How to deal with toddler tantrums

How to deal with toddler tantrums

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We’ve all heard the warnings that the day will come when our angelic babies will suddenly metamorphose into willful little monsters who will throw tantrums at the slightest provocation. So is it true that come the age of two our lives will be turned upside down, and if so, what can we do to make it easier for all concerned?

What is a tantrum?

The first thing to remember about tantrums is that they are not just the preserve of the toddler. Many adults throw tantrums too, and the triggers can be just the same as those for toddlers – most commonly, frustration, a breakdown in communication, resentment at unfair treatment and generally being thwarted in our attempts to get what we want. The difference is that grown-ups tend to be better-equipped at dealing with these situations, and this can be the key to understanding and coping with the toddler tantrum.

Tantrums can occur from 9 months onwards, and while the ages of 1 to 2 can often be the most tantrum-heavy time, that does not mean that by the age of three, tantrums miraculously cease. What does happen is that the reasons for the tantrums become more complex, and so often does the child’s behaviour.

Here are some of the most common triggers of tantrums:

  • Frustration at limited skills 
  • Communication failure 
  • Being denied something 
  • Rebellion against authority or resentment at unfair treatment
  • Infringement of territory, usually by other children
  • Feeling ignored or marginalized
  • Boredom

Hunger, tiredness or feeling ill can also be catalysts in the tantrum process, but are rarely causes in their own right.

Dealing with tantrums

There is no one-size-fits-all way of dealing with tantrums, and recognising the tantrum trigger is the key to coping with it. A toddler who becomes frustrated with his inability to complete a puzzle and kicks the pieces across the room, screaming, will be better calmed by your patiently helping him to do what he is attempting than by taking the puzzle away and giving him a time-out.

However, a child who deliberately seeks to disobey sensible rules set by his parents and throws a tantrum when caught in the act need to be dealt with firmly and made to understand the potential consequences of his actions. For young children, this can be hard to do (for example, teaching your child the dangers of walking into the road without looking), and the only sensible course of action may well be a strict time-out. A child who feels they are being ignored may throw a tantrum simply to gain some attention, and the clear solution to this kind of tantrum is to give them as little attention as possible, ignoring their behaviour and even leaving the child on their own, where practicable.

Ways of dealing with tantrums

If the tantrum is the result of your child’s frustration with their inability to master something, or communicate his wishes, be firm when explaining that his behaviour isn’t acceptable, but try to find a way of supporting and encouraging him as well. Show him that with a little patience and perseverance, he can succeed.

Ignoring

If your child is throwing a tantrum in order to gain attention, then the most sure-fire way to thwart them is to pay them no attention whatsoever. Leaving the room, thereby removing their audience, will leave them pretty crest-fallen. In the short term, they may up the stakes in order to try desperately to get you back, but after a few such experiences, they are likely to realize that they are not achieving their aim, and try other (hopefully more pleasant!) tactics instead.

One thing which can be hard for parents to grasp is that for many children, negative attention is just as desirable as positive attention. Pointing out that “everyone is staring at you!” may simply highlight a new benefit to public tantrum-throwing.

Time-out

If a child is being deliberately destructive or has lost control to such a degree that he may hurt himself or those around him, you may face no option but a time-out in his room or a neutral space where he can let off steam safely and hopefully calm down. Bear in mind however that some children find it difficult to calm down by themselves, and may need to be calmed down by an activity, such as reading a story or singing a song with actions.

Getting angry

One doesn’t have to be a child psychologist to see that shouting at a tantrum-throwing toddler is reinforcing the very kind of behaviour you are trying to stop. You are also likely to simply wind up your child even more, and in the older toddler, getting you to lose your cool has probably been their main aim all along. Keeping calm in the face of provocation like this will be one of the hardest tests you have to face with your child, but if you can manage it, it will pay dividends.

Averting tantrums

If your child regularly throws tantrums at the same time of day, or in the same kind of situation, try to find ways of heading off the tantrum before it occurs.

Diverting attention

Diverting your child’s attention at the crucial time can work wonders – try to find something that will capture their attention until the moment has passed, such as a simple game or activity. Keeping a child busy with something, however trivial, will give them less time to plan and execute their tantrum. Even a slight change of scene may head off the brewing storm – go outside, or even into a different room.

Preventing tiredness and hunger

Hunger and tiredness are often contributing factors, so having a supply of healthy snacks to keep them going, say, during an afternoon shopping trip, may help avoid a tantrum. Similarly, try avoiding shopping trips when your toddler is likely to be tired – if they are still napping in the afternoon, try going after their nap, or first thing in the morning, when they are likely to be awake and interested in what’s going on around them, rather than frustrated and bothered by it.

Giving your child some choice and responsibility

One of the prime triggers for a toddler tantrum is a feeling that they are powerless to make their own choices. For example, a toddler may regularly rebel against getting dressed in the morning. If you usually choose their clothes and have a battle getting them into them, try giving them a choice instead – narrow it down (don’t give them the entire wardrobe to choose from!) but let them feel that they are making the final decision. If your child is a nightmare to take shopping, try getting them to help you choose some of your purchases, or unpack the trolley. Letting your child have a little say in what is going on can often mean far fewer tantrums.

The aftermath of a tantrum

This can be a difficult time. If we have got angry with our child, we may try to compensate by giving lots of cuddles and attention once the storm has passed. What we’re doing here is really just assuaging our own guilt, and it won’t help to prevent future tantrums – far from it, if your child sees this make-up time as a reward for his efforts. Try instead to get a change of scene and do something active and fun, and be sure to praise good behaviour.

The main thing to remember is: once it’s over, let it lie. Don’t keep reminding your toddler of their bad behaviour – this just means that they are getting more as a result of their behaviour. Exhorting them to “tell daddy what you did today!” the minute daddy gets home will give your child another bite at the cherry, so don’t give him the opportunity.

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