I never realized how easy I had it with my son–a tantrum would rarely occur, and when it did, it was easy to handle and was over in the blink of an eye. Then, my daughter came along. Don’t get me wrong, 99% of the time she’s sweet as pie, but at times, she can be described as a hurricane. A screamer, she lets everyone know that when she’s mad, she’s MAD. Yes, she’s a tantrum thrower. Completely unprepared for this sort of behavior, I didn’t know how to handle it. Knowing I’m not alone in wondering how to deal with tantrums, I turned to Breezy Mama‘s Go-To Child and Family Psychotherapist, Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D. for help.
What triggers a tantrum?
Temper tantrums are absolutely natural and expected during toddlerhood which I define as 18 months – 4 years of age. The goal of the toddler is to claim himself as a separate being from Mommy. He has many objectives to achieve during this crucial period of development. In addition to separation, his goals include self-feeding, language development, toilet training, overall control of his body functions, delayed gratification, self-soothing, and frustration tolerance. By age 4 years, I expect most children to have reasonably mastered these goals. Many parents do not know how to help their growing children reach these milestones. In those cases, kids have tantrums beyond the age of 4 years. The trigger for most tantrums are when your child wants something you don’t want her to have, or when she wants to keep doing something you would like her to stop. It’s that simple. There is a small percentage of young children who have tantrums for other reasons. They may be related to a developmental delay, anger, or a diagnosis that may not yet have been identified.
At what age do temper tantrums begin? Do they ever end? (kidding, sort of. . .)
Tantrums usually begin around age 18 months. The reason the old phrase “Terrible Two’s” became came about is related to the powerful tantrums toddlers can have. Tantrums usually climax between ages 2-3 years. As a child emerges into age 4, her tantrums should decrease in frequency and intensity. Yes, tantrums do end. They get better faster when the child experiences a warmly attuned parent who can acknowledge, validate, and accept the child – flaws and all. That means in the face of a powerful tantrum the parent supports the child in learning to calm himself down versus attacking with anger, submitting to the child’s demands, or abandoning the child by leaving the room. Narration is extremely helpful to the child. When you say out loud what your child feels and wants it helps your child develop self-awareness and understanding of his emotions.
Does a parent handle a tantrum differently for a two-year-old than, for example, a five- year-old?
A parent should handle their two year-old’s tantrum exactly the same way they handle their five year-old’s tantrum. Handling remains the same. Expectations change. A two year-old is at the peak of her tantrum’s intensity and frequency. A five year-old should no longer be having temper tantrums, except for the rare brief episode. Two year-olds have not yet masted containing their excitatory responses. When they get angry the emotion fills them quickly, often going from zero to ten in a blink. The steam can spew out of them like a boiling tea pot. One of the many crucial objectives of toddlerhood is for your youngster to learn to keep a cap on himself so that powerful feelings are contained. The best way to handle your youngster’s tantrum is seat him in a child size chair while you kneel behind him helping him stay in the chair by holding him (in a supportive way). Moms, keep calm – you are modeling containment. Say to your child, “Mommy’s here with you. When you stop screaming and pulling on Mommy, Mommy’s going to let go.” The idea is when your child is filled with rage and out of control you hold him in order to illicit his rage while being contained. That means his anger will get bigger before he settles down. If your child is too squirmy or strong to hold in the chair then sit on the floor Indian style (criss- cross applesauce) and hold your child in your lap facing away from you so he doesn’t hurt you or him. Say the same words as quoted above. When it’s over you can narrate what your child wanted and felt when he got mad. For instance you can say, “You wanted more video and got mad at Mommy when Mommy said it’s bath time.” Notice I use “Mommy” versus I or she. Toddlers have not yet mastered the use of pronouns. Children above age 7 years should not be held in the same way. They have emerged into a new phase of psychological development and you risk shaming the child.
When a child starts having a tantrum, what is the #1 thing to keep in mind?
Empathy. The key to effectively teaching your child how to manage her tantrum is dealing with her empathically, without anger or reserve. It is important that you remain calm. Do not attack with anger, collapse into tears, or abandon your child by leaving her alone in her struggle. Your child needs to know she is accepted – flaws and all!
When my three-year-old has a tantrum, I tell her if she’s going to cry and scream, then to go into her bedroom and do it. Is this the best way to approach it?
No. A cool down time in her bedroom is okay after your child is over four years-old. Under age four years, toddlers have not yet resolved the separation process so it is best to stay with your child and help her settle. Sending a three year-old alone to her bedroom risks the child feeling abandoned and alone in her struggle. You want your child to feel accepted – flaws and all. Stay with her and follow my suggestions described above.
What tips do you have when a tantrum erupts in public?
First and foremost, remind yourself that anyone looking at you in judgment likely is not a parent. Tantrums are not necessarily a reflection of bad parenting, but rather a child who is struggling with disappointment. Your goal is to support and teach your child how to cope with disappointment. Keep that in mind, front and center. Calmly say to your child, “Show Mommy how you can quiet down so we can stay in the store.” Wait a silent count to three. If your child is not winding down, take her clearly, swiftly, and without anger outside the store. Give her one chance to settle down and try again. If she cannot calm down or you return to the store and her tantrum erupts again, take her swiftly to the car and drive home. Tell her she is not showing you good store behavior today and we’ll try again tomorrow. You want to give her another opportunity without waiting too long. Everything you do must be done supportively and with guidance, rather than punitively.
When my daughter erupts in a tantrum, she usually just screams—literally just sits there and screams. Sometimes, I want to scream back so she knows what she sounds like. Would this be effective?
Definitely not. I absolutely understand your wish to retaliate and scream. Truth be told, some parents confess they want to slap their child into silence. Neither is effective for two reasons. First, you do not want to model aggression and show that the bigger, louder one wins. Second, although the screaming is getting under your skin and rattling your nerves, you do not want to give that power to your youngster. The goal is to demonstrate that her tactics do not get to you. With a child over age four years, you can take her to her bedroom and tell her she can scream to her heart’s content and when she is through she is welcome to join you in the rest of the house. If your child is under age four years you might try 87 year-old Family Therapist, Jay Haley’s approach of reverse psychology. I have done this effectively many times in my office with children in the climax of a loud tantrum. I say, “Can you scream louder…more….more….MORE!” The youngster usually tires quickly and gives up screaming.
Some kids have tantrums that can last for an hour. In these situations, I’ve heard that it’s best to physically restrain the child. Can you elaborate on this?
I have seen tantrums last for an hour in the middle of the night when toddlers want to be picked up out of their beds. When parents implement a clear, supportive sleep plan the child’s tantrums should begin to decrease in length and intensity by Day 4 of the plan. Parents should see the tantrums improve by then. Tantrums in the daytime should not go as long as an hour. If they do, parents should consult their pediatrician and request a referral to an experienced child therapist or developmental/behavioral pediatrician. As I explained above, physically restraining an out of control child is very helpful and often necessary. Restraint came be done by holding a child in a low chair or sitting Indian style with your child sitting in your lap facing away from you. If your child is so squirmy or strong you can’t keep them in your lap you can place the child on a carpeted floor face down and sit over his buttocks putting all of your weight on your own knees, holding his arms so he cannot scratch or hit you. As soon as he stops screaming and pulling on you, get up and praise his steps to calm himself and growing. You are not hurting your child. You’re giving him a chance to grow.
Is there a way to avoid tantrums?
Tantrums are an inevitable part of toddlerhood. Every child must, at least once, have a big hurrah hoopla of declaration as a separate being from Mommy and Daddy. The best ways to avoid tantrums are to always prepare your child in advance for what’s coming, changes, transitions, and anything out of his ordinary routine. Preparation is done in narrative style by talking through what she can expect. It helps to add a visual explanation with drawings or a large calendar you can illustrate on. Keep your young child’s life simple, uncluttered, and repetitive. This means don’t take your toddler shopping with you for your New Year’s Eve party dress! She will surely have a meltdown at Macy’s.
Anything you’d like to add?
Toddlerhood is the most challenging phase of human development for parents and the most critical one for children in the lifespan. Any adult that I have treated in psychotherapy in my private practice was found to be stuck somewhere in a toddler milestone. Toddlers must claim their separateness from their parents. This means, ” I am me – you are not me! Don’t tell me what to do!” That is their way of asserting and declaring control. During this phase they must also learn control over their body functions including toilet-training, self-feeding, delayed gratification, language development, coping with disappointment, and social skills. Toddlerhood is the time I prescribe parents, especially moms, to be all there with their kids. If moms work, choose an ever-present warm, nurturing, and firm caregiver. Toddlerhood is the foundation (bricks and mortar) laid upon which adolescence must resolve. Parenting is most challenging and rewarding when toddlerhood is done well. Good luck, Moms and Dads. You have my support and all best wishes for a Happy 2012 New Year!
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About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.
Her current book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.
To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.