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Tantrums? Power struggles? You must have a toddler

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Mother and young son potty training

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. What's behind tantrums?
2. How to balance control?
3. How to react to not eating?

Got a toddler? Then chances are you’re riding along on a developmental roller coaster of epic proportions. Tantrums, power struggles, potty training, picky eating and much more.

Exhausted yet? Hang in there. With a little patience, you can make it through this tumultuous time – and come out of it with a happy, healthy, joyful, curious and loving child.

Read on for some advice from pediatrician and world-renowned child development expert Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

 A toddler’s grocery store meltdown can be epic. Almost every parent has been there, or at least looked on with sympathy as a fellow parent navigates the tricky terrain that is the checkout lane candy shelf.

But such is life with a toddler, right? Actually, it doesn’t have to be this way, says Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a world-renowned pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School.


“Children have tantrums as a way to gain control, to get what they want,” Dr. Brazelton says. “All children go through this at least once, but it can actually be curbed quite well after that initial tantrum.”

Ann C. Stadtler, a nurse who has worked closely with Dr. Brazelton, explains further.

“The first time a toddler gets overpowered or doesn’t get their way, he may react by having a tantrum. Initially, he may not notice the reaction because he is overpowered, but then he does notice how his parent reacts. But as he learns to control his strong emotions he can also control his tantrums.

“Children become very competent at regulating their tempers; they learn how, when and where they are able to turn a tantrum on and off,” Stadtler says.

That should come as a relief to parents because once parents understand what might set off their child, they can better respond the next time tempers flare, Dr. Brazelton and Stadtler say.

“When you can expect a certain reaction or attitude from your child depending on the situation they’re in, then you’ll know how to measure your own reaction,” says Dr. Brazelton, who has written more than 35 books on pediatrics, child development and parenting, as well as the bestselling Touchpoints series. “If the child is having a tantrum in the grocery store, for example, use a positive model to calm him down. Go up and hug him and say ‘I know it’s so hard to come here and not want to take home candy,’ or cookies or whatever it is he’s crying for. Calm him down that way. And he’ll likely stop crying and think about it, and talk it out a bit.”

Toddlerhood is a series of progressions and regressions, peaks and valleys, and it’s what Dr. Brazelton calls a Touchpoint. In other words, it is a period of disorganization (or regression) that comes just before a burst in development (or progression).


“If you can expect this [regression] is going to happen [that it’s normal], then you can pay attention to how you react as the parent,” says Dr. Brazelton, who spent six decades in private practice. “Giving a child a chance to talk about what’s frustrating them is a very powerful and calm way to give them the control they’re fighting for.”

While tantrums during the day are to be expected from toddlers, it’s the nighttime behavior from this age group that can baffle many parents.

“Kids practice their behavior, and what they’ve learned during the day, while they sleep,” Stadtler says. “For example, children practice pulling to standing in light sleep. When they become very imaginative in the day, they may dream at night. Parents may wonder why their child is waking at night. Rather than thinking their child is learning something new, they may wonder if the child is sick or something happened that day to disturb their child.”

The preschool years are also home to one of the most exciting, and yet most challenging, milestones of early childhood: potty training.

“Preschoolers have a ‘magical way of thinking’ along the lines of: If I don’t want to do it, I don’t have to. And so as parents, the first thing we have to understand is where they’re coming from,” Stadtler says. “Having your child sit on the toilet even if they don’t have to do anything, and then reinforcing that action with a pleasurable behavior [reading a favorite book, etc.] makes the toilet training family focused. Each time the child agrees to sit on the toilet, whether they go or not, move the reinforcement so the child feels successful. Kids can try things out but if they don’t feel successful, they’ll pull back.”

Something to keep in mind is that if a child learning to potty train has a painful bowel movement in the beginning, they may regress from the training and think they can hold it in forever to avoid the pain. At that point, it’s best to see your pediatrician to help ease any constipation and soften the child’s stool so it won’t hurt to go and training can resume.


Toddlers can be some of the most stubborn people around. “After all, a toddler’s favorite word is No!” Stadtler says.

If No is the word of choice at mealtimes, Dr. Brazelton says don’t worry. “In reality, a child doesn’t need to eat but four things a day to do well: a pint of milk, a multivitamin, 2 ounces of protein (meat, cheese, beans, etc.) and some orange juice.”

The key to this refusal of food is how the parent reacts: in the bid for control, if the child sees they’re affecting the parent, they will continue with that behavior (in this case, refusing to eat). So it’s best to remain nonchalant if your child is refusing food and try again later, Dr. Brazelton.

Whether they’re refusing to eat dinner for the third night in a row or staging a meltdown during a trip to the grocery store, Dr. Brazelton reassures that approaching the issue with a calm loving manner will ease the tension and the issue will typically work itself out.

“The toddler years are a very high-excitement period,” he says. “And children pick up the values and attitudes modeled by their parents. So it’s important to model the behavior you want to see in your child.”


• Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, professor of pediatrics emeritus, Harvard Medical School
• Ann C. Stadtler, director, Touchpoints Site Development & Training, Brazelton Touchpoints Center

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