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Toddler Tips

Temper Tantrums

From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 2, 2010, pp. 22-23

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine New Beginnings, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of New Beginnings to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My three-year-old has temper tantrums of frightening intensity. Everyone tells me that she'll grow out of this, but I am finding it very difficult to cope with, especially when we are in public. Yesterday she had a big tantrum in a store and lay on the floor kicking and screaming. I hadn't even started my shopping and wasn't able to do it. Lots of people stared at me, making me feel angry, flustered, and embarrassed. I feel confused about how to deal with her outbursts. How do others deal with tantrums?

Response

You are not alone! It can feel isolating and overwhelming to be going through these challenges, especially when other mothers are not dealing with these extreme behaviors. I always felt like I was the only one in the store with a crying, screaming child. It can leave you feeling, "what is wrong with me?" and "what is wrong with my child?" For me, the solution has been to have my husband or parents watch my son and my other toddler while I go shopping. No matter how hard I tried to prepare my son on what he could and could not get on our shopping trip, always making sure not to go when he was tired or hungry, the inevitable tantrum would ensue. I'd get no shopping done and leave the store feeling depleted and demoralized.

Having our groceries delivered by an online grocery store has been another good solution for us. Hang in there! I hope things get easier for us both in year four.

Karen Goetze
Geneva, IL, USA

Response

My daughter had challenges with certain situations when she was three. Even now that she's six, we still find there are times when her resources are tapped and she just can't organize her behavior to cope with a situation. One thing my husband and I say is that she sees and experiences life in Technicolor, while the rest of us see in shades of gray. Knowing that she's experiencing the world with an intensity far greater than our own helps us understand her, and with that understanding comes more patience and empathy.

For me, the simplest coping methods worked the best. I kept trips short and focused. We went on a full stomach and well rested. I discussed with her my expectations ahead of time. I tried to reserve a portion of the list for her alone, giving her the responsibility for picking out the juiciest apples, for example. If she started to lose it, I'd get down on her level and make eye contact, focusing on her for a moment. It's easy to forget to do that when you're rushing through the store or tending to other young ones. That little bit of connection helped her to re-center, though, and was well worth the short delay in our shopping trip.

I also had to recognize there were certain times or situations (such as the big holiday grocery trip before visitors arrived) that were beyond her ability to handle. I would make other arrangements, sometimes even doing the grocery shopping at night while daddy put the kids to bed at home!

Know that these days do not last forever, and that an intense child at three often develops exceptional skills as she grows. At six now, my daughter's teacher often comments on her fantastic memory and her great attention span. While the intensity was a significant challenge in her toddler years, I can see how it can help her be successful and I'm excited now to see where she will go!

Karen Smith
St. Charles, IL, USA

Response

My heart goes out to you! While parenting a high need youngster, I found he could not take a sudden change of plans or even a disappointment. I began to brainstorm with him ahead of time. I learned (the hard way) that there were several things I could not do without warning. I had to tell him several days in advance that an appointment, unpleasant procedure, or a night out with my husband was coming up. He would have a huge meltdown the first time I told him, but each day it got better and by the day of the event, we could go without incident. This was also not a child who could be told, "If you behave at the grocery store, you can ride the merry go round." He did much better if you let him ride the merry go round when you passed it. If you did not have time to ride it, or if you were going to buy a toy for a cousin's birthday (and not for him), you had to tell him long before you got to the store.

I got many useful tips from How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The one I still use with my second graders is to identify the child's unpleasant feeling, give it a name, and even commiserate with the child.

If tantrums continue to be a problem I would suggest The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. It is a refreshing read for struggling parents.

Theresa Kinzly
Peachtree City, GA, USA

Response

I remember days when my children had those intense toddler tantrums. Figuring out what to do at home is much different than deciding the best course of action in public. Sometimes you can be proactive about things at home before a tantrum starts by offering a snack, cutting a play date short, or snuggling in for a nap.

I found that aborting the shopping trip was for me almost always the best way to handle it. Most grocery stores have a large cooler where they can store your full shopping cart until you return later in the day to finish up. I spent a lot of time sitting in the back seat of the car with my child while he screamed and cried. And sometimes I cried right along with him. When your child has calmed down -- perhaps after breastfeeding -- you may be able to complete your to-do list.

Keep in mind that tantrums are scary for our children and sometimes for us, too. Those big, bad feelings take over and our little ones don’t yet have the coping skills they need to move past the hurt that caused them to lose all self-control. Yes, some people will stare. You may even be asked to relocate. So long as you respect your child’s need to vent in a safe way that isn't obtrusive to others you'll make it through another day with your growing toddler.

We are the key to safety, both physical and emotional. A child hearing from his mother or father that it's okay to feel sad, mad, frustrated, whatever, and that crying is okay is more likely to grow into an emotionally mature adult.

Wendy Cohen
Savannah, GA, USA

Response

Accept that toddler tantrums do not mean you have failed as a mother. Decide now that for the next tantrum you will not feel embarrassed, angry, or flustered. Remember that your child does not feel that she has any other way to communicate with you. She is letting you know that she wants to exert control over her life. This is a good thing in that she is trying to become more independent. It is bad because she is doing it inappropriately.

There are many ways to cope with tantrums. If she is getting frustrated, stop what you are doing, get down on her level and talk to her. If you find out what she wants you can offer options and alternatives. Talk pleasantly and do not be in a hurry. Life is going to continue and you only have a few months of time when this will be a problem. Teach your daughter that you are there for her.

Carol Oswald
Augusta, Georgia, USA

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