Tantrums are part of a developmental phase that all toddlers go through to some degree. A tantrum may range from a cross face through to World War III in intensity and volume! Some may last for seconds, but others may feel like the 100 year war! It is usually only a few minutes of frustration and annoyance before they have calmed down and continue in another direction. It is less common that a child will continue for very long – even half a day can feel like an eternity for both the parent and the child. And as parents, we can usually prevent or at least help our child manage this behaviour by becoming aware of their potential triggers, teaching them ways of communicating their feelings, and helping them to calm down during and after their tantrum.
Be aware, many parents and authors talk about the “terrible twos”. As a parent of 4 bright and healthy children and having already studied developmental psychology by that time, I fully expected the tantrums and inappropriate behaviours. Days before each of their third birthdays I boasted that I had easily survived their second year without any challenges. And then they turned three? I am not alone in this observation, so do not view this stage as a discrete period of time. It can be any time from around 18 months through to the age of 3. If they continue for a long time after that, (there are 12 year olds who still have tantrums – think of Veruca in ‘Willy Wonka’) then look at the way that you react to your child’s behaviour.
Are you ‘caving in’ to their desire? If you give them what they are screaming for, then they learn that this behaviour will get them what they want.
Are you paying them attention when they are screaming and yelling? If you are, then they learn that this is a good way of having their parent notice them (even if it is in a negative way and you are yelling at them).
Here is a common example of a parent’s interaction with their toddler. Mum is having coffee with a friend. The child is playing with some toys on the floor, but wants to play outside in the garden. He comes up to mum and asks her to open the door, but she says “No” because she does not want him to get dirty. The child asks again and again, but the mum continues her conversation. He tries to open up the door but is unsuccessful. He is tired and becomes frustrated because he cannot get it open and reacts by having a full blown tantrum. At this point, the mother feels guilty because he clearly wanted to go outside, and she realised that it really did not matter if he got a little bit dirty, so she helps him to calm down, then opens the door for him? Unfortunately, this mother has taught her child that the only way to get what he wants is to behave in this manner. We could debate whether or not it was right to stop him from going outside in the first place, but after she said “no” to his request, changing her mind after the event was teaching him to tantrum to get his way! I am sure every one of us can identify with this scenario.
Now, after demonstrating what not to do when dealing with tantrums, here are some suggestions of what you can do to help your child pass through this phase as quickly and well as possible.
If you know that your child is tired and wants to do something that is unsafe (eg. open the kitchen cupboards), then try to divert him or her away from the task by giving the child something else to do. If you can distract them, you can avoid a huge tantrum. You can catch it early by giving them a hug, a cuddle, or go for a short walk, so you will be less stressed!
Take your child away from the situation that is causing stress. Find a quiet place with few distractions for your child to calm down (you can either hold your child or remain close by depending on the circumstances).
Try not to have too many restrictions in his or her life. If a child hears the word “no” all the time, then they are more likely to become frustrated. Provide plenty of opportunities to make decisions and develop their independence.
As with the earlier example, do not cave in, regardless of whether you should have said “no” in the first place. We do not want them to learn that screaming and crying will get them what they want!
If you are going out, make sure that you have packed a little bag of “surprises” for your child to play with and eat. Also, ensure that they have had a good sleep before you leave for your destination.
We must keep our cool when our child is out of control. It shows our toddler how to behave when we are frustrated. We also must demonstrate to the child that their tantrum is NOT going to get them what they want. If you cannot maintain a calm exterior, turn away or leave the room (if safe to do so) until you calm yourself down.
Remember, tantrums are a normal phase for toddlers. Do not get angry with them because of their behaviour – these tantrums scare them! They feel out of control and do not have the resources to deal with frustrating situations in a more helpful manner. Try to calm them down and give them reassurance that you love them and that they are fine. Teach them to use more language to identify their feelings (eg. You’re feeling angry because you were not able to open the door) so in the future they will be able to tell you how they feel rather than having to show you!
By Sally-Anne McCormack M.A.P.S.
Dip T (Psych Maj); Postgrad Dip Psych (Ed); B Ed: M Psych (Ed & Dev)