Dealing with Toddler Tantrums
10 ways to cope with those kicking, screaming, why-me meltdowns.
By: Dr. Michele Borba
Q: When my three-year-old doesn’t get her way, she puts on a tantrum that could win her an Oscar. What is the best way to stop her meltdowns?
-Jen B., from Toronto
A: Temper tantrums are most common amongst toddlers eighteen to twenty-four months. It’s one of the reasons those years are not-so-affectionately called the Terrible Twos. Tantrums are equally as common in girls, as in boys. But older kids sometimes resort back to the tantrum stage, especially if there’s been a recent stress or change in their lives or they’ve learned they work to get their way. While you can expect your little munchkin to have an “Exorcism” or two, how you respond to the outburst will largely determine whether they decrease or increase. Here are a few tips that will help stop those annoying kid meltdowns.
Before the Tantrum:
Anticipate the Meltdown
Your best defense is to anticipate a tantrum’s onset. Don’t wait until your child is in full meltdown because once a tantrum begins, you don’t have much control. Watch for your kid’s signs that a tantrum is on its way: tension, acting antsy, a whimper. Once you learn to identify your child’s “tantrum is approaching” signs you’re in the best place to defuse it.
Distract and Redirect
The second you know a tantrum is approaching, immediately try to redirect your child’s attention: say “Let’s go get your teddy,” or “I bet you can’t jump up and touch the sky!” Or try distracting your little one: “Look at that little boy over there.” Your best bet is to try to divert his attention long enough to reroute his energy. Do know the technique doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a stab.
Use Feeling Words and Calming Methods
One of the biggest reasons toddlers use tantrums is due to frustrations. They simply don’t have the words to express their wants and needs, nor the maturity to gauge their emotions, so you’ll need to be their self-regulator at first. Try rubbing her back, holding her gently, or humming a relaxing song. Get down eye to eye, and talk in a soothing voice. Put your child’s feelings into words: “Oh, you look like you’re tired. Are you tired?” or “It looks like I have a frustrated little girl. Are you frustrated?” Pose a question that your child can answer with a yes or no nod. Your calming tone along with your “feeling talk” might just help temper a pending explosion.
Give a Warning
Depending on your child’s maturity level, try giving a warning. Use a Firm Parent Voice and give a simple stern admonishment letting your child know that his behavior won’t be tolerated: “Calm down, Jack. You know mommy doesn’t like that behavior” or “Stop that now, Kelly, or you will go to the Calm Down Chair.” A warning lets your child know that his behavior is not appropriate and if he continues there will be a consequence. With some little tykes, your stern reminder is all it takes. If you do give a warning and the poor behavior continues, you must follow through and send him off to the Thinking Chair (one minute per age of the child until calm). “Warnings” and the Calm Down Chair (or Time Out) are usually effective for children who are at least three years of age; sometimes for more mature two-years-olds but never before that age. Your child must be able to understand the concepts of a warning and consequence and possess a speaking vocabulary of more than a few phrases.
During the Tantrum:
Ignore, Ignore, Ignore
Once the tantrum starts, don’t give it any attention. No eye contact, no words, do not react. Once your child learns that her outburst “works”—that is she gets her way—she’s likely to try it again (and again and again).
Don’t Try to Reason
Forget trying to rationalize with a wailing, flailing child—it’s like trying to reason with a goldfish! Once in tantrum-mode your child is beyond understanding. Also, don’t coax, yell, or spank. It doesn’t help, and you’re lible to escalate the outburst.
Check out the surroundings. If there are sharp edges, glasses or objects that could hurt your child, move him to a “safe zone.” I would not recommend restraining a flailing child unless absolutely necessary for his safety or you’ve clearly discovered it’s the only method to calm him. Restraining usually increases an outburst (and you’re likely to be hurt). If you’re out in public, stop what you’re doing and remove your kid to secluded spot or take him home. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but he’ll learn you’re won’t tolerate inappropriate behavior.
After the Tantrum:
Don’t Stress Out
It’s over! Chances are you both are plain drained. So do whatever you need to do to regroup.
Track Your Response
Collect your thoughts, and then assess your response. Were you consistent with how you handle the outburst? “Calm consistency” is a key to ending tantrums so be mindful of how you respond to your child.
Get a calendar and keep notes. Is there a pattern as to when or where these tantrums usually occur? For instance, just before naptime because he’s tired; after day care because he’s stressed; or at noon because he’s hungry? Does your child have a tough time with change and need a warning that a transition coming? Is there anything you can do to change your child’s schedule that might help reduce his outbursts?
You can find more behavior makeover tips in my book, No More Misbehavin’ or at my website, www.micheleborba.com.