When was the last time you pitched a good fit? Adults have tantrums, too, but we excuse them as letting off steam. When our desire to do or have something or our anger at making a wrong decision or losing a valued item exceeds our ability to simply shrug it off, we release our emotions by stomping our feet, slamming doors, throwing things, pounding fists on a table, and shouting with rage. Then you feel better usually and go about your business. Sounds childish? But it’s also adult-ish. Add this normal behavior of any emotional person to the ambivalent feelings of a growing toddler, and you have the makings of a temper tantrum.
Two basic feelings prompt most toddler temper tantrums.
• Intense curiosity
• Desire to perform an act
This leads to intense frustration, which is released in a healthy tantrum. Second, newly found power and the desire for “bigness” propel him toward a certain act, when suddenly someone from above, especially someone he loves, descends upon him with a “no.” It is a conflict he cannot handle without a fight. He wants to be big, but reality tells him how small he is; he is angry but does not yet have the language to express his anger, so he does so in actions. Because he cannot yet handle emotions with reason, he chooses to cope with his inner emotions by a display of outward emotions, which we call a tantrum.
How to Handle Toddler Temper Tantrums?
Temper tantrums become a problem for both the parent and the child. How should you handle such episodes? First, realize that you can’t “handle” them; you can only respect them. They reflect your child’s emotions, which he has to learn to handle. You are not responsible for the cause or the treatment of these outrages. Your role is to support your child. Too much interference deprives him of his power and a release from inner tension, whereas not enough support leaves him to cope all by himself without the reserves to do so. This can be an exhausting and frightening experience for both the child and the parents. Here are some ways to turn down the heat.
Learn What Triggers Your Child
Keep a tantrum diary. Know what sets your child off. Is he hungry, tired? Are there circumstances that he can’t handle? What triggers undesirable behavior? For example, if your toddler cannot handle the supermarket scene, shop during off hours and leave baby with your spouse. Watch for pre-tantrum signs. If you notice that a few minutes before the flare-up, your baby is usually bored, doesn’t seem connected to anyone or anything, whines, broods, or asks for something he can’t have, intervene when you hear these grumbles, before the little volcano erupts.
As baby sees, baby does. If your baby sees you tantrum, expect him to imitate your behavior. Older children can handle a behavior outburst from parents and siblings because they can understand an explanation of the behavior, and you eventually end it with an apology and a therapeutic laugh. Toddlers may be confused when witnessing too many angry explosions and feel this is standard operating behavior within the family.
Who’s having the tantrum?
If you are a volatile person, it’s easy for a toddler to set off your own explosion, ending up in a shouting match that neither person hears or wins. He is already out of control and needs you to stay in control.
Redirecting Impulsive Behavior
Babies learn by doing things. Their growing minds are driven to explore and try out new behaviors, both for their effect on caregivers and for the way they work for the children themselves. Beware the noncurious baby.
When a baby is in a mood or stage to try out a certain behavior, attempt to channel it into one that is tolerable to you and has learning value for baby. Distracting the volatile toddler when he is about to explode may thwart a blowup.
Does this scenario sound familiar? Baby is throwing a hard ball in the house and is about to do some damage. You shout, “No!” and snatch the ball from your toddler’s hands. He erupts into a flailing, kicking, stomping, angry tirade and disintegrates into a curled-up heap on the floor beneath your feet.
Scratch this scene. Instead, as you retrieve the dangerous ball with one hand, offer a soft ball with the other and a tantrum-aborting, “Here’s a fun ball.” Or as baby begins his “no-no” pleadings for his ball, channel his throwing into a more suitable ballpark: “Let’s go outside and play ball together.” This is a win-win situation: You make your point, toddler gets to play ball.
First of all, know yourself. If your child’s cries or tantrums make you angry or anxious, it is important for you to understand what went on in your past to cause this. Sometimes just knowing that there is a connection helps a parent deal with upset behavior in their children in a mature way. Often the issues run quite deep, especially when abuse of any kind was inflicted on a person as a child, and counseling becomes necessary. It is important to the emotional health of your child that you seek help in counseling or therapy so that you can understand yourself and your reactions to your toddler’s disturbing behavior.
Don’t Take it Personally
If baby’s rage easily gets under your skin, remember you are responsible neither for baby’s tantrum nor for stopping it. The “goodness” of the baby is not a reflection of your goodness as a parent. Tantrums are as common as frequent falls as a baby climbs the shaky ladder toward independence.
A Private Scene
Toddler temper tantrums in public places are embarrassing, and it is often difficult to consider a child’s feelings first. If you feel trapped and embarrassed in line at the supermarket, rather than lashing out, calmly carry your child to a private place such as a bathroom or your car where your child can perform his act and you can calmly perform yours without worrying about audience approval.
Toddlers throw fits at the worst times, and this “bad” behavior makes you look bad around your friends. Tantrums often occur when parents are in a hurry and preoccupied with non-baby-oriented tasks, such as preparing a dinner party, or when babies sense that parents are not tuned in to them. Undesirable behavior often takes place when we impose unrealistic expectations on a child. To expect a curious toddler to be the model of obedience in a supermarket, where he is surrounded by a smorgasbord of tempting delights, may be asking too much. Go when you both are rested and fed and make it a time for dialogue about your purchases, letting him help from the safety of his belted shopping-cart seat. Remember, he is a person. Schedule upsetting events, such as getting shots at a doctor’s office, at your child’s best behavioral time of the day. Expecting a child to be the model of good behavior at the end of the day when he is tired and hungry (and so are you) is asking too much.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
To survive the toddler tantrum stage, we divide toddler desires into “biggies” and “smallies.” Staying in a car seat is a biggie. It is nonnegotiable, and all the tantrum theatrics in the world will not free the safely contained protester. But which outfit to wear on a given day is a smallie. A clothing mismatch is not worth a fight. When wearing a shirt is nonnegotiable, offering choices may save face for both parent and child: “Do you want to wear the red or blue shirt?” This lets your child feel as if he has control over his choices. Make sure what you decide to say no to is really worth it. Many toddlers throw a fit over having to put shoes on before leaving the house. Instead of starting a fight every time, maybe it’s okay to simply bring the shoes along in the car and put them on when you reach your destination. In our home we do not have the time or energy to hassle about small things. If our child demands peanut butter on top of the jelly but refuses to eat the stuff when smeared the other way around, we are not afraid to accommodate a minor whim. If grandma wonders, this is not spoiling.
Is It Okay to Retreat?
You will occasionally find that you’ve triggered a tantrum by saying no, your child has really lost it, and you wish you had said yes in the first place because you now realize it was a “smallie.” Can you change your mind? Yes, as long as you don’t do it too often. Explain to your child that you have changed your mind but not because of the tantrum. This gives your child the message that you love him and that you are flexible enough to reconsider what’s best in any situation.
Should You Ignore a Tantrum?
Most of the time the “ignore it” advice is unwise. Ignoring any behavior in your child deprives your child of a valuable support resource and deprives parents of an opportunity to improve their rapport with the tantrumer. Your simply being available during a tantrum gives your child a needed crutch. Toddler temper tantrums bring out the best of your intuitive parenting. If your child is losing control and needs help to regain control, often a few soothing words or a little help may put him on the road to recovery. If he has chosen an impossible task, try to distract him or channel him into an easily achievable play direction. Occasionally a very strong-willed child will lose control of himself during a tantrum. It often helps to simply hold him firmly but lovingly and explain, “You are angry, and you have lost control. I’m holding you because I love you.” You may find that after a minute or more of struggling to free himself, he melts in your arms, as if to thank you for rescuing him from himself.
Just as adults want to share their misery with someone, toddlers seldom tantrum alone. We believe that most babies actually want and need help during a tantrum. The fact that babies have more tantrums in the presence of someone they love and trust should not be interpreted as manipulation; it is rather that they feel safe and trusting enough to lose it in the presence of their favorite support person. Often a toddler temper tantrums because she does not have the words yet to express her needs, thoughts, or feelings. She may resort to a tantrum in order to get your attention if you are being distant, not giving her enough time. In these cases, you can usually help by giving her the words, verbalizing for her what you think and feel she needs.
A common impulse is for parents to try to fix a situation that has triggered a tantrum. While this may be appropriate in some situations, toddlers may simply be looking for empathetic understanding. For example, when a toddler throws a fit over the fact that he just took his last bite of cookie and he wants more, a parent may try to offer other snacks to calm the child. Instead, let your child know that you agree with him; it is sad that the cookie is all gone. You wish there were more cookies, too. You love cookies and can’t wait until tomorrow when there will be more! Simply hearing that someone agrees with him and feels the same way he does about this tragic situation is often enough to calm a child down and help him move on.