Toddlers’ tantrums are infuriating and embarrassing but if you can take yourself out of auto-pilot mode you can see you do have solutions.
When Chelsey was born I spent months dreading the terrible twos. I had heard two-year-olds spent sometimes a year or more lying flat on their backs, screaming and kicking and more often than not, it would happen in public where there was no place to hide. I was mortified and with my anger that pops up at the drop-of-a-hat I was worried for Chelsey and for me.
As the terrible twos hit full force I was still not ready. I did not find a Parents Anonymous meeting for another five years. Whatever I did do, my goal was not to hurt Chelsey so that meant putting space between us, usually in the form of a child gate or door. Looking back I think I did the right thing and I have learned a little in twenty years that may help others.
First of all, understanding a few things may help:
• Terrible twos is a normal stage of development that is remedied with time.
• There may be no apparent reason for the tantrum.
• Toddlers do not try to manipulate parents yet even though it may seem that way.
• Toddlers get frustrated and have not gained the vocabulary to express that feeling (a + b = 732).
• Toddlers do not tantrum because they hate their parents.
• Toddlers do not set out to “push your buttons” or to “get you.”
• Toddlers are not crazy lunatics even if they behave that way.
• To get to age five they must go through ages two and three first.
• If your toddler is having tantrums that means they are healthy, on schedule developmentally and do not have any irregular developmental issues.
• If you get upset or angry during a child’s tantrum you are normal but do not let it show.
Toddlers are just beginning to explore their world and learn how it reacts to them. Toddlers often become frustrated when they cannot ask for something or talk to us and a tantrum results. As their vocabulary grows the tantrums will usually diminish.
Toddlers also tend to whine and demand attention so that in time you may question when you will ever be able to go to the bathroom alone. Their behavior is unpredictable and they may seem quite fearful at times. Toddlers can also be very negative and annoying. They often love the word ‘no’ and no matter what you say, their reply will be ‘no.’ Do not worry; by the time you have figured them out they will have moved into the next stage in their life.
The good news is that toddlers also have an enormous capacity to be adorable and to display affection. Another Parents Anonymous member once said that the more difficult time a parent has at the terrible-twos stage, the easier they would have it with them as a teenager. True or not it helps to think of the positive aspects of this age.
Redirecting is a good way to head off a tantrum in the early stages. Instead of focusing on the child you can pay attention to something else like a box or other item while encouraging your child to come to you. If you have a small box (a cereal box, gift box, etc.) you can look inside and then close the box quickly. Open the box again then looking into the box, look surprised, then close it again. By now you have piqued their interest and successfully changed your child’s mood from frustration to curiosity.
When beginning to tantrum, if your child is at risk of hurting themselves you can pick them up and hold them on your lap for a short time. I do not recommend this if you are upset, frustrated or angry yourself. If they are kicking you it is a good idea to put them gently on the floor and move away to allow ample room then let the tantrum run its course.
Whispering or talking in a very soft voice can defuse a child’s tantrum in the same way that screaming or yelling back at the child can fuel a tantrum. I cannot say this enough; yelling or threatening does not help! Yelling (or spanking) only serves to vent a parent’s anger and can only make matters worse. Yelling or hitting teaches children to hit and can damage a healthy relationship between parent and child. A parent yelling is frightening to a child and can damage the child’s hearing and the parent’s vocal cords. Interacting with your child during a tantrum by yelling, screaming or hitting gives negative attention to a child and may increase the duration and number.
If you feel you are at risk of losing control then put space between you and your child. Go to the bathroom or bedroom and close the door. Listen or watch to make sure your child is safe. Using a child gate can help at this time and you can easily see the child is alright.
Call another parent who has experienced toddler tantrums and talk for a few minutes. Compare notes to see what triggered the outburst and how they handled it. Ask if you can call again when you need support again. Better yet; go to a Parents Anonymous meeting and discuss tantrums and your child. You will get several tips and suggestions for the next tantrum event.
The sound of screaming sends alarm signals to our brains and as it continues our heart rate and respiration rate increase. These signals indicate danger or the fight-or-flight response. Knowing this may help you remain calm. To offset your child’s screaming it may help to put earplugs in your ears or to listen to a portable music player like an iPod or Walkman to drown out the noise. Increase the volume only enough to counter the screaming but not enough to damage your hearing. There are hearing protectors available for purchase from about $3 for foam inserts to $10 and up for earmuffs.
Plan any trip out – shopping, errands, appointments, etc. – when children are well-rested and well-fed. Make sure the child is not sick, check for a fever and look for any clues they may not feel well. Tell your child your itinerary, where you are going, what you will do there and when you will return. Give the child a job to do like look for the color blue or look for the cereal. I have known moms in my Parents Anonymous group who gave children a shopping list (pictures cut out of a magazine and pasted onto 3” x 5” cards) so they feel like they are helping.
Know the ‘escape routes’ or where you will go if your child begins a tantrum. When children begin to tantrum it is a good idea to take them out of the area temporarily or move to a quiet, low-traffic area of the store or a restroom. If you cannot move them out of the area then remain calm and stay nearby. If all else fails— leave and take them home. Cause and effect: if you take them home before you finish shopping, simply explain you do not have the treat or other items because you had to stop shopping. They will eventually understand and develop more self-control.
In public we have added pressure of an audience. Follow through on what you know has worked in the past. Ignore unkind people who say things like “We knew how to fix that!” or “That child needs a good beating!”
• Avoid places that may encourage a tantrum (candy or toy aisle, amusements).
• Bring a snack and something to drink (water is better than sugary juices).
• Bring a toy or two that they only play with while you shop.
• Limit the amount of time the child is out.
• Arrange appointments when your child will not be tired or hungry.
If your toddler begins a tantrum during a meal and throws food on the floor or at you do not take it personally. You must assume the child is either telling you they are not hungry or they do not like the taste or temperature of the food. End the meal for the toddler; you can cover and refrigerate the remaining food to have at the next mealtime. Do not offer food prior to the next mealtime. You would want to see that there are no snacks or sweets available during this time. Limit sugar-laden juices in favor of water only or watered-down juice. A 75 to 25 percent water to juice ratio is preferable to all juice brands.
As for the food thrown on the floor, toddlers cannot clean up food messes as punishment because they have not developed those fine motor skills just yet. Instead of using a smooth, scooping and wiping motion, the toddler is more likely to use a back-and-forth motion which may actually spread the mess farther. Parents will need to clean up the mess to make sure there are no slippery, greasy spots or food remaining. Parents can teach toddlers how to begin cleaning up by starting with books and toys. As the child grows you can add other chores – not as a punishment – but as an active member of the family.
Congratulate your child when they are (finally) able to get control of themselves and calm down.
(It’s hard being a kid.)
Remember you are the adult and able to control yourself.
(Fake it till you make it.)
Never negotiate with your child; you are the adult.
(If you ever pay a ransom, each time the ransom will increase.)
Never let children ‘win’ during a tantrum.
(Always follow the rules.)
Never threaten what you cannot or will not follow through on.
(Meaningless threats weaken your authority.)
Never let them see you sweat.
(Appear completely uninterested.)
Model the behavior you want your child to emulate.
(Pat yourself on the back for keeping calm.)
“No” should always mean “no.”
(Kids catch on quick to the “no” sometimes meaning “maybe.”)
Yelling louder does not help your child understand.
(That also goes for aliens from planet Zargamuk too.)
First and last, remain calm.
(Do not get upset.)