toddler throwing a tantrum in the car seat

Preventing Tantrums: Teach Communication Skills

In Part 1 of our Preventing Tantrums series, we covered how to set your child up for success by creating predictability for them and allowing them to have some control (giving choices).

Did you miss part one? No worries – click here to read Preventing Tantrums – Part 1

In this article, we will help you further minimize your child’s tantrums by teaching your child how to communicate with you, so they can make their needs and wants known without engaging in the tantrum behavior that may be serving to achieve their desired outcomes.

For many children, and particularly for children who are still learning how to communicate, tantrum behavior can be the child’s way of trying to tell us something very important to them. For many children who have not learned how to communicate using more appropriate means, tantrum behavior may actually be a very effective way for them to get their wants and needs met.

Below are some everyday ways that you can help your child become a more effective communicator: 

Teach them the words that will get the job done

The next time your child tantrums, ask yourself…

  • What is he/she trying to tell me?
  • If they could use “adult words” what would they be saying right now? 

Chances are, your child is trying to say things like:

“I really don’t like this” or “I wanted to do it by myself” or “That toy is mine and I’d like it back” and so on.

Of course, we would not expect them to use these types of language, but it IS important that we start to teach them the age-appropriate equivalent of these phrases, so that they can make their needs and wants known to others without relying on tantrum behaviors.

How do we teach this? 

By modeling the language we want them to use in those situations.

Age-appropriate phrases for a toddler light include:

“I do it” or “All done” or “No thanks” or “My turn” etc.

And the more we model and prompt the use of these phrases in context and the more we praise the child for using these types of phrases, the more familiar and user-friendly they will become.  

Make their words more powerful than their behaviors

Now that we are starting to teach our children the words they can use to express themselves, we need to make sure that those words carry weight.

If the child’s words – “I want that” – are not working for them/are not being acknowledged, but kicking and screaming IS getting them the toy they want, then we cannot expect to see the words replace the tantrum behaviors.

However, if we can acknowledge the child’s words, and even allow them what they want when they are using their words, they will be much less likely to revert to the tantrum behaviors in the future.

Side note: This does not mean we always give them what they want when they use words, but we ensure the words carry weight – and that their words carry more weight than their tantrum behaviors. 

For example, when the child wants the toy their sibling just grabbed off the floor nearby, we remind the child to “use words” and when they do, we acknowledge, “You want to have that toy, thank you for telling me – yes, you can have a turn with that toy next, let’s start the timer.”

The behaviors may still be present, but it is the words that we are attending to. It is the words that will prompt our involvement and our help – and ultimately that will lead to their desired outcome; not the behaviors.   

Real Life Example

Putting it all together might look something like this: 

A toddler who is put into their car seat begins to scream, cry, and arch their back so they cannot be buckled in. As the parent, you ask yourself… Why?

You realize that they probably wanted to climb into the seat and do the buckles themselves, so you:

  1. Teach/model that language: “Sammy, you can say I climb in or I do it.”
  2. When they repeat that phrase (or something similar), acknowledge their words (“Oh, YOU wanted to do it”)
  3. Take them out of the car, allowing them to climb in on their own. 
  4. This will stop the tantrum, but it will also teach them the power of their words.
  5. Next time this happens, remind them to “Use your words” and model the phrase again as necessary.

Over time, they may continue to need a reminder to “use words” in some situations, but they will be learning to use their words more independently, and they will begin to use their words instead of their tantrum behavior to get their needs and wants met – because their words work better than their behaviors. 

As with teaching any new skill, this will require practice (lots of practice!) and a good deal of patience.

As you start to practice these methods, remember these tips:

  • Leave yourself extra time for transitions that you know might be difficult for your child
  • Prompt your child to use their words before the tantrum even starts (i.e. when you see a situation brewing or know your child is likely to have strong opinions about something)
  • See where you can allow them to have what they want when they do use words to express themselves

For more in teaching communication skills, see our video on “Functional Communication Training.”

Part 3 of our Preventing Tantrums series is about Providing Positive Attention. Don’t miss this final piece, which will provide you with strategies and ideas for how to increase the joy, and decrease the tantrum behaviors, you are experiencing each day.

Read Part 2: Teaching Communication Skills here