I won’t let him touch the hot stove – tantrum. I won’t let him run around the house with a pen – tantrum. He is unable to open a container – tantrum. His shoe won’t come off of his foot immediately – tantrum. I suggest changing his poopy diaper – tantrum. Luckily, most of his tantrums last only a minute or two, but we have had a few doozies thrown in the mix.
Being a psychologist, I have learned a great deal about how to deal with difficult behaviors. Being a mom, I have learned much more. I certainly have a deeper empathy for the pain parents feel when dealing with these meltdowns. The current blog entry highlights methods that often work for managing typical toddler tantrums. These techniques can be extrapolated upon and modified for older children, as well as those tantrums that may relate to more significant problems that warrant further attention (i.e., responding to serious external stimuli such as loss of a parent, medical/psychological issues, etc.). I apologize in advance if this one sounds more like a parenting blog than a mental health blog – but I think it’s a worthwhile topic.
Look for Patterns
Over the course of a week or two, keep a log of your toddler’s tantrums to determine whether a pattern exists. One mom reviewed her toddler’s tantrum cycle and learned that “it’s every morning at breakfast before daycare – but not on weekends. Then I realized I’m really rushing [my daughter] too much and needed to take 5-10 minutes to sit down with her, so I adjusted my morning and now it’s much smoother.”
With all people, clear expectations can make a world of difference, and this includes the littlest of people. We can forget to set clear expectations with toddlers due to time constraints, forgetfulness, impatience, unrealistic beliefs, etc. One example includes identifying the next two or three actions to be taken before doing something pleasurable. For instance, one might say sunblock first, shoes second, and then we go outside. Initially, the toddler may not fully understand, but the repetition with reveal that he cannot go outside until an adult has put sunblock on his skin and shoes on his feet. Eventually, as he develops cognitive and language skills he will know the rules more fully.
Many toddlers have tantrums in response to something being taken away from them. I find the “1-2-3 Method” to be very helpful in setting expectations in these cases, but it has to be done in a specific way. I must take things away from my toddler several times a day: pens, other children’s toys, rocks, sunglasses, paint cans, etc. The “1-2-3 Method” goes as follows. I say “please give the [object] to me, or I will take it on the count of three. One. Two. Three. Okay I am going to take the [object] now.” Then I remove the object from his hands if he does not hand it to me. Once I started doing the “1-2-3 Method” with my son, we started seeing significantly less tantrums. At first, we had to forcibly remove the object from his hands after reaching three. Now, he usually hands the object over before the counting even begins.
To make a brief comment on where the “1-2-3 Method” goes wrong, there are several important factors to consider when setting expectations. First, be sure to consistently and immediately follow through on removing the object from your toddler’s hands. Your toddler may still have a tantrum, but after a while, he will learn that if he does not choose to give the object back, then it will be forcibly removed. Secondly, it is less effective and unnecessary to turn the “1-2-3 Method” into a threat of extra punishment. For example, saying “if you don’t give me that [object] by the time I count to three, we will have to leave the park” will most likely not have the desired effect on the toddler and will like cause more stress for you. Furthermore, simply taking the object away is punishment enough, why add an extra punishment to the mix? Lastly, do not take the object before you reach three. You set an expectation and if you stick with it, you will experience the benefits.
The other major culprit of tantrums: NO. Toddlers hear a lot “no” from parents, caregivers, random adults, siblings, and even out of their own mouths. No comes in several forms: “don’t touch,” “no climbing,” etc. Setting expectations can be helpful here too. Furthermore, when possible, phrasing that incorporates what you do expect can be beneficial as well (i.e., “don’t touch the face” versus “touch feet only”). Sometimes, it can even be helpful to incorporate why the toddler cannot engage in the forbidden activity. For instance, “be gentle, we don’t want to hurt the doggie” or “hands away baby’s face, or we have to leave the pool.”
Frankly, I find the positive phrasing and explanation parts of expectation-setting to be very difficult and probably get it right about 20% of the time. A firm “no” can be so much easier (and sometimes more effective in the short-term) than “leave the knife, it’s sharp and can hurt you.” In the long-run, however, I want my toddler to develop good critical thinking skills and I know the longer “explanation-ridden,” positive statement aids in the cultivation of such skills better than a simple “no.” With that being said, I have been practicing positive phrasing and brief explanations for rules since my son was one day old with the mindset that it is practice. At 18 months, he may not fully understand that knives are sharp and can hurt, but I am practicing better communication so when his comprehension skills improve, my son will eventually understand the rules rather than blindly following them “because I said so.”
Remembering that tantrums often result from having little control over the environment, options can be important. The most effective way to give options to toddlers is to offer two specific healthy choices, in which you have no preference. For instance, you may say “would you like to use the orange fork or the blue fork with dinner tonight?” Implied in the question is “you will eat dinner,” “I am not making a new dinner because you don’t like this one,” and “cookies are not dinner.” To reiterate, it is very important that you are perfectly okay with both choices. If you find yourself thinking, “please don’t choose option B” or testing “option A is the better choice, let’s see if he gets it right” do not offer option B and figure out another way to integrate choice into the situation.
Verbalizing empathy is usually a good first step when dealing with anybody who feels upset about anything. Your wife is crying because she lost her favorite jacket? Before you say “we can buy a new one,” tell her that it makes sense that she is sad. Similarly, if your 18-month-old toddler is on the floor crying hysterically because he is not allowed to play with scissors empathize with the frustration or disappointment he is trying to communicate. Believe me; I know the temptation to say “it’s not that big of a deal” or to remind him that “you can’t play with scissors, that’s just the way it is.” Embarrassingly, I have even asked my toddler “why are you being such a baby?” and I have had those moments where I have sarcastically thought “oh, your life is so hard!” These reactions do little to help the situation. The best first step, though, is to say something like “it is frustrating when someone takes something from you that you want.” Even a simple “wow” with a respectful tone of voice can communicate a certain understanding that it makes sense that he is upset.
Now, will the expression of empathy stop the tantrum in the 18-month-old? Honestly? Probably not. It will, however, help you respond to your child’s unpleasant emotions with empathy, teach your child how to label emotions, and model how to show empathy to another person. Expressing empathy is a skill that takes time to develop. Labeling emotions is a very important first step to managing unpleasant feelings (“name it to tame it!”). If you can empathize with your 18-month-old, you will be able to do it effortlessly with your 5- 15- and 25-year-old. While a toddler usually needs more than empathy to get through a tantrum, empathy is often all older children and adults need to manage unpleasant feelings. Read here for a discussion on the benefits of having an empathic child.
Respond to the Temperament
Temperament refers to a person’s natural predisposition and personality. Thomas and Chess identified nine temperament traits in children: (1) activity (high vs. low energy), (2) regularity (high vs. low need for consistent routine), (3) initial reaction (approach new things vs. hesitant toward new things), (4) adaptability (high vs. low), (5) intensity (high vs. low levels), (6) mood (positive vs. negative), (7) distractibility (high vs. low tendency to be sidetracked), (8) persistence and attention span, and (9) sensitivity (easily disturbed by changes in the environment vs. little to no reaction). Knowing your child’s temperament can guide you to respond effectively during tantrums and in normal everyday events. For instance, if you are having a high stimulation day and your child tends to be highly distractible and particularly sensitive to frequent changes in the environment, it may be important to set time aside for a mellow one-on-one activity in a quiet place for about 30 minutes.
I once stumbled upon this wonderful, simple chart titled “How to Raise a Happy, Successful, Cooperative Child while Disciplining Less in 5 Simple Steps." While I tend to be wary of anything simplistic when it comes to the important things in life, I have actually found this chart to be very helpful. The steps include: (1) start where they stump you by determining a hidden message in your child’s behavior, (2) identify your child’s true nature (fun-loving, sensitive, determined, serious – with some explanation), (3) interpret the tantrum and ask yourself certain questions depending on your child’s true nature, (4) be intuitive, not reactive (suggestions offered in the chart), and (5) enjoy the joy. Consider the chart in your approach to your toddler and his/her tantrums.
Here you are amidst a tantrum. You have empathized. You have a pretty good idea what the tantrum means in terms of your toddler’s temperament. It may be time to offer a distraction to see if it works. You are not bribing your child out of the tantrum, though sometimes it may feel like that. Invite your toddler to play, offer him a bite of food, or maybe even offer an acceptable variation on that which started the tantrum (i.e., he cannot play with curtain, but perhaps he can play with a piece of fabric?). Offer ONE and only ONE distraction, if he declines, allow the tantrum to happen for a minute, then offer another distraction. Sometimes I feel like I am frantically and desperately offering distractions. When this happens, I stop and remind myself to let the tantrum happen for about a minute, then (again) revisit ONE and only ONE distraction. Once you run out of feasible distractions, then it may be time to let the tantrum happen, which leads us to…
Safe Space, Let it Happen
Again, here you are amidst a tantrum. You may be at home, or perhaps in public. As previously mentioned, you did all the preliminary work by setting expectations, determining the pattern, and giving options. You empathized with your child. Perhaps you even found some ways to give him options during the tantrum. You have been responding to his temperament ALL DAY. You are out of distractions. This tantrum is happening and it is happening now. It is time to accept your limitations, admit you cannot control this tantrum, understand that it is okay for him to have tantrums, and develop a willingness to be okay with strangers and/or non-strangers to be annoyed by said tantrum. If possible, allow your toddler to lie down on a soft surface so not to hurt himself (my toddler will flail his body around, so I like for him to tantrum on a carpet or grass when possible).
Some parents walk away in order to fully communicate that they are ignoring the tantrum. This is acceptable and generally effective as long as your toddler is safe. I prefer to sit next to my toddler while he has his tantrum. I ignore the tantrum so he knows it is not an effective method to get what he wants, but my proximity lets him know I am available the second he has calmed down. If in public, it can be helpful to your sanity to look for the knowing parent who gives that “been there, you’ll get through it!” look. I swear these people are out there, and they are way more comforting than those who look like they are thinking “get that kid under control!” As previously mentioned, I am fortunate in that my toddler’s tantrums typically only last a minute, but we certainly aren’t immune to the occasional horrid meltdown (usually in the stroller or car, when I have very limited options) that lasts 10-15 minutes. The tantrum will not last forever. In fact, tantrums will not be the go-to method for expressing feelings forever either! Hopefully there can be some comfort in those facts. Sometimes the more we fight tantrums, the stronger they get – so this is a great opportunity to practice “going with it.”
You may be wondering, “What about time out?” I know some parents have amazing success with time out at this age, while others do not. Furthermore, I know parents who successfully decrease tantrums with time out, and others who reserve time out other types of behaviors. To properly discuss effective time outs with toddlers, it would be more appropriate to devote and entire blog entry to the topic. Consequently, the conversation on times outs with regard to tantrums will be brief and a bit incomplete as I have decided to reserve a more detailed conversation of behavioral modification for another blog, recommend some books that may help, and confine the topic of time outs to a few points specific to toddler tantrums.
Time out provides two related consequences: (1) an opportunity to remove the child from the situation that may be overstimulating, causing unpleasant emotions, etc. and (2) “negative punishment” as defined as taking something away in order to decrease unwanted behavior. The typical rule of thumb for time outs is to use the child’s age as a guideline: one-year-olds get one minute, two-year-olds get two, etc. As with any behavioral modification plan, the key components include a clearly defined target behavior, immediacy, consistency, rewarding rewards, punishing punishments, and a loving approach throughout the process.
My apprehension with time outs for tantrums in 18-month-olds relates to their cognitive and emotional development. At this age, toddlers have limited skills in appropriately expressing emotions. The target behavior (tantrum) may be the only way they know to express frustration, disappointment, etc. To punish the tantrum can invalidate emotions (i.e., it can communicate “you shouldn’t be so upset about this”) and does not necessarily teach the child to self-soothe. Furthermore, toddlers typically engage in so many time-out-worthy behaviors, it may increase parental stress levels to also approach tantrums with time outs. To use time outs with tantrums, however, one would want to clearly define a tantrum, immediately and consistently put the child in time out when the tantrum occurs, be sure the time out is not actually rewarding the tantrum, all while treating the toddler lovingly. Personally, I prefer the series of techniques discussed above when it comes to tantrums. Furthermore, positive reinforcement (i.e., praise, rewards) tends to have a more powerful long-term effect on behavior. At the same time, if you manage to get time outs to minimize your toddler’s tantrums – bravo!
Have patience with your toddler, but more importantly have patience with yourself.
If you decided to read this blog, you are most likely an awesome parent. This is not because you are reading my blog, but because you clearly have an interest in personal growth in at least one part of your life. Parenting is a big trial-and-error process. I hope all parents can be patient with this notion. Such acceptance and patience will make it a lot easier to be the kind of parents we envisioned ourselves being when we first held our babies in our arms. More importantly, patience will also prevent us from drawing catastrophic conclusions when we occasionally stray from that vision.
Note: These books have been recommended by many parents. A good rule of thumb when it comes to bibliotherapy: “if you get one helpful thing from the book, it was probably worth the read.”
- Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five by John Medina
- No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-of-Control Behaviors by Jed Baker
- The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful, and Cooperative Child by Harvey Karp
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel
- Raising your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents whose Child is more Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
- 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas W. Phelan