Ah, yes. Toddler tantrums. Does any parent get through these years entirely without them? If so, I’d like to meet you and shower you with gifts and awe. Already at 19 months, my kid has demonstrated an impressive vocal range and ability to fake cry on cue. Sometimes the tantrums are minor and fleeting – like not wanting to get her diaper changed – and sometimes they are…um, more intense – such as wanting a snack pouch that Mama won’t give to her.
Since my daughter is still early in her toddler phase, and because I’m expecting another kiddo in the spring who will inevitably challenge us with toddler meltdowns of his own, I’ve been determined to figure out how best to deal with these tantrums. Here’s my three-pronged approach: understand, manage, prevent.
My friends at the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development (full disclosure: I serve on the organization’s Board of Directors) have taught me invaluable parenting lessons, the basis of which is this: children’s behavior is an expression of feelings and emotions. A child is not acting out merely to act out…they are behaving a certain way because they are trying to communicate something.
This understanding has been a game changer for me in my short stint as a parent. For example, when Vera was finished eating, she used to throw her food on the floor. I would get SO FRUSTRATED and scold her and take her out of the high chair….until I realized that she was simply trying to communicate to me that she was, well, finished. She wasn’t throwing the food on the floor just to make me angry – she simply didn’t have the words yet to tell me what she wanted. So, instead of getting frustrated, we practiced an “all done” hand signal as well as the saying the words themselves. We also designated a spot on her tray where she can put food she doesn’t want to eat. It took some time and some messy floors, yes, but now it’s working like a charm!
Tantrums are the same thing: a form of communication. Understanding this has helped me immensely – it doesn’t mean I never lose my own cool, but it has cut down on how often that happens. This understanding feeds directly into the way I manage and, even more so, prevent tantrums.
Okay, so this is the one area I don’t have a ton to say. If it’s a specific, short-term task that’s inducing the tantrum – e.g., a diaper change – I try to distract as much as possible with funny faces, conversation, singing loud – like louder than she’s screaming. I also go as fast. as. possible. It has mixed results.
If it’s a more protracted meltdown – e.g., the pouch thing – I set my boundaries and stick to them. If I say no pouch, Vera’s not getting it, period. And I just have to ride out the tantrum until she’s calm enough to accept an alternative snack or move on to playtime (often she’s not even hungry when she wants a pouch – those things are like crack, I swear). There’s no reasoning with a child in the thick of a tantrum, so make sure they won’t hurt themselves but otherwise…let it go. However, once she has calmed down, I make it a point to talk to Vera about what happened and why she maybe acted that way – i.e., if she was feeling frustrated or scared or whatever.
As far as public meltdowns, I’ve fortunately yet to experience this one. The advice I’ve gathered from Hanna Perkins and other parents, though, is to quickly and without anger remove yourself and your toddler from a place where you’re disrupting others. I could see how this could help calm Vera down and give us both a chance to regroup.
A few things I’ve learned that my kid appreciates: tasks and choices…AKA feeling involved and in control. My solution is to give Vera tasks or choices when I know we’re about to do something that sets her off. To stick with the diaper change example, I ask her which color or style diaper she wants. Since she doesn’t know her colors yet, I usually show her two options and let her point to the one she wants.
Or if I have to cook dinner and she is mad because she wants to play with me (#mamasgirl), I get her involved with toddler-friendly tasks! Dumping in the ingredients I’ve measured out is a good one, as is stirring.
This simple shift has gone a long way toward helping us prevent tantrums before they start. Use this for a wide variety of scenarios: getting dressed (choose your shirt), car time (pick your toy, help me carry your lunchbox to the car), cleaning up (put these toys in the bin), and so much more.
One other thing that helps is managing the transition from one activity to the next – another Hanna Perkins gem. I try not to spring anything on my kid. If we’re leaving for school, I give her a heads up at intervals starting 5 or so minutes in advance. Then I tell her exactly what the plan is – “OK, time to get your shoes and jacket, gather our things and go to school.” Finally, per above, I get her involved in getting ready…”get me your shoes, etc.”
Phew! That was a long one. But tantrums take up a lot of our energy – physical and emotional! – so they deserve to be talked about more. Remember: it’s not your fault! It comes down to your child’s need to communicate something to you…your management/prevention techniques might look a little different based on your child, but hopefully, my ideas help some.
So tell me…how do you manage and prevent tantrums?