Almost every parent of a toddler is quite familiar with the unpleasant screaming, stomping, and flailing that can follow denying a child something they want. It can be challenging for parents to come up with an effective plan for handling tantrums. Often parents vacillate back and forth between challenging their child in a battle of wills, and trying anything to mollify them.
I’ve heard parents describe some really strange behavior they use because they are too afraid of dealing with their screaming and crying child. Parents can become enslaved while their child gains utter control over the relationship.
Bending over backward to please a child or engaging them in a battle will both increase the severity of tantrums and encourage them to continue such behavior well past the time they should have grown out of it. It can really be a confusing puzzle for parents to solve. Luckily, there are some techniques that can quickly restore a parent back to their proper role.
Identifying a Tantrum
First, it’s important to distinguish a tantrum from common childhood crying. Applying the following techniques at the proper time will ensure their effectiveness. First and foremost, a tantrum is a demand. A tantrum is when someone threatens to scream, cry, and even cause destruction, in order to force you give them what they want.
A tantrum is not when a child is hurt, sad, exhausted, hungry, or scared. The following techniques are not intended for those issues. It’s perfectly appropriate to take care of your child at those times. Infants cry and scream, but they have entirely different reasons for doing so. Children with developmental delays may need some special consideration.
Between 18 months and 2 years old is the appropriate time to begin working through this issue. For a variety of reasons, it’s very important to pay close attention to your child. Doing so will help you determine whether your child is threatening you, or if they are truly under duress.
Deep Breaths and Staying Calm
The first thing I do when coaching parents on how to deal with a tantrum is to encourage them to stay calm and relaxed. Sure it’s unpleasant, but a tantrum is nothing to be afraid of. It’s perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate for your child to tantrum. The more a tantrum spins you out of control, frustrates you, or enrages you, the more easily the child can use it to control you. By staying calm, you are staying in control. When you have a plan and know what to do, there is nothing to worry about.
Actively Ignore the Tantrum
Whether giving in to or fighting against a tantrum, both can lead to more of the same. You don’t have to give the child what they want, and you don't have to allow them to get a rise out of you either. The best thing is to simply turn your attention and your eyes away from them and ignore them. At first, this will normally elevate the tantrum. You can block their hand with yours if they try to hit you, get in front of them if they try to break things, and protect them if they flail.
There are a couple of things you can do to speed the tantrum toward resolution. Let them know once or twice what they need to do to get your attention back. In a calm voice you can say “when you calm down and ask nicely, I’ll listen to you.” If there’s another child that’s not tantruming, you can comment how nice and pleasant it is to be around that child, or you can just comment on what your child could do instead of having a tantrum. “Billy is waiting so patiently for his lunch” or “When Tommy calms down, we can sing a song together” are good examples.
Give Positive Attention
As soon as your child calms down, you can immediately shift your positive, loving attention back toward them. Comment specifically on how they calmed down and how you’re ready to listen to them since they’re being gentle and friendly. Attention is the key here. The more attention you pay to your child, the more they will notice your ignoring. Doing it this way, you make a clear distinction between allowing the child to get your attention by acting in a positive way, as opposed to ignoring them when they negatively demand something of you.
Allow your child time to cool down. Don’t proceed to get into an argument with them about what they were demanding or you may reignite the tantrum. Instead, you can empathize with them: “I know you want lollipops for lunch, [using humor] you wish the whole world would turn into a lollipop so you could munch, munch, munch it all up.”
Offer choices to redirect them toward something you want them to have: “Right now you can have an apple or a sandwich.” The more enthusiastically you describe the choices, the more enticing they are to the child. You can say the apples are shiny and delicious, the sandwich has your favorite pickles, or “that game is so much fun.” In fact, by empathizing and redirecting, you can avoid some tantrums before they start.
Tantrums can be such a challenge that some parents call toddlers the ‘Terrible Twos’ and this behavior can even last well beyond that. In working with parents with toddlers, I have seen these techniques prove their effectiveness again and again. Tantrums are often reduced in a matter of days or weeks when they are applied effectively. However, it does take some practice and there is some art to it. If you’re still not having any luck, send me an email and I’d be happy to address some more specific instances in future articles.
Michael Courter is a clinical social worker, family therapist, and entrepreneur in Northern California. All the advice and answers provided by the columnist are general in nature and are intended to be used for educational and/or entertainment purposes only. Information provided in this column is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific medical or psychological advice. You can email Michael at email@example.com