Screaming. Kicking. Occasional biting. If you have not yet witnessed a toddler tantrum firsthand, you’ve certainly heard about them. While these mini-meltdowns are a normal part of a child’s development, there are ways parents can help toddlers to experience tantrums less often and with less intensity—something that can make both toddlers and parents happier!
When and Why Children Have Tantrums
We’ve all heard of “The Terrible Twos,” but in many children tantrums begin far before the first birthday, sometimes as early as nine months. With a consistent approach to dealing with tantrums, your toddler will most likely outgrow them by the time he reaches three or four years of age.
Tantrums often come when your toddler is experiencing strong emotions but doesn’t know how to tell you about them, or how to deal with them himself. “If you understood everything but couldn’t talk as fast, you would be angry as well,” explains Dr. Ravinder Khaira, a pediatrician at Sutter Health in Sacramento, California, and the father of young twin girls. “Toddlers have tantrums because they want to become more independent,” Khaira says. “They want to do things like put on their clothes or feed themselves and they become frustrated with their limitations and the inability to communicate.”
The first step to avoiding tantrums is establishing good communication with your child, advises Dr. Harvey Karp, author of the bestselling book and DVD, The Happiest Baby on the Block. He suggests three steps to having a great relationship with your little one.
First, “Feed the Meter.” “Just as feeding dimes into a parking meter all day long protects you from dreaded tickets, many five- and ten-minute helpings of playtime throughout each day ward off temper outbursts and create a growing relationship of cooperation and caring with your toddler.”
Second, establish clear and consistent limits to behavior. Karp believes that toddlers are a lot like little cavemen, primitive in their expressions of emotions, a bit unruly, and in need of guidelines to follow.
Third, treat your child with respect. When your child is trying to express her emotions, take the time to try to understand her message. She’s much more likely to listen—and to obey you—if she feels like you’re listening to her concerns regularly.
Some tantrum triggers are easy to pinpoint. If your child is hungry, tired, or sick, he’s much more likely to have a tantrum, just as an adult might have problems keeping a happy face in the same situation.
Other tantrum triggers take a bit of detective work. Situations that evoke strong emotions can also bring equally dramatic meltdowns. A doctor’s visit may induce fear. A drawn out shopping visit may test your child’s patience. Even a long play-date may overstimulate a child to the point of a tantrum. Consider the source of the tantrum before you decide how to deal with it—much like a doctor determines an illness before prescribing specific medication. It may be a matter of getting your child something to eat. Or, as with the doctor’s appointment, you may need to sit down with your child and explain the situation in simple words.
“Often times we as parents trigger tantrums by the things that we are doing or not doing and we don’t even know it,” says Erin Brown Conroy, author of 20 Secrets to Success with your Child and the mother of 12 children. “If you haven’t been listening when your child has been trying to tell you something with a small voice, she may have to use a big voice in order to get your attention.” If your child knows that you are listening to her, she is less likely to have to kick and scream to get her point across. Conroy suggests that something as simple as establishing eye contact with your child before you begin to talk to her will go a long way toward having your child know that she is being heard.
When Tantrums Happen
There are those moments when your normally submissive sweetheart becomes a pint-sized terror. When those times occur, it’s important to put your own emotions in check before you try to help your toddler. Dr. Penny Glass, PhD, Director of the Child Development Program at the Children’s National Medical Center has counseled countless parents who come in to her clinic exasperated with their child’s behavior.
“Once a tantrum occurs the most effective way to deal with it is to ignore it,” says Dr. Glass. While your child is in the throes of emotion do not establish eye contact. You may want to put the child in her room or another safe location and let him stay there, under your supervision, until he’s approachable. When you feel your child is past the behavior, give him attention and eye contact. “By giving your child attention when he’s being good, he’s more likely to end his tantrum or have a less intense tantrum when you don’t give him attention during a tantrum.”
For less severe tantrums, you might want to try distracting or redirecting your child’s focus on something else. If, for instance, he wants to hold the telephone, try to get him interested in a toy phone or a book.
Dr. Glass advises that you not dwell on the tantrum afterward, because that again draws attention to negative behavior. Instead, seek out opportunities to praise your child doing something good. “What the child generally wants is to be loved and liked. They enjoy finding ways to do that.”
Tantrums at home are one thing, but tantrums in the middle of the library, grocery store, or another public place are quite another. Be consistent with your approach to your child’s tantrums at home. Dr. Glass refers to this as “practice” for your approach in a public place. If your child has a tantrum in public do what you would at home, even if that means leaving the store or a friend’s house.
Each expert stresses that you shouldn’t give in to your child’s demands while he’s in the throes of a tantrum. “If you give in, you’re setting up a scenario where the child thinks that he can get what he wants by having a tantrum. And that’s not the position you want to be in,” cautions Dr. Glass.
There are days when you’ll be the perfect parent and days where parenthood is more a matter of survival. When those difficult days come, remember that parenting is a learning process for both you and your toddler. As you help your child deal with her emotions, you’ll be setting up a relationship and trust that will extend from the terrible twos into the tumultuous teens and beyond. As Jen Singer, mother of two and author of 14 Hours ‘Til Bedtime: A Stay-at-home Mom’s Life In 27 Funny Little Stories puts it, “Toddler tantrums are normal. They just don’t make a sticker for it in your child’s memory book.”