This article was featured in Mother and Child magazine in English and Arabic
Almost every parent has been in this situation: you’re at the supermarket or a public place and your toddler or 3 year old is screaming and kicking on the floor! You’re wondering what happened and how do I handle this?? Most parents either resort to threatening their child to start behaving properly or they pick him up and rush out, but how effective are these methods and how long does the effect last? What is the most effective way to handling your toddler’s tantrum?
Reasons for Tantrums
First of all, handling a tantrum happens way before it actually happens. To start with, you must make sure your child’s basic needs are being met. A hungry or tired child is more likely to be more irritable than an energetic and satisfied one.
Next is understanding why your child is having a tantrum. At this age your child is having trouble controlling her impulses, she is also going through a phase where she is developing her sense of autonomy and physical, social, emotional, language and cognitive abilities. This can sometimes be hard to handle and overwhelming. She may feel a need to do things on her own but her body isn’t developed yet to support that. For example, putting on shoes or expressing herself verbally. These situations can be frustrating due to an inability to identify her feelings and express herself.
You should also keep in mind that lack of impulse control can play a huge factor in your child’s ability to control herself. The areas in the brain responsible for inhibitory skills as impulse control and delaying gratification (when your child persists to want the cookie NOW!) matures more slowly than other parts of the brain. By age 2, it’s development has started but won’t be well developed till about age 7.
Another reason for having a tantrum may be using it as a way to get attention. Reflect on your parenting strategy to decide this; do you respond positively when your child is not misbehaving? do you spend a significant amount of time correcting misbehavior? If so, your child may have learnt to get your attention through misbehavior.
Your child at this age is still developing the ability to share and negotiate. That’s why he may also resort to tantrums if he is refused something or another child is refusing to share or give a toy.
What You Can Do to Avoid Tantrums
With just a bit of forward thinking you can help your child avoid tantrums.
Make sure you provide an appropriate environment for your child; make sure your setting is child-friendly or bring along entertainment for your child (a simple box of crayons would do), check if your child will miss a meal or nap time while your out and make sure to provide an alternative. If you are going shopping, involve your child in finding items or counting them.
Foster your child’s autonomy and independence by giving choices and offer control. You can give choices in everyday situations like getting dressed, eating or bath time. Limit the options to two or three to avoid overwhelming your child. Also, try to avoid “Yes/No” choices. Instead, offer options like “will you wear your green or red t-shirt?” or “will you have your bath now or after dinner?”.
You can offer your child a feeling of control by letting her do things for herself; let her try to put her shoes on or try to feed herself. Remember to respect your child when you try to help. She will be more willing to accept your help if you ask “do you need help?” instead of rushing in silently and taking over what she is doing.
Realize your child’s developmental abilities to control his impulse and try to avoid temptations that may cause conflict. Remember that when your child feels overwhelmed comfort is more effective than correction.
Try to avoid confusing a real need for comfort with a way to get your attention. Only you as a parent can know your child well enough to identify when she is truly in distress or not. To avoid negative attention you can focus your attention on your child’s positive actions, try to minimize when you say “No” and use it only for few and important situations like standing on the sofa or touching the oven and ultimately ignore unwanted behavior if you realize it’s your child’s way of getting your attention (as long as your child is in a safe setting).
You can help your child identify feelings and express herself by using everyday situations to label feelings. When your child is crying or laughing use these as opportunities to point out and label how she’s feeling, just by saying “I know you feel sad” you are giving your child the words to identify how she feels. A great way to learn about feelings is singing.
At this age your child hasn’t developed the ability to share yet. Try to realize your child’s developmental abilities, most children develop this ability at around age 3. Don’t expect your 18 month old to share! By giving your child a secure and predictable environment you can help foster skills like sharing. Be consistent and follow through. By saying “you’ll get your turn” and consistently following through, your child learns to trust you, develops an ability to delay gratification and learns turn taking.
How to Handle a Tantrum?
So a tantrum was unavoidable, that’s O.K! Remember that your child is a person with feelings that can become overwhelming sometimes.At this moment he needs support and comfort delivered in a positive way.
- First, start with your self: As long as your child is safe, give your self a couple of seconds to look at the situation and approach it calmly. Remember to stay calm, you will really see the difference in your child’s response.
- Give comfort and love: hold your child and speak to her calmly and slowly. Tell her you understand she is feeling sad.
- Redirect her: Once you get her attention, try to calmly divert her to something else. Remember to stay calm and avoid being nervous or anxious.
- “Time-out”: If your child is still feeling frustrated, removing her from the situation may help. Take her to a calmer area and redirect her to a quiet activity like singing or reading a story. Once your child is calm you can bring her back to the play area.
- Ignore: Remember that some tantrums are ways of getting attention negatively. Try to ignore this type of behavior. By ignoring you are showing your child that this is not the way to get your attention. Remember to give attention to positive behavior, that way you show your child an alternative.
Great post. Your writing is wonderful (as in all last posts). Thank you for discussing those daily topics in such a fun and creative way. 🙂
Thank you Odelia,
It’s so fulfilling to hear positive feedback for parents as yourself 🙂
Nice post…can you add some personal stories, such as experiences with temper tantrums in the classroom?
I always feel bad for parents when their child is having a melt down in the store, shopping mall, or restaurant…I am always glad it is not me that day! 🙂
My daughter recently had a small tantrum in a restaurant and I remember thinking ‘Is her crying as loud to the customers as it is to me?’ and feeling like it would never end. In reality it was only a few minutes, no heads were turning out of disgust and all ate well!.
Thanks for commenting 🙂
I currently work with 1-2 year olds and sometimes with 2-4 year olds. Tantrums are more common for the older age group especially in situations where they are tired or don’t get what they want.
Besides using the techniques mentioned I am very persistent in restating rules. For example waiting for a turn. Children are always testing the limits to see how far they can compromise.
I also compromise when possible and show them visually how long they need to wait. For example, waiting till “Sara” takes 2 laps with the bike.
I always speak to the children in a calm tone. The kids know that when I rarely raise my voice, it’s for a good reason! Usually concerning their safety.
For classroom management I have also found removing the child from the situation to a calmer area very effective. I usually take the child to the story corner to read a couple of books before joining the group again.
I’ve only had one extreme situation of a child throwing tantrums for attention. I had to resort to ignoring after all other methods failed. As with everything else consistence is the key. Ignoring also doesn’t mean completely abandoning the child, I would always keep an eye on him and ask him if he would like to join our activity. I would advise teachers and parents never to use shame or guilt on a child, the effects will only be negative and feelings of shame and guilt can last through adulthood.
I never make the child feel bad about how they behaved. Teachers should avoid phrases like “Maya is going to sit with us and she’s not going to be bad (naughty) and cry like she did before “. This only makes children feel shame and makes them associate themselves as bad not their behavior!
I must say that in my experience of the child who was throwing extreme tantrums it was very difficult to be persistent. I totally understand when parents or teachers feel they want to give in. But the results were extremely worth it! He became such a happy child once he realized there were alternate ways to get attention and that he didn’t need to do anything for attention actually!
He became happy, helpful, started making friends,playing with other children and developed better self confidence. Even his speech started developing (he was slightly delayed) as he started using it! He was so consumed previously with constant tantrum fits that was all he did.
The interesting part is that his home environment hadn’t changed so he was still acting out at home! This is just an example of how much children’s behavior is affected by adults’ behavior.
As you said in your post, I believe it is effective to offer children choices, with both options being an outcome you approve of, which allows them to feel they are making the choice and have some control. I find this is effective, both at work and at home with my own child, during everyday, routine times.
Thanks for all your valuable posts, I really enjoy them. I had a question though,my daughter is almost three and I noticed these tantrums starting lately for small reasons. If she can not take off her socks or unzip her jacket. Usually she would come to ask for help but recently she started crying and throwing herself on the floor for the slightest reason. While crying she wouldn’t listen to anyone and would even turn violent if I tried approaching her even for a hug or kiss. Now I am applying the neglect strategy, when she cries like that I pretend I don’t see her and don’t interact with her until she has stopped. I encouraged her several times to use words and I try reviewing the situation with her to see what made her angry.
Thank you for your encouraging comment. 🙂
You are doing a great job by talking about feelings and discussing the situation with her!
Your daughter sounds like she is going through a stage of independence where she feels the need to be in control and do things for herself. Unfortunately, her physical development at this age is not helping her accomplish all the things she would like to, which is normal for children her age.
That may be the reason why she has stopped asking for help to unzip her jacket or put on her socks. While she wants to do it for herself she simply is not yet able to do so.
You can try monitoring the situation and giving her space to try things on her own, once you feel she is starting to feel frustrated (don’t let her reach a meltdown) offer her help. It’s important to ask her if she needs help and not automatically take over. She may be more willing to accept your help this way.
At this age children start feeling the need to gain control over their body and personal space as well. I know it might sound strange but when approaching for a kiss or hug give her notice, make sure it’s OK with her to continue and respect her choice if she refuses. I know it can be difficult but your baby is growing into a person with likes and dislikes 🙂 Giving her respect in these simple choices will help develop her self confidence and realization that her actions and opinions do matter!
I would advise only using the ignoring strategy when all others have failed and your child has learned that negative behavior can be a way to get attention. In this case, ignoring negative attention seeking actions is accompanied by positive reinforcement of positive actions like praise.
For children this young sometimes just comforting can be very helpful. She still needs you to help regulate her emotions since she is still unable to control them entirely by herself and it can feel overwhelming.
I hope this is helpful, I would love to hear back from you and see how you found these tips.
If problems of tantrums or violence escalate or persist there may be other reasons that need individual attention. Please free to post here or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. 🙂