A few days ago, while walking through the neighbourhood mall, I came upon a familiar sight. A two-year-old child was lying on the floor, kicking and screaming while his poor, hapless mother with her hands full of shopping bags, was trying helplessly and with little success to calm her child down. The looks on the faces of people who passed by were either judgmental or sympathetic, depending on if and when they had been in a similar situation themselves.
We’ve all been there. Toddler tantrums are real and occur fairly often amongst children aged one to three years. Tantrums can range from whining to screaming, hitting, kicking, biting and in some cases holding of breath. As babies develop and move into the toddler stage, they begin to develop a sense of self. They begin to say and feel “I want this or I can do this.” And when they don’t get what they want or are unable to communicate what they want, they get upset. Their sense of identity coupled with their lack of language skills leads to them feeling frustrated and unable to communicate their wants and needs. Toddler tantrums are nothing but your child’s need to assert himself and express his frustration.
Some children have frequent meltdowns while others seem to rarely lose control. Most times, you will find that children whose language skills are more developed tend to have fewer toddler tantrums. For the rest, there are a few tricks of the trade to help avoid tantrums.
Always provide plenty of positive attention
If you see your child modelling good behaviour, praise him for it. “I’m glad you shared your toy with your friend.” “Wow! You finished all the food on your plate.” “You had a bath without a fuss today. Good job!”
Focus your attention on the positive behaviour
Tell him what you want him to do rather than what you don’t want him to do. Instead of saying, “Don’t jump on the sofa”, try “ Let’s sit on the sofa.” Instead of saying, “Don’t throw the blocks”, say “Let’s make a tower.”
Allow them to choose
Provide him with plenty of simple choices that are both okay by you. Toddlers feel the need to have some element of control in their lives. As they develop a sense of self, they want to be able to choose. By providing simple choices, you provide opportunities for them to exercise their options. “Do you want to eat rice or roti with your vegetables?” “Do you want to wear the red shirt or yellow shirt today?” In both cases, you are defining what they are eating and wearing but you are also proving them with a choice they can make for themselves.
Keep temptations at bay
Keep objects that they are not allowed to use, out of sight and out of reach. If you don’t want your child to be playing with scissors, don’t leave them lying around. If you don’t want him eating chocolates all day, hide them away.
Distract them constructively
If he does see something that he wants, use his short attention span and distract him. Start a new activity to replace the one that you don’t want him to do. Or change the environment and take him into another room. Introduce another object into his line of vision.
Pick your battles
If he wants something, question whether you have to say no. Is it going to hurt him? Is it going to harm somebody else? Is he destroying property? These are your non-negotiables. For the rest, there is always room for negotiation. If your child wants to wear his Spiderman outfit to lunch with your family, is it a battle worth fighting?
Know your child and his limits
Most tantrums happen because he is sleepy or hungry or both. Don’t schedule that marathon shopping trip at lunch time or nap time. Make sure his basic needs are met before you make your plans.
Inspite of our best efforts, tantrums may still occur. In that scenario, it is essential that you stay calm. If you also lose it, the situation can implode very quickly. Take a deep breath and try and understand what your toddler wants. In a calm and soft voice, say “I can’t help you if I don’t understand what you need.” Encourage him to take a deep breath and explain what he wants. Show him that you are trying to help. Offer him options. Give him the words to articulate what he wants. “Do you want to stay at K’s house to play for a longer time?” “Is that what you want?”
Assess why your child is upset. If he’s tired or hungry, he may need a nap or a snack. At other times, he may just need to be distracted to the next activity. If the tantrum is because he isn’t being allowed to do something, explain once and then move on. Don’t get caught in endless explanations that lead you to eventually give in. Children who may hurt themselves or other people around them should be taken to a quiet place to calm down. In some cases, you may just need to hold him close in a hug and wait patiently until his breath slows down and he’s breathing calmly again before you engage in conversation. If the tantrum is over a safety issue, like playing with scissors or fire or doing something dangerous, be firm. Hold his hands, look him in the eye and say no firmly. Don’t give in. Be consistent. He needs to know that No means No.
If you give in every time your child has a tantrum, he will use it to get what he needs every single time. You will be reinforcing his behaviour pattern. If your child is throws a tantrum after you say no and you give in to his demands, you will send the message that all he needs to do is throw a fit for you to accede to his demands. In these cases, stand your ground and ignore the tantrum. Teach him that his demands are likelier to be met if he asks politely than if he has a meltdown every time he’s denied something.
After the tantrum, reinforce the positive behaviour. “I was proud of how quickly you were able to calm yourself down to explain what you needed.” “When I said no, you stopped immediately. Good job!”
As your child grows and is able to express themselves better, their tantrums will automatically reduce. In the meantime, these simple tips should help pave the way through this transitional period.