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The Informed Parent

When Children Tantrum, Part 1

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jan. 01, 2001

When I was in the market last week, I saw a toddler in the throes of a temper tantrum. The frustrated mother had reached the end of her patience. The toddler, in the child seat of the grocery cart, arched her back, flailed her arms, and screamed at the top of her lungs. She kicked her legs, and tears streamed down her beet-red face. The mother’s white-knuckled hands held tightly to the bar of the cart as she leaned forward saying in a tense, barely audible voice, “Shut up. Just shut up!”

Temper tantrums in children often bring out the worst in parents. While it would be easy to judge this mother for saying, "Shut up!” to her child, in the midst of frustration parents sometimes lose control. When parents don’t know how to effectively work with a child’s behavior, they feel inadequate. Feelings of inadequacy result in either helplessness or revenge. Neither of these responses is effective in assisting a child during a tantrum. In this two-part article, we will explore strategies that allow both you and your child to emerge from a tantrum in integrity. This month we will focus on tantrums in the very young child.

Normal Development

Temper tantrums are a normal part of children’s development. Around the age of two, when children begin to develop a sense of autonomy or separateness from you, they frequently go through a period of having tantrums. These tantrums occur when children attempt tasks that they cannot do, when they cannot adequately communicate their wants and needs, or when they do not get their own way. These developmental tantrums result from frustration and a desire for attention. It is important to learn to effectively parent a tantruming toddler or young child; however, unless the tantrums continue or increase in number and intensity, they need not cause you grave concern.

Temper tantrums that persist into the school-age years are concerning. They can be frightening to both the child and the parents. These tantrums are inappropriate attempts to control others or the environment. Too often they result in power struggles between parent and child.

The Cycles of a Tantrum

Cycles occur throughout nature. Some cycles, like the waxing and waning of the moon, are short. Other cycles are so long that they expand beyond the lifetime of a human. We become acutely aware of cycles as we watch the seasons come and go. The cycles of human behavior may not initially be as obvious as changing season. They exist, though, and to effectively parent, we must be aware of them.

The cycle of a tantrum, left to run its course, is quite clear. Initially the child exhibits signs of agitation. The agitation moves into frustration. The frustration escalates into a tantrum. The tantrum de-escalates into deep sobbing. The sobbing subsides, and the child seeks solace from you, from sleep, from thumb sucking or from cuddling with a blanket or favorite toy.

There are two times during the cycle when a tantrum can be diverted into positive behavior. The first is when the child is in the initial phase of agitation. The second is during the early stages of frustration. During the later stages of frustration and during the tantrum itself, your interference is likely to increase the child’s distress.

Diverting a Tantrum

Two-year-old Jamie sat on the carpet playing with her puzzle. She put the circle in the round hole and the square in the square hole. She struggled with the triangle. She pushed and shoved and could not make it fit the hole. Her dad, noticing her rising agitation, gently took her hand and helped her turn the puzzle piece so it would fit. Jamie smiled, dumped the puzzle, and started putting the pieces in again.

Because Jamie’s dad was attuned to her abilities, her moods, and her tolerance for frustration, he was able to quietly step in and assist her at an appropriate time so that a potential tantrum was avoided.

Assisting a child in diverting a tantrum requires sensitivity. Jamie’s dad guided her hand in such a way that more than likely she was not aware that he had helped her. It is useful to silently give assistance to an agitated child. A very few encouraging words can also be appropriate. The dad might have said, “Let’s turn this just a little bit.”

Stepping in unobtrusively to reduce agitation provides the best opportunity for achieving your purpose, which is assisting your youngster from moving into frustration. Focusing on helping can backfire. An independent two-year-old may just say, “I can do it!” and push your hand away.

Giving Choices

When children enter the stage of independence, they want control. When they do not get what they want, they may attempt to control you with a tantrum. Perhaps the child in the grocery store, discussed in the beginning of the article, wanted cookies. Her mother may have said, “No. We aren’t going to buy cookies today.” When she didn’t get what she wanted, and when the mother didn’t know how to effectively assist her, the toddler quickly moved into a tantrum. What better place to try and control a parent than in a grocery store with many people around!

When you offer children reasonable choices, you give them both your attention and age-appropriate control in their life. Two-year-olds can choose between two objects. In a situation like the grocery store incident, you might say, “No. We are not going to buy cookies today. Let’s see, shall we buy Triscuits or Wheat Thins? Let’s go find the crackers.” Give the choice early in the period of agitation. Your child is most likely to be receptive at that time.

Perhaps after you reach the aisle with crackers your child says, “No. Cookies.” You will respond matter-of-factly by saying, “Today your choice is between Triscuits and Wheat Thins.” If the child refuses either choice, sadly say, “I can see that you do not want to make a choice today. Maybe next time.” Then you make the choice.

Your child will not like this. It may elicit a tantrum, but you are letting her know that she cannot make you buy cookies with her inappropriate behavior. If a tantrum ensues, you have two choices. If you are very brave, you can complete your marketing while she tantrums. Do not give her attention. Do not have eye contact with her or acknowledge her in any way until the tantrum stops. This is very hard to do because you will probably feel embarrassed.

Your other option is to leave the market. Matter-of-factly but not harshly, take your child from the cart without saying a word to her and leave. This is hard to do, too, because you want to complete your grocery shopping. If you decide to leave, do not give attention until the tantrum subsides. Then acknowledge the appropriate behavior by saying, “I’m so glad to see that you can calm your self down.” There is no need for further consequences. The consequences were not getting to choose the crackers and leaving the market.

Effective parenting is not easy. In the early stages of teaching your children, you may have to give up some things that are important to you, like completing your marketing. Your willingness to do what needs to be done in tough situations creates a relationship with your youngster where she knows that you mean what you say and are willing to follow through in all circumstances. Parents who can learn to be consistent in difficult situations raise responsible children who learn to behave appropriately.

Get a support team for yourself so that when you handle a difficult situation effectively you can share your success. When you need more practice, your team can acknowledge your partial successes.

The Unavailable Parent

As you can see, you must practice self-control, consistency, and patience, when your child throws a tantrum. These are not easy traits to express during the stress you are probably feeling at the time. When children tantrum, they want attention. If you become angry, try to reason with your child, or threaten her, you are giving attention to a behavior that you do not want. Go into your bedroom or into the bathroom and close the door. Sometimes your child will follow you. If this is the case, the bathroom is a good choice because most bathroom doors lock. The child may beat on or kick the door. Do not respond. Very quickly the child will learn that until the tantrum stops, you are not available.

If you choose to use this method, consistency is very important. When you leave the situation, you can expect that the tantrum will increase in intensity. If you can avoid peeking to make sure the child is okay, after the intensity there will be a relatively quick movement into the sobbing stage. As the sobs begin to subside, you can return to your little one. At this point holding the child is fine. Do not address the tantrum but do say something like, “I like the way you have control of yourself now.”

If you do not think you can be consistent by staying absent until the tantrum is over, this is not the best method for you to use. If, in any way, you acknowledge that you are aware of the tantrum after you have chosen to ignore it, the tantrums will increase in number and intensity when the child wants attention because she knows that at some point you will be unable to stay out of the situation.

Some parents are afraid to leave their tantruming child for fear that she may hurt herself. If this is the case, take an emotional time out from the situation. Sit in a chair and stare at the wall or read a book. Do not look at the child. If she does put herself in a position of danger, without looking at her simply move her to the middle of the room where she cannot hurt herself.

What Will They Say?

The tools we have been talking about are considered logical consequences for behavior. When you do not give attention to a tantrum and do not give in to the child’s attempts to control you, you are using powerful logical consequences that leave both of you in integrity. In effect, you are saying, “I will not degrade you in any way. I will not, however, accept your inappropriate behavior. There are better ways of getting your wants and needs met.”

Do not be concerned about what others say, whether it is strangers in the supermarket, your own parents, or other family members. Effective parenting is hard work. Sometimes it looks messy from the outside; however, process often looks messy, and effective parenting is a process. Positive, effective parenting results in responsible children who know how to use positive behavior for getting their wants and needs met. It results in a family where the relationships are strong, caring, and where both children and adults respect each other.

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