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Timeouts, Triggers & Toddler Tantrums

Timeouts, Triggers & Toddler Tantrums

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

You were a great help with my struggle to wean and now I’m back for more wisdom because HELP! My 2 1/2 year old is having issues with aggression and my husband and I are completely lost. Fortunately (I guess?) his beatings are always directed at us (mostly me) rather than other kids. His triggers are the typical stuff like transitions and being told he’s not allowed to do something unsafe. Giving him a timeout escalates the situation and we just don’t know what we should be doing to help him calm down and also enforce consequences.

Here’s a typical scenario from this morning:
He’s having an amazing time playing with kids at the park. He starts to wander towards the road and I tell him to stop at the fence. He starts climbing under the fence and I approach and tell him “no, it’s not safe.” He starts hitting and kicking me and I tell him he needs a timeout for not listening and for hitting. I have to physically move him to a safe place for a time-out. I try to keep him in place and say it’s okay to be upset, but he cannot hit me (as he continues to kick and hit me). I show him how to take deep breaths and try counting to 20 but he’s basically in a mental state where he receives no input. I would be fine letting him ride out the tantrum but any time I let go of him, he runs back towards the road. I tell him if he hits me again, we’ll have to leave the park. He hits me and I carry him kicking and screaming back to the car as he tries to smack and pinch and strangle me the whole way. I give him the opportunity to walk beside me but he runs the other way. And of course the aggression continues as I force him into the car seat. I start the car and give him a few minutes to calm down. When he’s quiet, I open his door to explain why we are leaving the park and he tries to kick me in the head.

I feel so defeated and lost. And it feels so wrong to me that I basically have to wrestle with my child all the while telling him to use gentle hands. He is welcome to rage in the grass or on the carpet, but instead he runs away from me and I have no choice but to catch him and restrain him before he runs into the street or tries to climb on the kitchen counters again. I don’t know how to teach him to calm down because who can be calm when you’re being held tightly against your will? Is there some other method besides timeout I should be using?

Things we try to be consistent with: To help ease transitions we give him a 5 minute warning and then let him choose one last thing to do before we go – so far this hasn’t helped. Having something positive to look forward to like a snack sometimes helps (if it’s immediate, so basically a bribe). When possible we do natural consequences (hurling your toy at the dog means you lose the toy). We heap on the praise when he listens well and I try to give him opportunities to succeed, like asking him to throw things away and put dishes in the sink. If we’re at home, I will put him in his room for a timeout (we have a gate on the door) and he generally does calm down without me beside him, but we continue to struggle with sleep and I’m concerned using his room as a timeout will make bedtime feel like a punishment. I try hard (and often fail) to stay calm because I know he loves to get a big reaction out of me. What is more maddening than a toddler laughing manically at your angry voice and trying to swat your face?

I have to emphasize that he is the sweetest kid otherwise – he’s very social and plays well with everyone. He is gentle and shares well. I don’t think my friends believe me when I tell them how we are struggling because they rarely see this side of him except maybe when playdates are over and he smacks me all the way to the car. His triggers seem normal, but he’s the only one of his peers that can’t seem to handle the timeout concept. The other kids seem to understand that if they sit for 2 minutes, they get to play again. My son also struggles with if/then statements, like first we put on our shoes, then we go outside. All he seems to hear is “go outside.” My husband and I agree that he seems to understand less than his peers and he has no idea what is going on when we try to do a timeout (I guess that’s fair because neither do we).

HELP!

Thank you!

Confession time: I sat on this question for much longer than usual, for no other reason that pure, unadulterated cowardice.

What you’re describing, OP, is very, very similar what I experienced with my oldest son. Who was also an unbelievably sweet, gentle, social, polite, all-the-good-adjectives toddler. Until he was triggered, and all bets were off. He had almost zero impulse control around streets and in parking lots. The tiniest change in routine or deviation from what he expected (or wanted) would send him into an uncontrollable fight-or-flight full-body reaction. Getting him to calm down or self-regulate was downright impossible, unless I just picked him up and physically removed him from the situation while he kicked and screamed and flailed the entire way. Trying to talk him down or explain things only made it worse, and would cause him to lash out physically. He laughed at inappropriate times and didn’t seem to grasp when he was making me cry or that I was angry. He couldn’t follow multi-step directions or grasp abstract concepts or if/then statements. When around his peers the communication differences were often subtle, but undeniable. And getting wider with each passing month.

And that’s where the “cowardice” comes in, because I assume you know the rest of my son’s story, or at least the general gist. After being diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (and other assorted social/coordination disorders along the way) as a toddler and preschooler, my son is now considered Autistic. (Something akin to what used to be considered Asperger’s, but now falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder.) I don’t like writing columns like this, where I can’t just brainstorm some alternate discipline methods or be like “oh, it’s a phase, it’ll pass.” I don’t like when the “oh yeah, I TOTALLY went through this too” part of the column has to include the stuff that I know other parents are terrified of.

Obviously (OBVIOUSLY) I am not diagnosing your son via Internet advice column, but your letter contains enough red flags that I would highly suggest you get your son evaluated by Early Intervention or a private early childhood center. Your son’s triggers are absolutely are normal things that most toddlers struggle with, but the force of his reactions concern me. “A mental state where he receives no input.” BAM, lady, I wish I’d written that, because yeah. I know that state.

And honestly, you’re doing just about everything else I would typically recommend to parents dealing with a strong-willed or tantrum-prone toddler (positive reinforcement/opportunities for success, reasonable consequences). He probably needs a dedicated, non-punishment “cool down” space (NOT a timeout) somewhere in your home, but obviously that’s not going to help you cram his raging body into his carseat at the park when he’s literally kicking you in the face. (My son did that too! It felt GREAT.)

So I don’t know how you’re feeling right now, reading these words. I do know what it feels like when all your friends say, “what are you talking about, he’s FINE” while inside you’re holding on by a thread because they have NO IDEA. Perhaps there’s some cold comfort in me saying “I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about.”

I can also offer you this: My son is FINE. My son is AMAZING. My son absolutely needed early intervention and we got it for him, and it changed all of our lives. We saw positive changes almost immediately. We learned how to reach him through the forcefield of his fits and pull him back to us, to himself. He learned how to self-regulate and process the world around him (albeit always in a unique way). He’s now as big of an advocate for HIMSELF as I am, or ever was. I bristle and hiss at the assumption that my son is some kind of worst-case scenario.

I mean, again, I am not an expert or a doctor. I might be talking completely out of my butt here and an evaluation will reveal nothing but typical, strong-willed toddler who needs time to mature out his aggressive take on tantrums. But I think you’d regret not seeing if he (and YOU) might benefit from some early intervention-type services.  But the longer I let your letter sit in the question queue, the stronger a sense of nagging regret/guilt tugged at me.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Alissa

    I, too, immediately thought of my Autistic son. Awesome kid. Really. He’s a great kid. Who can, when triggered, be a real asshole. I’m with Amy – get him evaluated. Maybe take the evaluators to the playground with you…

  • PaintingChef

    I’m reading this with tears in my eyes because this is my daughter too. She is 6, we adopted her through the foster care system and the first three years of her life were hell on earth in the ways you can imagine and ways you cannot and we still see the shock waves of that in every conflict we have when a simple “no” will lead to hours of fighting where she is in a manic state and has no concept of what she is doing, saying, etc. There is no better way to phrase it than “a mental state where she receives no input.” Thank you for that… her therapist will hear that this week.

    I have no advice, just sisterhood and compassion, I get it and my heart aches for you. I’ve been that mom at the park. The grocery store. The EVERYWHERE. We try so hard to stay calm and breathe in and out and remember to just love, love, love. Be a fighter for him, he is so very lucky to have you in his corner.

    Sending you all the love.

  • Stephanie

    So our situation sounds very familiar. Our daughter is 4 and she is difficult. When she gets in a state, there is no turning back. She was very much the way you describe your son at 2.5. Hitting, flailing, pinching, biting. We went to a therapist, who said that she “needs” timeouts when she acts out violently. He was very insistent on it. Um, timeouts DO NOT work with this kid. She is not going to stay in a corner or sit on a step. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to him because he just did not get what kind of a child she is.
    That being said, things have gotten better. While there was no reasoning with her when she was 2.5, she gets it now. There are still some problems with impulse control, but she understands the consequences now. It hasn’t really been a linear progression – more like a step pyramid, where you get over one thing only to have something new take its place.
    We had an incident just yesterday at daycare that brought me to tears, but the center director reminded me how long it’s been since she last acted out in that manner.
    Absolutely get him evaluated (we have), but also know that you could be dealing with an extremely stubborn, inflexible child that just needs to get a little more mature. It is SO hard. I worry so much about her being able to make and keep friends.

  • Dinolindor

    This sounds a lot like my son at that age too. I agree on getting an evaluation done, at minimum to rule this out and at maximum to begin services. In the meantime, two thing that have been working well in this year since diagnosis is 1) practicing deep breathing and other calming techniques while already calm – so it sort of becomes muscle memory for a fit later in time, and 2) telling him that I am frustrated too and getting angry during one of his tantrums, and then practicing “pretending to blow a bubble as far as I can”. He calms down watching me be so deliberate and silly. Now, this is with my 5 year old. I’m not sure if this would have worked with him at 2.5, but I think it might be worth a shot. There are also things like giving him something to push against while he’s working through a tantrum, so hugging himself tight or pushing against a wall, that help calm, not just breathing. And back to practicing – my son struggles with pretend play, but even so having stuffed animals or other toys act out a problem situation with varying degrees of good behavior has been helping my son organize his thoughts about situations and gives him a ready script for when he finds himself in the real life situation. Good luck!

  • Alissa

    One other thing I thought of that helped before my son could tell time – the five minute warnings for transitions are great, but 2 year olds have zero concept of how long five minutes is. Set a timer. Your phone will have an app for a sand timer or something similar – something VISUAL. No numbers counting down, that doesn’t mean anything. And then you have something to show him during your five minute countdown. And when the timer goes off, it’s “Man, I’m sorry, but the timer says it’s time to go.” With us it helped because it wasn’t ME who was making him leave, it was the TIMER.

    • Veronica Miller

      I will second the timer. We use it ALL THE TIME and now I have my 8 and 6 year asking me to set it for THEM. It gives them a known quantity and visual and auditory cue that time is up. And it is not my fault, it is the timer.

  • Kate

    Oh OP, I wish I could reach out through the inter webs and hug you. Then pass you a giant block of chocolate. I felt like you were describing my (mostly previous) life with my now nearly 4 yo. And yes, I felt a sense of familiar dread that Amy describes in replying, because yes, my little girl is also on the spectrum. It doesn’t mean your beautiful little guy is, of course. I knew deep down that what we were experiencing was outside the range of normal reactions, but Birdie had been such a great, verbal, affectionate kid and it snuck up on us increasingly until we (me, mostly) were completely miserable with constant meltdowns over more and more triggers. But you know what? We reduced her meltdowns by 90% within a few weeks once we started seeing a child psych to help us deal with her behaviours, who basically said to us, “I’m going to assume your daughter is on the spectrum and approach it that way, and I promise you things will improve”. She was right!! Her take was that a kid may not be autistic, but may have autistic traits, and you will lose nothing by treating the meltdowns as a sensory issue. It was certainly eye opening for us. And honestly? When we got Birdie’s diagnosis, I was relieved. It finally gave me a sense of relief and peace about how damn hard I find it to be a good fit in mothering her!!!
    So that’s my two cents and change, and I second Amy’s advice re early intervention assessment, I’d add that for me getting input from a child psych on how to best approach the various triggers and birdie’s responses really really helped. I also kept a detailed log of her meltdowns with columns for “antecedents” (what was happening before meltdown) and “behaviour” and “calming” ie what helped to calm her (ha!!). That was really helpful too, I quickly realised she just couldn’t cope with certain things like going out anywhere on the day after she’d been in an intense social situation the day before, daycare etc. that might be a practical thing you can start right now to start identifying the patterns and actual underlying triggers? Hugs!!!

  • Sara

    Amalah has good advice. I’d also add like it seems like you may be trying to do too much talking and explaining. For example, at the park I would have told him we were leaving because of hitting/running away, put him in the car seat, and driven away. By waiting in the car at the park until he calms down, then going back and opening the door and trying to explain the consequences more, you’re just giving another opportunity for a tantrum. Similarly, trying to teach him to take a deep breath and count to 20 seems advanced for a mid-tantrum 2.5 year old. Something like take a deep breath and count to 4, or take 3 big breaths might be more relatable.

  • IrishCream

    Getting an evaluation is a great idea–even if a professional doesn’t see any red flags, you’ll have that information and hopefully some good coping techniques out of it.

    Just to offer a counterbalance to a lot of the comments so far, I struggled with similar tantrums with my oldest daughter. They started when she was three, peaked at age four, and now that she’s almost six, they’re few and far between. She was generally a happy and eager-to-please kid, but once in a while, the switch would be flipped, and she was…terrifying. Screaming, flailing, kicking, hitting, that infuriating inappropriate laughter, the whole nine yards. And I definitely had to force her into a car sear more than once. We were never able to identify one clear trigger, although of course they were worse when she was hungry or over-tired. The only thing we could do was wait them out, ideally by putting her in a safe, comfortable space and shutting the door (and holding it shut for a few minutes, if need be). Any intervention on our part, no matter how loving and gentle, just escalated the situation. The only thing that worked was giving her space and time.

    She’s still a kid with big feelings and strong emotions at times, but now that she’s older, she’s much, much better about removing herself from the situation and finding that safe quiet space on her own.

    None of this is to discount the experiences of other folks here, or offer false reassurance, but I hope it’s helpful to hear that those intense tantrums can be part of life, at least temporarily, for kids across the range of the neurological spectrum.

  • Rose

    This is my son, too. He is 2 years, 4 months and is exactly what you describe. He is sweet and loving until that moment that he doesn’t want what I want, usually in the safety context. Thank you, Amy, for the advice. My son gets speech and physical therapy, and they have already discussed the possibility of sensory processing disorder with me. He is too young for a formal diagnosis and we are working on his issues, but progress is slow. OP, I hope that you can talk with your pediatrician and see if he/she thinks an Early Intervention evaluation might be worth it. It was for us.

  • tadpoledrain

    I wanted to second what someone else said, that 5 minutes is meaningless to a kid this age (and I think, in your case, too much time). I like the idea of using a timer on the phone, so you can blame the timer and not yourself. I also wonder if using something he can hear at the same time as he plays might help, since he wouldn’t have to watch it. I used to sing the ABCs or another short song as a countdown, but to keep the blame on the phone, you could play a short, familiar song he likes. (Actually, now I’m wondering if there are any songs out there particularly for this purpose — might be worth a trip to google?)

    Also, it sounds to me like, in an effort to let him get back whatever he’s lost and make the experience more pleasant and something he can learn from, you’re using too much language and giving him too many options once the situation has started to go downhill. If he’s struggling with if/then, first/second, I think you need to keep the if/then really concrete and really small. IF you run, THEN we go home. That’s it, end of story, no more language (not even about the hitting, unless the hitting is what prompted the removal in the first place), no more options. Let him really internalize that one connection.

    Finally, I know he’s little, but you might want to look into finding some social stories around safe behavior and natural consequences, or even make your own. (“Mommy and Jason are going to the playground. If Jason runs away, we go home. Jason and Mommy will both be mad. If Jason stays on the playground, we can stay and play. Jason and Mommy will both be happy. We will go home when the go home song plays. We can come back another day.” Repeat ad nauseum.)

    It sounds like you’re doing a great job in a rough situation, and I wish you the best of luck!

  • tadpoledrain

    Oh, and also, picture schedule type stuff. So don’t just say first shoes, then outside. Have a picture of shoes, and then a picture of outside, and once his shoes are on, move (or have him move) the picture of the shoes to a “done” area or flip it over or whatever. You can make these for any routine situation that you want to be predictable and also where you want him to build those first/them connections, like waking up and getting ready in the morning, or getting ready for bed or whatever.

  • Amy Renee

    You’ve gotten lots of good advice already, but to add a little more:
    As others have said, less words and explaining. For instance, don’t explain that he can’t go over the fence because it isn’t safe, or say “no” or “stop” so many times it has lost it’s meaning. Instead, make a game out of “freeze!” – and whenever he starts heading for the fence, the road, etc, yell “freeze” – and if he stops, give him tons of praise. Once you get him to freeze, you can redirect him to the sandbox, the slide, etc.
    -Redirection. If you know he heads for the fence/road at the playground, don’t let him get more than halfway there before you tell him how awesome the sandbox/slide/etc is. If you can anticipate things that are going to make him melt down (like being told no) and change his focus before it gets to that point, you can head some of it off.
    -He doesn’t seem to “get” timeouts, and it turns into a power struggle. So just don’t bother with the timeout right now. When he starts hitting and kicking, just carry him to the car and leave. Or carry him to the car, lock yourselves in, turn on the A/C so you don’t melt, and let him rage (don’t fight him on the car seat until he calms down). I’m not going to tell you how many places I’ve sat in the front seat with my eyes closed and fists clenched while my toddler screamed in the backseat. Eventually, they scream themselves out, and will either agree to being strapped into their seat or to cuddle on your lap for a few minutes and then be strapped in.
    -Hands are not for hitting book. Every single day, sometimes multiple times a day.
    -If he’s in a safe place, and you know he wants a reaction to you, don’t give it to him. So instead of putting him in his room, if he hits you, you leave the room and go shut yourself in your own bedroom or bathroom. He throws a toy when we are playing? I walk across the room and go sit on the couch, and pick up a book or magazine and ignore him.

    Also, hearing evaluation. If he can’t hear you say “stop at the fence” when you yell it to him with his back to you as he’s running off, he won’t understand why he’s in trouble.

    My kids are also pretty strong willed and tend to reach a point where they aren’t processing input. After one horrible night where I tried the Supernanny technique of just continuing to pick up the kid and put them in timeout over and over every time they got up, I realized that we had been battling for more than an hour, and neither of us really knew or cared what the original timeout was about – but that all we were both learning was that my kid could outwait me.
    I know you said “who can be calm when being held against your will” – but for my kids, the thing that often works is to hold them tightly against me (their back against my chest, my arms wrapped around them to pin down their arms) in a giant tight bear hug, to sit on the ground with them in my lap, and to rock back and forth while saying “Kiddo is mad. Kiddo is mad mad mad.” After a minute or five, they often will melt into a sobbing puddle in my lap. This seems to work best when they are overtired and that is the root of the meltdown.

    For what it’s worth, it does get better – but so far it doesn’t seem to have completely gone away. My 9 year old still has occasional meltdowns, often when he is overtired and stressed. But it’s now down to one every few months (or one bad week with a couple, and then none for months), as opposed to multiple a day.

  • Joanna Lee

    OP here! Thank you for taking the time to write and for the support. I did cry when I read it and burst into tears after leaving messages with Early Intervention and a private OT. But honestly at this point a diagnosis with a plan would be preferable to this feeling that we just suck at parenting and can’t figure out what our son needs. Amy, I’ve been reading your blog since Noah was a baby and he shines through your writing – if it comes to a ASD diagnosis, it’s definitely a comfort to know what an awesome kid he is.
    Since writing to you, our son had a hard time at a new preschool. It was a surprise to us because he has always done so well in part time daycare, but this program had more structure/transitions and he tuned out the teachers and refused to participate in most activities or sit for story time. He’s on a waiting list for a speech evaluation and he had a hearing test last week. The hearing test turned out to be more of a test of impulse control (throw a block when you hear a noise and no don’t touch those wires) and he couldn’t handle it.
    Other potential red flags after my googling: he tends to latch on to phrases from tv and movies and tries to use them when socializing, he seeks out firm touch (always trying to wrestle and squeeze me and nuzzle, like a bear cub), eats almost nothing, and basically never stops moving.
    I don’t know why I didn’t think to do an early intervention evaluation – I guess I was waiting for someone to tell me he needed it? So, thank you for telling me! Even if it’s hard to hear, I am grateful. And I’m hopeful that we’ll get some answers soonish, whether he’s just a stubborn guy who needs time to mature or a kid who needs some real help.

    • ismette

      Thank you for putting your story. It so good to know that I am not the only one. People sometimes don’t understand the situation and thinks your letting your kid do whatever they want. My son started with the same behavior going on 3 years old. It got worse when he started Pre-K, he is now 5 going in 6. I will suggest you to ask for an IPE now for him. My son had his at age 3, he is diagnosed with Adhd, he sees a Neurologist also at school he need it to be switch to ED classroom he couldn’t handled a big classroom thru the IPE he is getting speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavior specialist at school. I normally do the breathing exercise, I give him 2 choices when he gets frustrated example if is time for bed and he dont want to i give him to choose first choice is time for bed second choice if you don’t go bed their will be time out it helps a lot the behavior specialist teach me that. Right now he is also in a treatment I refused my self to do it but it is helping him a lot he is taking clonidine. Thank you for sharing this is my first time writing in this it really help me reading about other stories..

    • bookworm81

      Your son sounds almost exactly like my son at that age. Like Noah my son was originally diagnosed with SPD and now carries an Autism diagnosis (the new diagnostic criteria for Autism is largely sensory based). Ages 2-4 were really rough but now at 7 most people wouldn’t even realize that my son isn’t neurotypical.

      You’re getting him assessed which is great but I noticed that there’s a wait so I wanted to tell you (if you don’t already know this) that you don’t need to wait for a formal assessment to start providing therapy for his potential sensory issues. The great (hah) thing about sensory processing disorder/sensory issues is that the the therapy that you do is beneficial for all kids so you don’t need that diagnosis. You can also do a lot of it at home/in the park etc. The website below was put together by a woman who was an OT and has a son with SPD (he just graduated high school). I highly recommend her books as well.

      http://asensorylife.com/index.html

      You may already know all this and if you do that’s great but if you have any questions please feel free to ask 🙂

  • Melanie

    Sounds like you’ve already got tons of advice and have taken steps toward an evaluation but I would also throw in trying some of the methods from “Happiest Toddler on the Block.” It really helped us when we went through the fit phase with my oldest. It is proving invaluable the second time around with our little Hulk.
    To this day I can see when my 4 yo’s face glazes over because I’ve used too many words and I revert back to the book. For my 2 yo I really find repeating her in caveman speak helps (baby want toy, baby want outside, etc) is so helpful. Then I like to add on feelings to help her have words to better express herself (baby sad/mad).
    Good luck!