Parenting Perspective: Tamping down temper tantrums

February 24, 2011 8:17:59 AM PST
One of the easiest places to take my son is the supermarket. He seems to like the bright, diverse displays... not to mention the occasional apple slice or tortilla chip sample. Last weekend, he was smiling and singing as we went into the store, but before long things changed drastically.

He began to cry and scream inconsolably. He would reach for me to pick him up and then immediately squirm to be put down, over and over again. I offered cookies, crackers, water -- nothing worked. He finally hit the floor and began to do the inchworm along the broccoli display in the produce section, screaming and flailing even harder when I tried to pick him up. And, as the sugar on top, I realized my kid was also missing a shoe.

All the while, it felt like a mysterious spotlight had hit us, with every other shopper seeming to walk by and stare at us like a terrible zoo exhibit. Finally, a lovely grandmother rushed in. "Darling, what do you think he wants? Maybe a piece of bread?" She stayed with me as I walked my shrieking baby through the store, looking for his shoe and helping me catch him as he yet again reached to be picked up and then dive bombed back to the ground.

Finally we hit the yogurt display. As I waved a container of apple and cereal good stuff in front of him, he finally pulled out of his tailspin. "Yeah?!" he sang out. And five minutes later he was laughing between bites and flirting with the check out girl.

"Yeah, they talk about the Terrible Twos," my sister sympathized later. "But what they don't tell you is that starts the second year of life, not at two."

Indeed, the research shows tantrums start around one and can last until 4, though they should decrease in frequency and length.

From the kid's perspective, the meltdowns make sense. I can tell my son understands a good deal of what I say, but he can only say about five words. That inability to make yourself clear is incredibly frustrating.

As well, some call the toddler stage "First Adolescence." Just like preteens, toddlers want more control and independence and are keen to test your boundaries.

So what do you to avoid disaster at the dry cleaner or drama at dinner?

Here are some tips I'm going to use during the next storm :
*Document: On his site, famed pediatrician Dr. William Sears recommends looking for the pattern. You'll find there tends to be a time or a situation that leads most often to a tantrum.
*Divert and distract: suggests changing rooms or environments to jar kids out of the tempest. Offer up a new object, book or game to take the attention from the thing they cannot have. I find even if I ask my son a question, it can distract him from his upset, as he tries to understand and process what I'm asking.
*Question and Surrender: When you child starts to gin up over something, ask yourself if it's something you could actually let them have or do, rather than reflexively digging in your heels.

Also, look for little things your child can control around a decision. For example, brushing their teeth is not negotiable. In fact, the site for the National Association for School Psychologists is very clear: "Do not ask children to do something they must do when you ask. Do not ask 'Would you like to eat now?' Say 'It's suppertime now'."

But still, see if you can find a decision they can make around the non-negotiable event. For example, ask if they want to brush their teeth before or after bath. The teeth brushing still gets done, but the toddler is focused on his little exercise of power.

*Keep Cool. My little guy's explosion was upsetting and embarrassing. But I knew that getting upset or swatting him was absolutely the wrong thing to do, especially as I'm focused on getting him to stop hitting. Instead, all the websites advise keeping your calm and becoming increasingly stoic as the tantrum goes on.

If it is a safe environment, you can try ignoring the tantrum for a short while. If that's not possible, remove the child to a place that's quieter and safe. In some cases, that may even mean cutting an event short and heading home.

The message you need to be clear to send is that you waiting for the child to calm down before moving forward. You can praise or hug them as they get it together.

But again all the sites are certain: The result of a tantrum cannot be that the child gets the activity, object and control they wanted before they started to wail. Letting them not go to bed yet, have another cookie, watch another video or wear the pink pants even though they are filthy sends a terrible message: A tantrum leads to getting my way.

I know this is a big topic and there may be all kinds of homegrown wisdom you have. Share your best tips with me on my Facebook page. I'll follow up next week with a column on your best ideas.

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