Why it happens
A temper tantrum is the emotional equivalent of a summer storm — sudden and sometimes fierce. One minute you and your child are in a restaurant enjoying your dinner, the next minute he's whimpering, whining, and then screaming at the top of his lungs because his straw is bent. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 are especially prone to such episodes.Though you may worry that you're raising a tyrant, take heart — at this age, it's unlikely that your child is throwing a fit to be manipulative. More likely, he's having a meltdown in response to frustration. Claire B. Kopp, professor of applied developmental psychology at California's Claremont Graduate University, attributes much of the problem to uneven language skills. "Toddlers are beginning to understand a lot more of the words they hear, yet their ability to produce language is so limited," she says. When your child can't express how he feels or what he wants, frustration mounts.
What to do
Don't lose your cool. A tantrum is not a pretty sight. In addition to kicking, screaming, or pounding the floor, your toddler's repertoire may include throwing things, hitting, and even holding his breath to the point of turning blue. When your child is swept up in a tantrum, he's unlikely to listen to reason, though he will respond — negatively — to your yelling or threatening. "I found the more I shouted at Brandon to stop, the wilder he would get," says one mother of a 2-year-old. What worked instead, she discovered, was to just sit down and be with him while he raged.Staying with your child during a tantrum is a good idea. Stomping out of the room — alluring as that may be — can make him feel abandoned. The storm of emotion he's going through can be frightening to him, and he'll appreciate knowing you're nearby. Some experts recommend picking up your child and holding him if it's feasible (i.e., he's not flailing too much), saying he'll find your embrace comforting. But others say it's better to ignore the tantrum until your child calms down, rather than rewarding negative behavior. Through trial and error, you'll learn which approach is right for your child.
Remember that you're the adult. No matter how long the tantrum continues, don't give in to unreasonable demands or negotiate with your screaming toddler. It's especially tempting in public to cave in as a way of ending the episode. Try not to worry about what others think — anyone who's a parent has been there before. By conceding, you'll only be teaching your child that throwing a fit is a good way to get what he wants, and setting the stage for future behavior problems. Besides, your child is already frightened by being out of control. The last thing he needs is to feel that you're not in control either.If your child's outburst escalates to the point where he's hitting people or pets, throwing things, or screaming nonstop, pick him up and carry him to a safe place, such as his bedroom. Tell him why he's there ("because you hit Aunt Sally"), and let him know that you'll stay with him until his negative behavior stops. If you're in a public place — a common breeding ground for tantrums — be prepared to leave with your child until he calms down."When my daughter was 2, she had an absolute fit at a restaurant because the plain spaghetti she ordered arrived with chopped parsley on it," recalls one mother. "Although I realized why she was upset, I wasn't about to let her disrupt everyone's dinner. I took her outside until she calmed down."
Talk it over afterward. When the storm subsides, hold your child close and talk about what happened. Acknowledge his frustration, and help him put his feelings into words, saying something like, "You were very angry because your food wasn't the way you wanted it." Let him see that once he expresses himself in words, he'll get better results. Say with a smile, "I'm sorry I didn't understand you. Now that you're not screaming, I can find out what you want."
Try to head off tantrum-inducing situations. Pay attention to what situations push your child's buttons and plan accordingly. If he falls apart when he's hungry, carry snacks with you. If he has trouble making a transition from one activity to the next, give him a gentle heads-up before a change. Alerting him to the fact that you're about to leave the playground or sit down to dinner ("We're going to eat when you and Daddy are done with your story") gives him a chance to adjust instead of react.Your toddler is grappling with independence, so offer him choices whenever possible. No one likes being told what to do all the time. Saying, "Would you like corn or carrots?" rather than "Eat your corn!" will give him a sense of control. Monitor how often you're saying "no." If you find you're rattling it off routinely, you're probably putting unnecessary stress on both of you. Try to ease up and choose your battles. Would it really wreck your schedule to spend an extra five minutes at the playground? And does anybody really care if your tike wears mismatched mittens?
Watch for signs of overstress. Although daily tantrums are a perfectly normal part of the mid-toddler years, you do need to keep an eye out for possible problems. Has there been upheaval in the family? An extremely busy or harried period? Tension between Mom and Dad? All of these can provoke tantrums. If after the age of 30 months your child is still having major tantrums every day, talk to your doctor. If your child is younger than 30 months and has three or four tantrums a day and isn't cooperating with any routines, such as getting dressed or picking up toys, you also may want to seek help. Your doctor can make sure your child has no serious physical or psychological problems and suggest ways to deal with the outbursts. Also, talk to your doctor if your child has frightening breath-holding spells when he gets upset. There's some evidence that this behavior is linked to an iron deficiency.
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