Taming the Tantrum
The picture of sweetness, until he is tired, in a grocery store, and armed with a can of frozen juice!
It was about 11:00 am. I was in a grocery store with a cart full of groceries rushing to get finished so I could pick up my #3 daughter from morning kindergarten. My precious son had already gnawed through a plastic package of string cheese, eaten a cookie the bakery gave him, and was at the end of his rope. He wanted out of the cart and now. Before I knew it, a can of frozen juice concentrate had been thrown from the cart by a screaming stranger, my darling son. Frozen juice flew everywhere and I had what felt like a crowd of people watching how I was going to handle this. There was one that I knew was shaking her head with a “tsk tsk”, one that was ready to call child protective services if I touched my child, and one that acted like nothing was amiss as she stepped over the can of juice on the floor. I was sweating and looking at my son with eyes of disbelief…”Really” I thought, “Now?” I had just wanted to finish this last thing on my list before kindergarten pick up….
The nightmare of parenting young children, the public temper tantrum. In defense of my son, I had done quite a few things that set him off that morning, but temper tantrums are a normal part of growth and development, especially through the toddler and early preschool years. There are a few tips on how to prevent them and how to handle them once they happen.
Temper tantrums are normal in the toddler and preschool years, but sometimes we “set the stage” for them to happen.
- Know your child’s limits. Don’t try to do too much. “One more errand” may just put your child over the edge. Temper tantrums are more common in children that are tired and hungry.
- Reasoning doesn’t always work. Trying to explain that your child can’t have a new toy won’t convince a toddler or young preschooler. Acknowledge that your child wants the item and that he or she is disappointed about not buying it. Be empathetic, not a drill sargeant.
- Limit the word “no”. This is hard, but stop and think how many times a day you say “no” to your toddler. Many times “no” is necessary, but often you can save the word for actions that need immediate stopping. Try giving an option rather than setting up a conflict or power struggle with the word “no”. Example: “We aren’t going to have candy right now, but would you like some raisins?” “You don’t want to put on your coat, but it is cold. Let’s put it on but you don’t have to zip it.”
- Make eye contact. Speak firmly. Give a bit of wiggle room. If you are making a request, be sure to get down to your child’s eye level and use your “mom or dad voice”. This is not a yelling, begging or whiny voice, but a voice that is firm. “I would like you to put your coat on now please. Let’s put it on and you do not have to zip it if you don’t want to.”
- Help your child with transition. Changing activities is difficult for children. It is not appropriate to think that a toddler or preschooler can immediately stop what they are doing and leave or change activities. Give your child a 3 minute warning, and then a 1 minute warning before expecting them to change an activity especially if they are enjoying it. Always set expectations before an activity too. “We are going to play at the park, and then head home for lunch and a rest.”
- Give a choice. Allow your child some control. Make your requests brief and clear and don’t overload them with explanations. Guide them in the direction you want but give choices. “Would you like to put your socks on first or your shirt?” “Would you like apples or bananas?” “Do you want to brush your teeth first or put on your P.J.’s?”
- Make things fun. Kids respond to fun and creativity, and it is much more enjoyable for you too! Let’s face it, picking up toys is not a fun activity for most children, but pretending to feed a lion (the toy box) can make it much more fun! Turn everything you can into a game. Sing silly made up songs as you get your child dressed or brush teeth, challenge your child to a race in picking up blocks, talk in a funny voice….whatever it takes to lighten the mood.
So what do you do when the temper tantrum happens?
- Ignore it if you can. Make sure your child is in a safe place and then turn your back and ignore. Stay near and be sure that your child sees that the tantrum has no effect on you. Don’t try to talk your child out of the tantrum. You can say “I know you are upset, or frustrated etc.” Explain the emotion in a simple sentence. No yelling or begging your child to stop. No giving in!
- If the tantrum is in a public place, you can pick your child up and leave. Go to a private place for the tantrum. Try the bathroom, a quiet corner, or just leave and go to your car. Staying in a place where people are around reacting will either fuel the tantrum or weaken you to give in.
- If the tantrum is escalating or lasts a very long time, you can try to diffuse it with touch. Sit next to your child on the floor and lay your hand on their back and speak softly…”It is OK, calm down.” It can be a scary thing for young children to feel totally out of control. Sometimes a calming touch will diffuse the tantrum. Do not pick up and hug and comfort, just a touch and a calm voice to help your child gain control.
- When the tantrum is over, give your child a hug and move on quickly. Don’t dwell about what happened or give your child a lot of attention for the behavior.
Tantrums will not last forever! Try to prevent them when you can, and then handle them gracefully when they happen. Soon with improved language and better emotional control your child will be able to handle frustrations and disappointments better. I guess no one said that handling a tired toddler in a grocery store armed with a can of frozen juice would be easy!
Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.