Toddler Tantrums

If you have a child between the ages of 18 months and three years, chances are that you’ve experienced a fall to the ground, fist banging, screaming, feet kicking, full blown tantrum. Of course every child is different.  If you are really lucky, maybe your child skips this phase, though I will warn you that this is not typical.  That being said, our oldest of three pretty much skipped the toddler tantrums and we didn’t really know what people meant by “the terrible twos” until our son came along two and a half years later.  It was only then that we had something to compare it to and realized how lucky we were with our first.  Fast forward seven years…while she is mostly wonderful, we have seen some full blown melt downs at age seven.  My point here is that if you don’t experience this phenomenon at one particular moment in time, you will sooner or later. Tantrums tend to occur in toddlerhood because children are not able to clearly identify and express their needs. They can typically understand almost all of what we say, but their speech output at this age can be limited.  As a result, we may mistake what our child is asking for or how he is feeling, and after a few misidentifications, he just can’t handle it.  A tantrum begins and it is usually a child’s way of expressing his frustration.  Sometimes we are able to redirect their attention, or distract them with something else, and other times we must endure what feels like the longest tantrum ever.   Throw in a public place with onlookers and you may be ready to go hide in a corner.

There are a myriad of situations that may cause your child to have a tantrum, ranging from he can’t have the toy he wants, you said “no” to him, he does not want to get in the bath, or get strapped in a car seat.  Or, maybe he doesn’t like the color blue that day; I’m just saying there is typically no rhyme or reason when it comes to tantrums.  While the easiest solution may be to give in to whatever it is that he wants for the sake of stopping the tantrum, this is a case where the easiest solution is not necessarily the best one.

Children at a very young age can figure out the pattern of how you respond to a situation.  For example, if you consistently run into your baby’s room every time he cries, even those under one year can figure out that if he wants you to come to his room, all he has to do is cry and you will appear.  Similarly, a two year old will quickly figure out that you tend to give him the toy or let him skip a bath every time he throws a tantrum.  Since he is getting what he wants, he will likely continue to tantrum when faced with these situations, often leading to larger problems down the road.
Some of this behavior will naturally disappear as your child matures, but there are strategies you can use now, as young as 18 months that will help you and your child deal with these unwanted tantrums.  Here are just a few great strategies:
• Even though you may want to have a tantrum of your own, stay calm.  Being as loud as your child, or yelling at your child, will not help to diffuse the situation.  Instead, try speaking calmly and softly, stating things as facts, “Sam is playing with that truck now.  When he is finished, you may have it.” or “You need to take a bath to get clean.”  Don’t try to engage in long explanations, just keep it simple and keep repeating it.

• Be proactive–if you can sense that a situation is going to bring on a tantrum, give your child two choices of what he can do, so that he feels he has some control, and you are happy with the outcome.  For example, if bath time is approaching and that’s been a sticking point, try saying “you can bring your car or your rubber duck in the bath, which one should we bring?”

• If you are in a public place, be prepared to leave if your child cannot get his tantrum under control.  While it may feel like you are on the world’s stage if your child is having a complete meltdown in front of other people, remember that many of them have been in that situation before.  It’s not about judging others or feeling judged, just stay focused on your child’s needs at the moment.  That being said, it does not send a good message to your child if he is allowed to stay at an indoor play space or concert etc if he cannot control his behavior.  Most children under age three are too young to fully be able to control themselves anyway, so you need to take charge of the situation.
Thankfully tantrums are a phase and just part of the natural maturation process of your child.  While it can be a challenge in the heat of the moment, it’s helpful to maintain a level head and a dash of humor about the whole situation.  Now that we’re on to our third child, I’ve gotten pretty good at this, but there was definitely a learning curve to get to this point.  I’m not saying you have to (or should) enjoy every tantrum your child has, but it’s all part of parenting.  And if you really can’t stand this phase, it’s kind of similar to that saying about the weather in Cleveland, “If you don’t like it, just wait a minute because it will change.”  And then they’ll be in some other frustrating stage…

Lauren Fishman, author

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