How do I handle my toddler’s temper tantrums?
The core skill that will help you through a temper tantrum is keeping your cool. Your upset will only fuel your child’s fire. Instead, use active calming techniques such as deep breathing to help manage these difficult, but developmentally normal fits.
As in any conflict situation, focus on what you want your child to do, model this behavior or state yourself, and notice any hint of success. In terms of tantrums, the behavior or state of being that you want from your child is “calm.” Your job is to focus on “calm” and model calmness yourself. This may sound particularly difficult in the face of a screaming 3-year-old, but can we really expect a 3-year-old to keep his cool if we can’t stay cool ourselves? Here’s an example:
Your toddler wants a bag of candy he’s spied in the grocery aisle. You say, “No.” He crashes to the floor, screaming. You're feeling angry, embarrassed, exhausted and at your wits end. You feel like everyone’s looking at you.
First, take three deep breaths to help calm the stress response in your body. Then, discipline yourself with the affirmation “I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.” Way to go! You’ve just set the internal foundation needed to teach your child how to handle frustration and become calm! Now you can address your upset child.
Be encouraging. Get down at eye level with him and say, "You can handle this. Breathe with me. You're safe." Scoop him up, hold him in your arms and breathe deeply with him. When his body relaxes a little, say, “There you go, you’re calming down.” Then tell him he has a choice, "You can sit in the cart and hold the list, or you can sit in the cart and hold your truck." Once he makes his choice, celebrate your success together, "You did it! You calmed yourself down and that's hard to do."
My book, Easy To Love, Difficult To Discipline, contains detailed information for wiring children’s brains for greater self-control (fewer tantrums in the first place) and helping children calm down so they can move through an existing tantrum more quickly.
What do I do when I think upset or a tantrum is likely to erupt?
Let’s face it; some situations are more likely to evoke upset than others. The keys to navigating these rough waters are composure, assertiveness, encouragement and choices. First and foremost, you must remain calm and in control of your own internal state. Breathe deeply and use affirmations to assist yourself in this process. Next, focus on assertive language with your child. Give an assertive command that paints a picture of what you want the child to do. For example, “It’s time to get out of the tub. Reach your hands up to the towel.”
If the child complies, say, “You’re doing it! Your arms are up just like this (model for the child).”
If the child refuses, say, “I’m going to help you start getting out.”
If the child complies this time, say, “That’s it. You’re doing it. It’s hard to stop when you are having fun.”
If the child refuses and turns or jerks away, notice the child’s body by saying, “Your arms went like this (demonstrate) and your head went like this (demonstrate).”
When your child looks to see what you are doing, take a breath and say, “There you are!” Then offer two positive choices such as, “You can get out of the water and into the towel or you can pull the plug and then get into the towel. Which do you choose?”
What can I do about my child’s chronic tantrums? She has a fit if she doesn’t get what she wants when we’re shopping. She demands to go home or refuses to leave when we’re out. She has bedtime and naptime meltdowns which include the usual screaming, screeching, and crying. Can I stop this behavior or is it just a phase?
A temper tantrum is an uncontrolled outburst of anger that usually arises from a child’s thwarted efforts to control a situation. The tantrum says, “I have tried desperately to make the world go my way. Now I’m frazzled. I can barely speak. I feel terrified, helpless and powerless.” Both children and adults have tantrums.
Tantrums are most typical for children between the ages of fifteen months and three years. These small children are battling between dependence and independence. Also, they have limited skills to influence the events that take place in their lives, so meltdowns do and can occur frequently. The outburst generally reflects the child’s inner struggle. However, certain parental practices encourage tantrums to continue far past the toddler years. These include inconsistency, expectations that are too high, undue strictness, over-protectiveness, overindulgence and lack of assertive limit setting.
Giving into children when they are having tantrums guarantee you will get more demanding behaviors in the future. You response to their upset teaches them how to behave in order to get what they want, and also how to treat other upset people.
Stopping a tantrum once it is set in action is impossible. Instead, our role as parents is to help our children move through their tantrums. In my book, Easy To Love, Difficult To Discipline, I explain how to help children calm down so they can move through their tantrums more quickly, and also how to wire children’s brains for greater self-control (fewer tantrums in the future). The following suggestions will get you started:
1) Discipline yourself first and your child second. Take several deep breaths before you begin to speak. Make your insides as calm as you would like the child’s to become. Then say to the child, “You are safe, you can handle this. Breath with me.”
2) Use empathy and reflection to help the child become aware of him or herself. Help establish body awareness by stating what you see: “Your arms are going like this (demonstrate) you face looks like this (demonstrate).” Then build emotional awareness by naming the feeling you believe the child is experiencing, “Your body is telling me you might be feeling frustrated. You wanted to buy something at the store.” More than likely, your child will be able to organize enough to say what she wanted, “I want a cookie!” At this point, validate the child’s desire and feelings, “You wish you could have a cookie. It is hard to not get what you want.”
3) Shift the focus to what you want the child to do and offer two positive choices to help her successfully meet your expectations. You might say, “You have a choice. You can have a snack in your car seat or have a snack when we get home. Which would you choose?”