Toddler Tantrums

Toddler Tantrums

What to do when you want to cry, too

By Andi Diehn

About six years ago I found myself in the constant company of a 2 year old with strong convictions and a limited vocabulary, plus a newborn that liked to be held all the time. Tantrums were inevitable, both from my oldest son and from me. One particular day found me kneeling in the bathroom, holding the door closed, while my 2 year old threw a mighty fit in the hallway. While he banged, kicked and sobbed, I cried, too, and knew there must be better ways of handling tantrums.

Six years later finds me on the cusp of another tantrum age. My third son, almost 2, has shown remarkable stubbornness (strength of character) and willfulness (independence of spirit). Hopefully I learned something from the first two boys.

“It’s always easier to start new behavior with positive reinforcement and rewards than to stop tantrums,” says Lin Wierwille, family therapist at the West Lebanon, N.H., office of Child and Family Services.

According to Wierwille, there are several reasons that children from about 15 months to 4 years of age may melt into tantrums. Perhaps the child can’t coordinate body and mind, can’t verbalize, feels rushed, feels frustrated, or maybe a toy is too complicated.

Once you can pinpoint some of the reasons your own child is reduced to a tantrum, you can change the pattern and hopefully avoid the tantrum. For instance, most of us know the horror of the Grocery Store Tantrum. Try changing your shopping schedule; go in the morning after breakfast instead of in the afternoon before nap. Equip your kiddo with a bagel or some raisins to distract from the plethora of sugary cereals on display.

Or maybe it’s mornings that trip your family up. In our house, the mornings go best if we prepare the night before: everyone gets his or her next day’s clothing ready and I make sure there are clean diapers waiting beside a favorite toy.

One way to ensure that tantrums will continue is to give in. “If the child is in a pattern of getting what he she wants with tantrums, parents have taught the child that this is how you get your own way,” says Wierwille. While it’s tempting to stop the cacophonous output with a cookie, toy or one more turn in the bouncy house, it’s the shortest path to more tantrums. Stay strong.

Sometimes, tantrums happen no matter how well you heed the signs.

“The most important thing is to stay calm,” advises Wierwille. “Or at least pretend. One thing I tell parents is to pretend to be a neighbor. How would a neighbor behave? What would a neighbor say? That way you can get some detachment.” 

Once a tantrum starts, reason and logic fly out the window. This is not the time for lessons; it’s the time for comfort, safety and patience. “Children learn through tantrums,” says Wierwille.  “In time there will be better ways to communicate.”

While your child is in the throes, make sure they are safe, that nothing they kick can topple over onto them. Holding them firmly but gently can help. Ignoring bad behavior and instituting time outs may be appropriate, but these techniques have their own limitations and shouldn’t be part of a parent’s angry reactions. “Ignoring is ignoring the behavior, not the child,” Wierwille reminds us. “Try to give positive attention when you decide it’s time, not when the child decides.”

We’ll see what my third child is able to offer up in terms of mortifying public tantrums. Two things I’ve learned over the past several years of dealing with tantrums: even though everyone is looking at you, they’re looking with sympathy, and this, like every stage, will pass quickly.  Maybe even too quickly.        

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