Periodically, I've received emails about temper tantrums and how impossible they are to deal with. Tantrums usually escalate in frequency from about 18 months to about 2.5 years old. Most kids don't full-out tantrum anymore by the time they are 4 or 5. But apart from waiting these hellish episodes out, what else can we do? Here's just one example of an email that I think summarizes most parents' concerns:
This is an email of desperation. O is going through another series of wicked temper tantrums – tantrum every morning when we change his diaper (doesn’t want it changed), tantrum getting dressed, tantrum when dinner isn’t ready right away every night, tantrum putting on his mittens, tantrum last night because I called “may” by its proper name “milk” AND dared to put it in a yellow cup. Often these tantrums are accompanied by the classic face-down on the floor fist beating etc.
So, we wait them out. He escalates to the point of hyperventilation and my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up. We tell him, “O, I’m not going to do XX while you are screaming at me. You have to stop whining/crying/ask nicely etc.” After a while (15-20 minutes), he’ll stop, he’ll say, “I’m done now.” I try distraction but, often, he’s too worked up to be distracted.
This is SO classic and, indeed, distraction and ignoring are often the most commonly suggested ways of dealing with full-out temper tantrums. But there are a few additional strategies to consider. Part of the problem with the (approximately) 2-year old stage is that their verbal skills can’t catch up to their thinking skills, so they get easily frustrated. And also? 18 – 22 month-olds are ALWAYS frustrated. So are 2.5 year olds. It's just part of the major developmental transitions that they're plodding through.
Here are some thoughts and suggestions to manage those temper tantrums when they pop up:
1. The idea of ignoring the temper tantrum when it occurs and not giving into the tantrum-ee's demands is straight out of any behavioural modification program of reinforcement (It's part of the "coercive cycle" we've talked about before). Those are still good ideas. The only thing I’d add is to walk away from the child and go to another room when he’s tantruming — but remain in earshot so that he doesn't feel totally abandoned. Having you present, even though you’re not giving in, can be amping up his frustration (you are the evil being who is blocking his goal DAMMIT!). It’s not that he’s intentionally freaking out (in other words he’s not manipulating in any sophisticated way — he doesn’t have the cognitive capacity), but you ARE the object of his wrath and his hysterics are simply communicating that, as well as expelling his anger/frustration.
(Although you can see why many parents feel like they ARE being manipulated by these temper tantrums. Check out this video.)
2. Forget the mommy guilt. Crying isn’t a terrible, bad thing that we should try to avoid in our kids at all costs. The only way our children learn to regulate their emotions is to express them first. As parents, we can try to take what we all feel, and the original poster expressed so well: “my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.” And reframe it with this: "Kids cry. Kids get pissed off. Crying and raging aren’t in and of themselves bad (many kids just need to emote… A lot, especially when they can’t reason or talk it out). And I'm not a bad mom for simply witnessing his distress." You are doing everything possible not to escalate, you are not punishing him for his emotions, you are just there to witness them and therefore you’re inadvertently teaching him that emotions CAN be expressed (doesn’t mean he’s getting what he wants, but he can wail all he wants and you won’t hate him).
3. Try this set of responses, from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (works for some, not others). Give words to his feelings, mirror those emotions, repeat the rule you're trying to enforce, fantasize with him about his wishes. The steps are as follows: (1) When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., O, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!), (2) Scrunch up your face and look mad, so he gets that that’s what he looks like and YOU get that that’s what he’s feeling, (3) Repeat your rule, accepting his feelings, but not his behaviour ("You can only watch TV after dinner; You can be mad at mommy but you can’t throw things/scream, whatever"), (4) Fantasize with him: "You know, I ALSO wish it was TV-watching time. I LOVE watching TV with you O! I wish mommy didn’t have to work, but I can’t WAIT until after dinner when we can watch together." Seriously… sometimes this set of steps work MIRACLES. The trick is to REMEMBER the steps in the heat of our frustration and anxiety.
4. Provide him with lots of opportunities throughout the day where he has the illusion of control (if not the reality). He’s being told what to do all day long: with parents in the morning, with child-care providers or at daycare, during mealtime, and so on. Children sometimes need to feel like they have some say in the way their day unfolds. Most of you have heard this stuff many times and have mentioned this in the comments sections. Provide choices: Do you want the blue or the red pants today? Do you want to take off your diaper now or after breakfast? Do you want to have cereal or toast?. Also, I'd suggest being very attuned to his behaviour so that you can catch him being strong, good, powerful, brave. And then praise the hell out of him (he needs to feel his power and control and that you recognize those things, not just put him down for it).
5. Look for reasons for escalation of tantrums: Sleep changes? Nap dropping? Missed snacks? Missed meals? Too much sugar/preservatives? Too little sleep at night? Sick? Teething? Too many transitions? Working on new skills (e.g., verbal)? This doesn't help us deal with the tantrums in the moment, but it does help us understand them better and it may help us to avoid them sometimes as well.
What are your favourite ways of dealing with temper tantrums? If you're past this stage with your child, what was the best advice you received?