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The Informed Parent

Tantrums and Time Out: Discipline For The Terrible Two’s

by Lori A. Livingston, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 19, 2009

Temper tantrums are a normal part of development. They are your child’s way of demonstrating his own ideas and independence.

Tantrums also indicate that the parent has been willing to say “no” to the child. When a parent says “no”, this actually encourages new brain development! Your toddler is forced to problem solve and think creatively about other activities he might be able to do.

Some parents worry that saying “no” will inhibit their child’s creativity, but this is the opposite of reality. Setting limits for your toddler by saying “no” allows him to use his imagination. Parents who do not say “no” consistently may have a toddler who does not tantrum or need time outs, but they will surely have problems later on. Children that have never been given limits will tantrum and hit and have other potentially bad behavior that may start at school age, when their teacher does set limits.

So, why is your child having a tantrum, and what can you do?
Toddlers have temper tantrums for three reasons:

  1. hunger or tiredness
  2. frustration
  3. demonstration of individuality

If your child is hungry or tired, you would feed him or provide a naptime.

If he is frustrated because he is not capable of doing something, such as trying to fit puzzle pieces together, the parent can help the toddler problem solve by saying “Let’s try this a different way.”

Most tantrums occur when a toddler is exerting his independence and individuality, often by resisting a limit on behavior. If your child is on the floor kicking and screaming in protest, or throwing any kind of tantrum, the best response is to walk away and ignore the behavior. A parent can also say, “You can’t hear me when you are screaming. I will talk to you when you are calm.” If a parent responds by trying to talk, coax, or bribe the child out of the tantrum, the child will recognize he can get his parent’s attention through misbehavior and having tantrums.

If you ignore your child’s temper tantrum, you are not harming your child. He or she will not feel abandoned. Instead, your toddler will learn what behaviors are not acceptable and that his parent will be calm and always be there even if he does something wrong.

If a parent responds consistently when a child tantrums, most toddlers will stop within six months. Time out is another excellent teaching tool to use starting at 15 - 18 month of age. It is best used when your toddler is defiant or participating in unacceptable behaviors with other children, such as hitting or kicking.

Time out separates the child from the environment of bad behavior. It teaches a toddler to obey his parents, and develop self control. It should be in a quiet place, away from activity and away from toys or distractions. 30 seconds may be all that is needed for an 18 month old, and perhaps up to 5 minutes or longer for an older child who should be ready to apologize for his behavior. Time out should end with the parent showing and reassuring the child that he is loved, and a reminder that it was the behavior that was wrong.

If you are worried about your toddler’s temper tantrums or behavior, talk to your pediatrician.

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