Caution: Tantrum ahead
Why toddlers have meltdowns, and what you can do to diffuse them.
Carol Chaffin Published: 12/13/2017
If you’re a parent, you know all about the “terrible twos.” If you’re not, you’ve probably witnessed a few: epic temper tantrums and complete meltdowns in grocery store aisles, parks and other very public places.
The odds of a toddler having a temper tantrum are about the same as that of the sun rising in the morning. But with the sun, at least you know when it’s going to happen.
Actually, tantrums are somewhat predictable because they usually occur when toddlers get frustrated due to hunger, being tired, bored, not being understood or not getting their way. What’s worse, the terrible twos come upon just as toddlers are starting to gain skills in mobility, dexterity and communication. Many act out as a way of exerting their independence and dissatisfaction when their wishes aren’t immediately addressed.
As they start walking and exploring their environment, toddlers gain a feeling of being more in control. A little freedom can go to anyone’s head, and in the case of a 2-year-old, it often leads to a power struggle with mom and dad.
“Tantrums are the result of a normal developmental process, and usually start as early as 1 year old and can last until about age 4,” said Terrie Andrews, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and administrator of Baptist Behavioral Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
“There is no common sense in general for toddlers,” said local pediatrician Thomas Connolly, MD, past president of the Northeast Florida Pediatric Society. “It’s ‘see it and do it!’ You’ll notice an increase in tantrums when a child’s limited communications skills make it difficult for others to understand his or her wishes.
“When an adult doesn’t respond to what the child is requesting, the child throws a tantrum or gets more physical in an attempt to get his or her demands met. As your toddler’s vocabulary improves, tantrum intensity will usually decrease.”
So what’s a parent to do? Do you always stand your ground? Do you compromise? Do you discipline?
The best thing to do in most tantrums is ignore them, quickly check the environment for safety, then leave,” said Dr. Connolly. “Let them ‘break dance’ on the floor while you walk away. Once they’ve lost your attention, the tantrum will usually fade as the child becomes curious about where you are and what you’re doing.”
Once a child understands basic counting, he added, you can start using the 1-2-3 warning system. But when you hit 3, you’ve got to follow through with a consequence.
A good rule of thumb for time-out length is a minute for every year of the child’s age. Find a place like a stool in the corner or the bottom stair for the child’s time to be served. A time-out shouldn’t be fun, so sending your child to his room where toys and games are accessible won’t be effective. Also, the bedroom is a sanctuary for sleep, so avoid making it a destination for punishment, he said.
When it comes to what you as a parent can do to reduce the incidence of tantrums, there are a few things to keep in mind. For instance, be careful how you phrase a request.
“Don’t ask children to do something when they must do what you’re asking,” Dr. Andrews recommended. “For example, don’t ask, ‘Would you like to eat now?’ Say, ‘It’s time for dinner, so come and sit down at the table.’ Pushing back and testing limits are part of their development, but it is how you manage the situation that makes the difference in how they learn from that event.”
Also, giving your child some control is not entirely a bad thing. For example, offering two choices for snack time or phrasing things in a way that lets them choose between two things can accomplish this: “Do you want a snack before or after your nap?”
Positive attention and reinforcement also helps, as well as staying in tune with your toddler’s sleep and eating schedule so she doesn’t get overtired or hungry. Understanding a toddler’s development is helpful, and creating routines and structure are, too.
At what point, then, do you know if your toddler’s defiant behavior becomes an issue that needs assessment and intervention from a professional?
“If the tantrums get more and more intense, it takes hours for a child to calm down and reset, the frequency of the tantrums is increasing, or family life becomes severely affected, I’d recommend seeking the help of your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric psychologist,” said Dr. Connolly.
“When most kids get upset, they usually move on after 10 minutes to something else fun to do. Issues with hearing, the possibility of an autism spectrum disorder, underlying anxiety or fears about something, or if there’s abuse: these are all conditions to consider as the foundation of this type of behavior and you should reach out for help.”
Tips for handling a control-hungry toddler
- Remain calm and do not argue with the child.
- Try to intervene before he is out of control. Get down at the child’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up. Slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.
- Positively distract the child by getting her focused on something else that is an acceptable activity.
- Once the child calms down, give him the attention he desires.
- Most importantly, talk with your child once she has calmed down. After the crying stops, discuss the problem, try to help solve it and introduce some coping skills for future situations.