
But he very badly wants to be in control. He sees the power and agency that you (and the other adults in his life) have and he wants that for himself. And why shouldn’t he? But his reasoning skills, and his experience of the world just aren’t up to the task. So he’s got to do as he’s told.
But, if you don’t give in to it, what are you supposed to do? Simple: acknowledge his feelings, but not his request. Okay, actually it’s really not that simple at all, but it sounds simple, doesn’t it? The problem, of course, is your emotions. Well, yes, the actual problem is his emotions, but that ship has sailed. The thing that makes ignoring your toddler’s requests so tricky is the way it makes you feel.
There’s your sweet little boy (or girl) writhing around on the floor, red in the face, feet kicking, fists hammering, screaming bloody murder and you have the power to give him what he wants. Every parental instinct in your body is screaming that you should solve the problem. All your alarm bells are going off. Even your regular old sense of empathy is telling you to do something for him. Trust me when I tell you that I get it. But don’t give in. Seriously.
What you can do, is acknowledge how he’s feeling. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that giving in to him will only lead to more tantrums (if throwing a tantrum gets him what he wants, why would he stop throwing tantrums?), and speak to him in the calmest voice you have. You could say, “I can see that you’re really angry right now.” Or, “Gosh, it’s frustrating to not get your way, isn’t it?” Whatever you think he’s feeling, tell it back to him. But remember, stay calm. You’re not trying to shame him into stopping by telling him how wild he’s being. You’re showing him that you see his big emotions, and understand how upsetting they are for him.
Some kids really benefit from having you near them while they’re throwing a tantrum. It can be really frightening to be so out of control and, even though it’s you he’s ostensibly mad at, you’re also his biggest source of comfort. So, feel free to pat his back, take him into your lap, or do anything else that lets him know you’re here for him. Showing him compassion isn’t the same as giving in to him. You’re still not giving him what wants. You’re just giving him what he needs.
Other kids, though, need a less hands-on approach. For some two-year-olds, your loving physical contact just fuels their already high emotions, prolonging the tantrum unnecessarily. If this seems true for your child, allow him to work through the tantrum on his own, even if that means stepping over and around him as you go about what you’re doing. But you can still talk to him from time to time, validating his feelings and letting him know you’re still here.
Eventually he will stop. He’ll get tired, or bored, or forget why he was crying, or (best of all) realize that he’s not going to get what he wants this way. Then he’ll stop crying, sit up, and look around. Give him a hug and say something like, “Goodness, that was a big meltdown!” and hold him close.
This is not the time to reprimand him. He doesn’t need to hear you say something like, “It is not okay to throw temper tantrums!” He’s two. He can’t help it. He needs to know that you are consistent (he’s not going to get what he wants by throwing a tantrum) and that you’re here to comfort him.
After that, move on quickly. He doesn’t need to process with you why he had the tantrum, and what he could do next time, and how to ask more politely for things he wants. He’s exhausted and he wants to move on. But, a word of caution: moving on does not mean giving him the thing he was tantruming about! It doesn’t matter that now he’s speaking in a calm tone, you said no, and that’s it. He can try again next time.
It may feel counterintuitive, or even like bad parenting, not to give your child the thing he most desperately wants. But it’s actually the best kind of parenting. Kids feel safe when they know what their limits are. If you hold firm such that he doesn’t feel judged, and gets the comfort and compassion he needs, he’ll feel it as the act of love it is.