Surviving Toddlerhood, Part 5: The Tantrums

Surviving Toddlerhood, Part 5: The Tantrums

This is a fun one.

Well, the tantrums aren’t fun, but they are inevitable. I have yet to meet a parent who has not had to deal with at least one tantrum. Are there any out there? I want your secrets.

Until those parents come out of the woodwork, I want to talk about tantrums today. I started working with kids over a decade ago. With kids come tantrums. With tantrums come a million and one ways to deal with them. Every parent, every child, every family is different. So I’m going to stick with my psychology roots here.

(Note: I am a behaviorist at heart. I’ve done Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) with children with autism. I’ve studied cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Everything I do with my kids revolves around behavior. Proceed only if you are interested in this. There are many ways to deal with tantrums and mine is not the only way.)

The first time I was actually trained to deal with tantrums, well, it was a little strange. I was working with children with autism and was instructed to keep a neutral face. That part, actually, is pretty important. Then I was told to give an easy, boring task like dumping out a bag of crayons and making the toddler clean it up. And then repeat until the child was calm. Whaaaaat??? I still don’t get it. And I did not appreciate having to sit there and force this small child to clean up crayons on repeat for a half hour. Needless to say, I do not do this.

Years later, I have learned other ways, learned them from psychologists and other professionals while a graduate student in psychology and while working with children with autism, at a different place.

Time Out

Let’s talk time outs first. This one seems to be, hands down, the most used route. And, let’s face it, it does work, when done properly. I don’t do this, except as a last resort. But the rule of thumb is 1 minute per year old the child is. It’s also important to remember that time out does not start until the child is quiet and calm. If he or she acts up in the middle of time out, time starts over. Most importantly, if the child gets up or misbehaves, don’t say anything. Calmly and quietly put the child back in place. Similarly, calmly and quietly ensure you and the child are safe and ignore the bad behavior. Once time out is over, this is the time to discuss what happened, what will happen in the future, and to still follow through if the behavior resulted from a request or demand.

I am fortunate that I rarely have to take this route. My toddler knows time out is the last resort and we don’t mention it unless our usual routes have failed. For him, the mere threat of a time out usually stops the behavior. He just can’t stand being apart from us! And I’ve never had to put him in a time out for the same behavior. Yes, I know. My toddler is awesome! It’s his sister I’m afraid of.

Ignore

I know, I know! But this actually works! I’ve done this with children with autism and with my son. Within a few weeks, I saw a reduction in bad behaviors. It can be exhausting and ear-splitting, but this definitely works for me.

First of all, stay calm. Be the model for the child. If you get upset, it just sets off the child even more. Be the pillar of calmness the child can cling to and reference.

Do not engage verbally or physically, except to keep yourself, your child, and others safe. I once had a child grab a pair of scissors in an attempt to keep me away. Scary! But I stayed calm, got the sibling out of the way, kept a safe distance, and got the parents involved. At home, the scissors are always out of reach.

Do not give in or bribe. Actually, I was always instructed to use first-then statements over and over. That way the child knew what they had to do to get what they wanted.

Finally, know your child. Know what will set them off. Prepare them for changes. Offer choices. Make sure they are fed and rested. Do what you can to prevent preventable tantrums without giving in to your child’s whims. But do let tantrums happen because, if you don’t, the child won’t know what to expect and you won’t know what to do.

I don’t leave my toddler alone while he tantrums. I ignore him while keeping everyone safe. If I have to talk to him, I use short statements, usually first-then, and, as he gets calm, I became more conversational, letting him know what I expect, what I need him to do, and what he can expect.

He still tantrums, but they aren’t frequent. Also, I got lucky that he’s actually a very easygoing toddler.

Those are my methods for handling tantrums. What are yours?



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