Monday, July 19, 2010

Let’s Talk about Tantrums Part 3. Preventing and Coping with Tantrums

Toddlers have tantrums in response to day-to-day frustrations and conflicts. For example, toddlers may spin out of control when they can’t put their socks on or get you to buy them candy. Tantrums are unpleasant for everyone, especially if they happen in public places. For many parents, giving in to the child’s demands may seem like the only way to deal with the screaming and flailing; other parents see swift punishment as the only answer. Neither of these extremes is likely to help the child or the parent. Fortunately, babies and toddlers are predictable and easily distracted. They also are smaller and easier to contain than older children. Responding early and quickly to your toddler’s signals can go a long way in keeping things under control.

Toddlers in the Real World

While traveling, I’ve been able to watch a lot of infants and toddlers in airports. I’ve seen some very wise and experienced parents deal with meltdowns. Just the other day, I watched a 2-year-old girl start to fuss about taking off her shoes in the security line. As her mother tried to take them off, the toddler plopped down on the floor, pulled her feet away, buried her head in her hands, and started to cry. This very experienced mom realized right away that this was going to be a manageable tantrum. She got down close to her daughter and encouraged her to use words instead of tears. Then, with a childlike lilt in her voice, she told her daughter that when they got on the other side of security, they would see big airplanes. After a moments’ hesitation, the toddler hopped up into her mom’s arms asking where the airplanes were. Later the same day, I watched a furious mom pulling her screaming toddler by the arms yelling that she had better walk “or else.” The screaming kept going even after they were out of sight.

An Ounce of Prevention

By the time your child is between 12 and 24 months old, you’ve had a lot of time to get to know each other. You’ve learned what makes your child angry, frightened, sad, or frustrated. In the past, you soothed away these emotions or provided some effective distraction. As your child gets older, the triggers for these emotions remain essentially the same, but the response is likely to be louder and longer. For example, if your child is frightened by loud sounds, taking your toddler to see a fireworks display is not likely to be fun. When you have a choice, plan your family activities with your child’s needs in mind, at least until your child gets a little older. When you don’t have a choice about your activities, watch for all the disengagement cues that you already know. Watch for signs of fatigue, fear, or discomfort and intervene before your baby loses control.

Steps to Try When All Else Fails

1. When a meltdown starts, parents have only a few moments to intervene effectively. Distraction is your biggest weapon against tantrums. Use it! When a conflict starts to escalate, be prepared with an attractive option. If your child can’t wear the red shoes, how about the magic green socks; or the special “going to the park” shoes? If possible, include a bonus trip to the park!

2. Help your baby use other parts of his brain. You’ve heard so many moms say “use your words” when talking to crying children. There is a great reason for this. When children are able to verbalize their emotions, they are better able to control the rising emotions. Of course, 2-year-olds are just building their verbal abilities. Help your child learn how to describe his feelings. Praise your child every time that the early signals do not end up in a tantrum.

3. Recognize the signs for a “big one.” Shorter, less intense tantrums will start with tears and just one other behavior (stamping feet or lying down). These tantrums will likely pass quickly if ignored or stopped with a few confident parental instructions. If, however, your child starts a tantrum with several behaviors, especially aggressive behaviors (like those in our picture above), your child is likely to need a lot of help from you. You’ll need to stay calm, remove your child, stop him from lashing out, keep him safe, and recognize that your child cannot control himself. Don't give in or try to distract your child. You'll just have to wait it out. Your child will escalate the tantrum and become increasingly angry for a few minutes. As he realizes that you are not giving in, his anger will turn to sadness and grief. This phase of the tantrum will last much longer than the anger. Don’t give in. Eventually, he’ll turn to you for comfort. He will have learned that 1) you won’t give in and 2) that you are there for him. Don’t worry what others might think or say around you.

You can survive this tough time. Toddlers get more control over their emotions and actions as they get older and their ability to communicate improves. You can help them work on self control but don’t expect that discipline will stop toddler tantrums. As children get closer to 3 or 4 years old, they'll have a lot more control over their bodies and feelings.

Next time: We’ll share some more information on crying!

Barlow J, Smailagic N, Ferriter M, Bennett C, Jones H. Group-based parent-training programmes for improving emotional and behavioural adjustment in children from birth to three years old. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(3):CD003680.

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