Almost every parent has been in this situation: you’re at the supermarket or a public place and your toddler or 3 year old is screaming and kicking on the floor! You’re wondering what happened and how do I handle this? Most parents either resort to threatening their child to start behaving properly or they pick him up and rush out, but how effective are these methods and how long does the effect last? And what is the most effective way to handling your toddler’s tantrum? Read to find out more.
Reasons for Tantrums
First of all, handling a tantrum happens way before it actually happens. To start with, you must make sure your child’s basic needs are being met. A hungry or tired child is more likely to be more irritable than an energetic and satisfied one.
Next is understanding why your child is having a tantrum. At this age your child is having trouble controlling her impulses, she is also going through a phase where she is developing her sense of autonomy and physical, social, emotional, language and cognitive abilities. This can sometimes be hard to handle and overwhelming. She may feel a need to do things on her own but her body isn’t developed yet to support that. For example, putting on shoes or expressing herself verbally. These situations can be frustrating due to an inability to identify her feelings and express herself.
You should also keep in mind that lack of impulse control can play a huge factor in your child’s ability to control herself. The areas in the brain responsible for inhibitory skills as impulse control and delaying gratification (when your child persists to want the cookie NOW!) matures more slowly than other parts of the brain. By age 2, it’s development has started but won’t be well developed till about age 7.
Another reason for having a tantrum may be using it as a way to get attention. Reflect on your parenting strategy to decide this; do you respond positively when your child is not misbehaving? do you spend a significant amount of time correcting misbehavior? If so, your child may have learnt to get your attention through misbehavior.
Your child at this age is still developing the ability to share and negotiate. That’s why he may also resort to tantrums if he is refused something or another child is refusing to share or give a toy.
What You Can Do to Avoid Tantrums
With just a bit of forward thinking you can help your child avoid tantrums.
1. Make sure you provide an appropriate environment for your child; make sure your setting is child-friendly or bring along entertainment for your child (a simple box of crayons would do), check if your child will miss a meal or nap time while your out and make sure to provide an alternative. If you are going shopping, involve your child in finding items or counting them.
2. Foster your child’s autonomy and independence by giving choices and offer control. You can give choices in everyday situations like getting dressed, eating or bath time. Limit the options to two or three to avoid overwhelming your child. Also, try to avoid “Yes/No” choices. Instead, offer options like “will you wear your green or red t-shirt?” or “will you have your bath now or after dinner?”
3. You can offer your child a feeling of control by letting her do things for herself; let her try to put her shoes on or try to feed herself. Remember to respect your child when you try to help. She will be more willing to accept your help if you ask “do you need help?” instead of rushing in silently and taking over what she is doing.
4. Realize your child’s developmental abilities to control his impulse and try to avoid temptations that may cause conflict. Remember that when your child feels overwhelmed comfort is more effective than correction.
5. Try to avoid confusing a real need for comfort with a way to get your attention. Only you as a parent can know your child well enough to identify when she is truly in distress or not. To avoid negative attention you can focus your attention on your child’s positive actions, try to minimize when you say “No” and use it only for few and important situations like standing on the sofa or touching the oven and ultimately ignore unwanted behavior if you realize it’s your child’s way of getting your attention (as long as your child is in a safe setting).
6. You can help your child identify feelings and express herself by using everyday situations to label feelings. When your child is crying or laughing use these as opportunities to point out and label how she’s feeling, just by saying “I know you feel sad” you are giving your child the words to identify how she feels. A great way to learn about feelings is singing.
7. At this age your child hasn’t developed the ability to share yet. Try to realize your child’s developmental abilities, most children develop this ability at around age 3. Don’t expect your 18 month old to share! By giving your child a secure and predictable environment you can help foster skills like sharing. Be consistent and follow through. By saying “you’ll get your turn” and consistently following through, your child learns to trust you, develops an ability to delay gratification and learns turn taking.
How to Handle a Tantrum?
So a tantrum was unavoidable, that’s OK! Remember that your child is a person with feelings that can become overwhelming sometimes. At this moment he needs support and comfort delivered in a positive way.
- First, start with your self: As long as your child is safe, give your self a couple of seconds to look at the situation and approach it calmly. Remember to stay calm, you will really see the difference in your child’s response.
- Give comfort and love: hold your child and speak to her calmly and slowly. Tell her you understand she is feeling sad.
- Redirect her: Once you get her attention, try to calmly divert her to something else. Remember to stay calm and avoid being nervous or anxious.
- “Time-out”: If your child is still feeling frustrated, removing her from the situation may help. Take her to a calmer area and redirect her to a quiet activity like singing or reading a story. Once your child is calm you can bring her back to the play area.
- Ignore: Remember that some tantrums are ways of getting attention negatively. Try to ignore this type of behavior. By ignoring you are showing your child that this is not the way to get your attention. Remember to give attention to positive behavior, that way you show your child an alternative.
Jailan Heidar is an Egyptian parent educator currently living in The Netherlands. She has a MSc. in Child and Family Studies from Leiden University. She specializes in providing parenting support to parents of children from 0-5 years through her website EarlyYearsParenting.