One minute your child is as happy as can be; the next he’s a ball of rage — howling, flailing, thrashing and out of control. Tantrums are, unfortunately, a fact of life when you’ve got a toddler in the house. Why? Put yourself in your little one’s shoes: It can be really frustrating to be unable to say what you mean or watch your carefully-built block tower topple because your hands aren’t steady. Read on for smart strategies to prevent tantrums, plus tips to cope when one’s inevitable.
WHEN TANTRUMS START
Despite the term „the terrible twos,” temper tantrums can start as early as 12 months and continue beyond age 4 — though they do occur most often during a child’s second year.
WHY THEY HAPPEN
Toddler tantrums have a number of causes:
- A child’s frustration with his own limited abilities to express his feelings and communicate with words
- The need to assert independence
- Feeling a lack of control
- Having either too few or too many limits
- Hunger, fatigue, overstimulation and boredom
PREVENTING TODDLER TEMPER TANTRUMS
While sometimes tantrums are inevitable, a few smart strategies can help head them off:
- Work with your child’s personality. For many kids, keeping a schedule of regular mealtimes, naptimes and bedtimes offers a sense of what they can expect at various points in their day — which makes them feel more secure, in control and comforted. However other kids thrive on spontaneity — so if your child seems to get stressed out by schedules, ease up a bit.
- Ward off the „fearsome four.” Hunger, fatigue, boredom and overstimulation, that is. That means avoid overscheduling or planning a big excursion (like grocery shopping) before naptime. And make sure to leave the house with your toddler’s tummy full — and with healthy snacks and a favorite small toy or book.
- Cut down on the need to say „no.” This includes childproofing your home (so you don’t have to constantly cry, „No, don’t touch that!”) and setting clear limits.
- Provide choice whenever possible. Being able to make decisions („Do you want to eat cereal or yogurt this morning?”) helps a toddler feel more in control.
- Don’t say „maybe.” In toddler translation, „maybe” equals „yes.” Instead, say „yes” or „no,” or negotiate a compromise.
9 WAYS TO COPE WITH A TODDLER TEMPER TANTRUM
You’ve probably learned the hard way that sometimes all the preparation in the world doesn’t work: Toddlers can melt down anytime and anywhere. So if there’s no discernible reason your toddler’s melting down but just seems to be just blowing off steam, you’re likely to have more success with one of these tantrum-taming strategies. Just keep in mind that timing is everything: Most distraction methods work best if you use it just as your child starts to lose composure. If you wait until he’s having a full-blown screaming fit, it’ll be too tough to calm him down to play.
Get your game on
Try to engage your child in a game as simple as I Spy, which works great in places where waiting is involved (like the DMV or airport). This works on two levels: It’s a distraction, so whatever is distressing your child will likely take a backseat to having fun. Secondly, tantrums are often as much a cry for attention as they are a response to being frustrated.
Yuk it up
Laughter releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals in the brain and stifles the stress-causing ones — so do something silly. For example, if your child won’t stand still for a diaper change, put a clean diaper on your head. If he refuses to drink his milk, pick up a banana and make a phone call. The best thing about getting a toddler to giggle is that it’s not all that hard.
Don’t go far, of course, and stay within eyesight of your tot — but pop quickly behind a grocery display or a rack of clothes. After a second, reappear with a “Boo!” and a smile. Your startled, then relieved, tot will probably laugh. And want you to do it again.
Act very interested in something off in the distance. Squint and peer. Then mumble, “Is that a pony?” After a few minutes of looking around, the two of you can conclude together, that no, it probably wasn’t. It’s sneaky — but it’s highly effective.
Allow the forbidden
Most toddlers are fascinated by grown-up accessories — wallets, car keys, cell phones and the like. If you’re someplace where the phone won’t get thrown and broken (like a carpeted doctor’s office) and the key chain won’t get lost (like a booth in a restaurant), consider surprising your grouchy kid with a once-in-a-great-while chance to play with a normally outlawed object. But beware — if you have to take what you’ve offered away, you will have guaranteed a toddler tantrum, not prevented one. So be sure the setting is right — and that you’re okay with relinquishing whatever it is until you leave.
Refrain from trying to out-yell your screaming toddler, and start whispering to him in a calm, gentle voice instead. (Tip: This will work only if he’s looking at you.) As soon as your toddler realizes you’re talking, he’ll probably quiet down to try to figure out why you’re talking so quietly. Just make sure to be saying something soothing, like: “I’m sorry you’re so mad. Why don’t we go for a walk?” Don’t rely on this trick too often, though, or it may stop working.
Give the cold shoulder
Sometimes, excessive drama is a bit of an act. While your toddler may be frustrated, he also knows that when he cries or fusses he’ll be tended to. So if this seems to be the case and as long as your child doesn’t seem especially stressed, try ignoring him when he’s carrying on, and continue with what you’re doing. You can even hum or sing loudly so he really gets the message. As long as he isn’t doing anything that could be harmful to his surroundings or himself, this can be a highly effective way to de-escalate a tantrum.
Stand your ground
Repeating the same words can help bore the tantrum out of him. So keep calm and don’t give in. For example, if your toddler pitches a fit when you won’t give him a cookie right before dinner, your response should be to repeat the rule, over and over: “We don’t eat cookies before dinner. We don’t eat cookies before dinner.” The trick is to be as consistent and as calm as possible. Keep your voice even and your face neutral. He’ll understand that you mean business, and see that he can’t get a rise — or a cookie — out of you before dinner.
When a tantrum morphs into a full-blown screaming fit, no amount of silliness or reasoning or non-reaction on your part is going to do the trick. If your child is that upset, he won’t be able to see you or hear you. But relying on the power of your touch can be soothing, especially since losing control can be scary for a little kid. So pick your little one up and hug him firmly but gently. The bonus: A hug can help melt any anger or frustration you have, too.
TEMPER TANTRUMS DON’TS
A couple of things to keep in mind as you’re taming that tantrum:
- Whatever you do — don’t give in to his demands. This only teaches the lesson that tantrums are a means to an end. If you’re out in public and your child won’t calm down, consider ending the outing.
- Avoid physical punishment. It’s never a good idea, but it’s especially risky at a time when emotions are running high and you’re in danger of losing control.
KEEPING YOUR CHILD SAFE
If your child is physically out-of-control (thrashing, hitting), move to a safe place. Pick him up firmly (without dragging or pulling). If you’re in a public place, carry him outside or to your car. If that’s not practical, hold your child tight to prevent him from hurting himself. (Some toddlers calm down when they’re held tightly.)
Talk to your child’s doctor if your child’s tantrums are:
- Frequent (two or more times a day)
- Accompanied by feelings of intense anger, sadness or helplessness
- Followed by worrisome behaviors like aggression, sleep problems, food refusal and extreme separation anxiety
- Regular beyond age 4
Also talk to your child’s doctor or your own if you’re having trouble controlling your own anger. Remember, you don’t have to go it alone.