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Toddler Tips

Taming Temper Tantrums

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 1, January-February 2007, pp. 38-41

"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 two-year-old has temper tantrums of frightening intensity. Everyone tells me that he'll grow out of this, but I am finding it very difficult to cope with, especially when we are in public. Can other mothers who have lived through such a phase share some tips with me?

Mother's Response

This is an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about as I found mainstream advice (i.e., ignore the child while he's having a tantrum) did not feel right for me. I learned most of my techniques from two books: Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen and Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I will try to summarize some of the tips that I have found most helpful.

The most important thing to me is that it is possible to ignore the tantrum without ignoring my child. For example, if my daughter has a tantrum, I immediately stop trying to negotiate or fix whatever she is saying the problem is. I comfort her, offer support, and validate her feelings. If she tries to tell me about what I "need" to do to fix the problem, I tell her that once she calms down, we can talk and I'll try to help however she wants. Once my child calms down, we talk and I often offer to do what she wanted during the tantrum. By that time, she usually doesn't want it any more.

I notice that my children have more tantrums when they're tired, overstimulated, sick, or want more attention. If I can help with those issues, we're all happier. Of course, it's ideal if I figure it out before the meltdown, but it's even helpful to look for underlying causes after it's all over.

I make a point to tell my children that it's always okay to have feelings, and to cry if they're upset. I also tell them about respecting others and public behavior. My son will scream and throw himself on the ground sometimes when he's upset. I may have to pick him up or remove him from an enclosed space, even if he doesn't like it. I tell him what I'm doing and why -- that it's okay to cry, but it's not okay to scream in the middle of a restaurant, for example. I try not to be judgmental about it because he's still learning to control himself and is not doing it just to irritate me (even though it can be pretty irritating if I'm hungry and my food has just arrived, to pick a recent example).

Another thing that has worked well for my family is to discuss that sometimes our bodies get upset, and it's hard to calm down, even is we want to. It can be scary to feel so out of control (I know it's disturbing for me as an adult). My daughter, now four-and-a-half, will say as she's calming down, "It's just my body still crying." It's frustrating to her that her body does that, but it's not scary any more.

Recognizing that we all have different needs will be helpful, too. When I'm upset, I want someone to hold me and tell me it will be all right. When my daughter is upset, she wants some personal space to deal with her emotions on her own. When my son is upset, he wants to be right next to me, but in total control of whether I touch him or not -- sometimes yes, sometimes no. If I try to do what would make me feel better, I end up making matters worse. It can be so hard to back away when your child is in pain and all you want to do is be close, but they are individuals with their own needs.

Ingrid Biery
Kingwood TX USA

Mother's Response

I have a two-year-old who has intense tantrums, but they are lessening as she gets closer to three. When I began to analyze the reasons for her tantrums, I realized that, from her point of view, they were usually justified. For instance, I was going out and had considered taking her. Just before I left, I decided to leave her with her big brother and sister. She had been planning on an outing and at the last minute she got stuck at home. I was busy getting ready and not aware of the fact that she was expecting to come. Once she refused to hold my hand when we were crossing a busy street. Then I remembered that the last street we crossed was very quiet and I had let her walk close to me without holding on. She didn't understand why the rules had changed. I needed either to be consistent or to give an explanation depending on the circumstances and my child's level of maturity. She is generally compliant about things that she knows I won't compromise on, such as sitting in the car seat.

Regarding public tantrums, one thing that has helped me is to ignore the reactions of others and focus on my child. Being concerned about what others think interferes with my intuition about what my child needs at the moment. Embarrassment has no place in parenting.

Hannah Katsman
Petach Tikva Israel

Mother's Response

I have also found my son's tantrums overwhelming. There's nothing like a howling toddler to make you feel like the most powerless person in the world -- especially if other people are watching in disapproval. I often find my own anger rising, too, and then it becomes hard to cope in a "loving guidance" way.

I've realized that the key to my coping is to ensure my needs are met, too. If I'm well rested and nourished, I do better than when I'm not. The same applies to your child, too, of course! And if my husband is around, I usually ask him to take over, as he seems to be better able to connect with our son in these situations.

Another strategy I have found helpful is to pre-empt any situations when meltdowns are likely to occur. For example, I used to avoid going grocery shopping alone with my son. If it was unavoidable, I went when I had lots of time so I was not under pressure to leave the store quickly if he was refusing to cooperate. We once spent 15 minutes in an aisle with him sitting on crates of beer of all things. I waited patiently, checking my list and my phone, gradually moving down the aisle until he had calmed down and was ready to cooperate again.

Sometimes children need to get something out of their system and it's best to let them ride the outburst, all along knowing that you are there for them when they calm down. Hard as it is, it is worth holding on to this sentiment I've borrowed from Lu Hanessian's book, Let The Baby Drive: "In later years your child won't remember what the tantrum was about, but he or she will remember how you made them feel about themselves."

Sara Walters
Wales Carmarthen UK

Mother's Response

I have three intense, spirited little boys who have had their share of major temper tantrums. I would love to say that I've been the perfect parent and handled each episode with love, grace, and patience. That wouldn't be true -- but it is true that a mother is constantly learning about her children as they grow, change, and challenge her. As you may have been told, a two-year-old is likely to be frustrated with inadequate language skills. Your child is probably overwhelmed with intense emotions, and the only outlet seems to be the dam bursting no matter when, where, or how.

I have had many strategies for handling meltdowns for different personalities, different situations, and different ages and stages in my children's development. Maintaining my own calm center has been very important, as well as not blaming myself in any way for their tantrums. I remind myself that intensity and passion are wonderful traits in a person! They are just tough to handle at two years old.

Once during a particularly long meltdown while I was making dinner (hunger and fatigue setting in for my preschooler), I asked my son if he wanted to be on my back with the wrap. Magic! He was snuggling close to me, could communicate with me and watch what I was doing, and I could continue with my meal preparation. Now I offer this whenever things start to heat up for him. Five to 10 minutes later, he is calm and ready to play.

A toddler doesn't nurse like a newborn, but the need for closeness and touch doesn't change. I still need hugs and snuggles to feel good about things, too!

Linda Kopecky
Winona MN USA

Mother's Response

Tantrums are nightmares, aren't they? Especially in public where you feel all eyes on you and know that some people are being judgmental.

Children have different reasons for throwing tantrums, so there are no guaranteed solutions, but here are a few things to consider.

Children with short attention spans may not be able to cope with long or busy outings. Keep trips as short and few as possible and consider whether your child might sometimes be happier at home with someone else.

Sudden changes of pace or activity are difficult for some children. Tell your child what's going on and what's coming up. Try to attach what is coming up to something concrete: "When you've finished your juice, we are going to the store," or "When the big hand points straight up, it will be time to leave.'

Some people (including adults) lose all sense of proportion if they are not fed regularly. Make sure your child has something to eat before you leave and take snacks to offer while you're out (healthy snacks are better than sugary ones that give immediate highs and corresponding lows). Look at your child's overall diet -- there have been some interesting experiments showing that diet plays a huge role in behavior.

Try to remain calm and don't take tantrums personally. When your child loses control of himself, it can be frightening for him and he needs to know someone is in control -- that someone is you.

Watch your behavior to check that you are not giving him a "pay off" for tantrums. If they result in getting what he wants and/or getting more attention, it will be in his interests to keep at it. If you say "no" to something, stick to it. If you think a tantrum is a result of wanting attention, be sure to offer plenty of attention when your son quiet and in a good mood.

I found it helpful to get down to my son's level when he was having a tantrum so that we were face to face. I'm not sure why this worked and it looks ridiculous in public (especially if he's lying down!), but I learned not to care. I didn't say or do anything, I was just there and at his level and eventually he calmed down and came to me.

Eileen Harrison
Rennes France

Mother's Response

While tantrums are common at this age, each child's intensity varies. My own children are extremely different. My toddler son's tantrums have a beginning, peak, and end, and are generally sparked for a specific reason. They never last more than 15 minutes. He'll either calm himself or he is generally easily distracted. My older daughter, who is six, has always been more intense. Her tantrums can go on for hours and hours and they can be very scary at times. She can be set off by the smallest thing. We knew this was not right, so we sought help for her tantrums and she was diagnosed with Sensory Integration (SI) dysfunction. In her case, she is more sensitive to things such as sound, light, and touch. Things are always more intense for her.

Knowing this has been helpful to prevent and diffuse meltdowns. She goes to an occupational therapist who gives us exercises and ideas. A book we found helpful is The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction by Carol Stock Kranowitz. Another book we found helpful is The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene. While this is geared more toward school-aged children, it validates that some children are just wired differently.

Toddler tantrums are common and their intensity can be surprising! For most children, it is just a stage. However, if you feel your child is having more difficulty, it may be worth investigating if your child sees the world differently than most. Our pediatrician was the first to suspect SI with our daughter. She explained that there is nothing wrong with her, but that it was the rest of us who needed to get to know who she is better. I wish we had known about this when she was a toddler -- we may have approached her tantrums differently.

Susannah Pryal
Sammamish WA USA

Mother's Response

I had problems with tantrums when my son was about 20 months old and I was pregnant with my second child. He would throw himself on the ground and scream. Besides being embarrassing for me, it was hard to handle. Once I had to leave my cart and just grab my purse and diaper bag and leave the store.

The tantrums were getting to be routine so I paid attention to when they happened and what was leading up to them. I found that he often had tantrums in large stores. I have heard from other mothers that they have had this problem, too. Being late in the afternoon would increase the chance of a tantrum because he was hungry or bored. When I had to go shopping, I'd try to bring snacks and some favorite toys and do it early in the day (this is good to avoid long lines at the check-out, too). Another thing that my son loved to do at the store was to pick a toy to hold as a "just while we are shopping toy" and we would put it back before we left. Sometimes we would exchange it for a different one. This kept him entertained and I could shop more quickly.

Besides all of this, giving my son something to look forward to after shopping, such as going to the park, was a great incentive for good behavior. Tantrums are something children outgrow.

Deborah Dennert
Simi Valley California USA

Mother's Response

I can certainly empathize with you, as all of my children went through phases of tantrums, some more severe than others. Your concern over the intensity and frequency is understandable. Gently parenting through them and giving your child time in your arms can help to lessen the severity and frequency of some tantrums. If you've been doing that and are not seeing improvement, you may want to discuss it with your child's health care provider. You may hear that this is entirely normal and be given some coping skills to try. Your little one may have some underlying conditions that are contributing to the tantrums. While time can certainly ease some tantrums, I'd encourage you to trust your instincts and look into it further. Best wishes.

Susan Manore
Temperance MI USA

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