Monday, June 22, 2009

Toddler Tuesday: 5 tips for toning down tantrums.

Why do children whine, cry and throw tantrums? Is it only because of their age, like a developmental gauntlet that they must put us parents through to be sure we will survive their teenage years? Perhaps, but I don't think so. It has often been put forward that toddlers throw tantrums because they WORK, I don't know about that either. Most of the children I have worked with over the years have certainly had times that they used the tantrum as a way to motivate parents to give them what they wanted, but more often it seemed to be more of an emotional outlet. One that they use to express everything from pain & disappointment to sadness & anger, but most of all, frustration. Imagine, you are old enough to know what you want, but not old enough to understand why your mom doesn't give it to you, or why it hurts when you bang your head, or why the boy at the park keeps taking your toy. The overwhelming onslaught of emotion could be quite overwhelming to you! I kind of think of toddlers as robots in a sci-fi show who have just received their emotion chip, and are having short circuits while figuring out the appropriate way to channel their new feelings. Even though there is no sure fire way to help your little howler monkey get through this difficult stage, I have five tips that might help smooth the process a little.

1. Be incapable of understanding whining.
Because your little one probably does understand that they have the power to communicate now, if whining gets in the way of you hearing them, they will tend to rephrase their request in a less whiny voice. Be careful, responding even one time to whining can make it more difficult for your toddler to believe that you cannot understand them, and if they become frustrated, it may make their impending tantrum worse. Also, though it is tempting to make a game out of not understanding your little giggle-bug's whines, this can lead to hours of whiny play, which might lead to YOU throwing a tantrum. It is best if you pretend that whining is a language that you just don't speak, and which doesn't interest you all that much (focusing attention on a toddler while they are whining can be interpreted as a reward for that behavior). If your toddler believes you, they will drop the whining in favor of a more effective form of communication.

2. Respond to crying by offering physical comfort.
When your sweet little sugar tart starts screaming and crying on her belly in the middle of the grocery store, the best response is to pick her up and give her some cuddle time. If the tantrum is an angry one, chances are this will not be something she wants and can make things worse, but at least no one will call the authorities on you. For most tantrums this response will work fairly well, especially if you are consistent. What you are teaching your toddler with this type of response is that screaming and crying are an appropriate way to ask for hugs and kisses, and that is all they are likely to receive when they engage in those behaviors. It's also a good way to keep your own frustration and anger in check.

3. "Translate" your child's emotions for them.
Since we can often tell that the reason our little Donald Duck has blown his stack is from frustration or another powerful emotion, it is a useful technique to use language to narrate your toddlers episode. For example: "You sure are angry! When I'm angry I like to stomp my feet(or whatever you do) like this (make a big show of illustrating what you do when you are angry). When dogs are angry they bark like this (make a big barking sound). When gorillas are angry they beat their chest like this..." etc. You can do this type of modeling and translation for your toddler with any of the emotions that you think are the underlying reason for the tantrum. Keep in mind that although frustration is most often the final reason things escalate to tantrum status, disappointment, embarrassment and anxiety are common underlying emotions that lead to the frustration as well.

4. Distract, redirect & change the subject like crazy.
It won't take too long before you are so familiar with your baby's moods that you can see a tantrum coming. Right then is the time to change the subject! Maybe you just remembered a half-stick of gum in your purse that you toddler could have a taste of, or you could burst into your little one's favorite rhyme or song. You could ask your little Einstein some questions about the things around you, or start a quick game of I-Spy. Whatever you do, steer clear of the sensitive topic. If all else fails, a tickle war will usually drive the blues away before they can arrive. It is a lot of work to drop everything and focus on your toddler, but it is a lot more work to drag a limp, screaming little banshee around town with you while you are trying to finish your errands.

5. Give in sooner.
Did you hear me right? Yes you did, I said "give in sooner", and I meant it. Actually, try to give in BEFORE there is a problem. When your two year old asks for something that you want to say "no" to ask your self first "why not"? Since you might end up giving in after a big tantrum anyway, be extra sure that your "no" is a reasonable one to begin with. So your funny bunny wants a lemon drop and it is an hour before lunch, is it really all that bad if you say yes? What if she doesn't want to share her new truck at the park? Is today the one time when she will learn the importance of sharing or will it just reinforce to her why she doesn't want to share if she is forced to? I guess what I am saying is, have the fight with yourself first, and if it is important enough to have a tantrum over, go ahead with your first response but be ready to defend your position no matter what. It won't help anything if you take a stand only to fold after 15 minutes of screaming, anyone can see that the lesson learned in this instance is very counter-productive to teaching your toddler better ways to express her emotions. This strategy is an old tried and true one, my grandma called it "choosing your battles".

I don't think there is any absolute solution that will prevent every tantrum, if there is I haven't found it yet. But tantrums don't have to last forever, with a little understanding and strategy they can be shorter and fewer in number. I know that for myself I still throw little tantrums from time to time, and they are almost all based in a feeling of being out of control and the frustration that comes from being misunderstood. I think about that when I see my son scrunch up his eyes and stick out that adorable bottom lip. Keeping a broader perspective helps me not to take things personally, and that helps us both get over the tantrum faster. I hope if you find these tips helpful you will forward them to any new or expecting parents, or parents of toddlers you know. Questions and comments are always welcome. Happy parenting!

1 comment:

  1. Child Behavior Modification is so tough. There are moments that yelling at them is not enough. Tantrums in toddlers start when they want something which they cannot get or even when you do what they don't want to.

    According to Tantrum Toddlers Researcher, the best way to deal with toddlers tantrums is to create the best activities that are fun and educational. You have to remember that at this is the stage, child adopts all things that happen around him. This is also the best time to allow your child into different activities.