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Epic Tantrum Time

Epic Tantrum Time

By Amalah

Dear Amy – Your advice column and blog have gotten me through so much of my pregnancy and early motherhood. Your low-key advice and humor is my inspiration to also be low-key and humorous in parenting, and my husband and I love the Satter method that you turned us on to.

My son (turning 2 in July) has started to have some pretty epic tantrums lately. Up to this point, he’s been a relatively easy going baby, and we’ve been using baby sign language to try and stem issues with pre-verbal freak outs. He sleeps 12-hours a night (7 – 7) and take one 1.5-hour nap a day. His tantrums have caught me somewhat by surprise. He used to occasionally get upset, but now they’ve reached full blown sobbing, throwing himself on the floor, slamming doors tantrum level. He will also throw everything on the floor he can get his hands on. He does some hitting, but it is mostly just sobbing and throwing things.

I know that toddlers have tantrums, but I’m not sure how to deal with them or minimize their happening/severity. It seems like they are caused by him not getting his way. I try to limit the number of things he doesn’t get to choose (this hasn’t helped so far) and to make sure he is getting frequent snacks/drinks/not too tired/not too bored. Holding him or trying to distract him just seems to make the tantrums worse. Honestly, walking away usually ends the tantrums the fastest – he will start to get upset again when he sees someone is paying attention. We’re still having multiple meltdowns a day though and it is incredibly draining.

This may be related or not, but he is starting to try and talk.

Sincerely,
Pulling out my hair

Ah, welcome to toddlerhood. This isn’t the most encouraging thing to say but it’s the most honest I can be: You’re likely in for a couple VERY YELL-Y years. But at least rest assured that your son’s behavior and tantrums are actually pretty normal? Meh?

If there’s a single magic solution to ending toddler meltdowns altogether, I haven’t found it, and I don’t think anyone else has, either, since I’m sure you’ve been to a restaurant/grocery/airplane lately and witnessed some other poor soul’s child freaking the hell out over not getting cookies or not being allowed to take their pants off or air touching their body.

Does it help to understand the developmental stuff going on behind the tantrums? Maybe. I dunno. Obviously the “not being verbal and thus able to communicate wants/needs/feelings” is a huge one. This is why I still highly, HIGHLY recommend teaching babies and young toddlers some sign language. (You can now get individual episodes of Signing Time, my personal favorite program, for $1.99 on Amazon Instant Video.)  Sign language won’t solve EVERYTHING, but I found it to be oh so helpful at this stage if my toddler had the ability to make basic requests and “talk” to me about his favorite things (trains, trucks, etc.). Do NOT worry about sign language having any detrimental affect on his speech development, by the way — it really only enhances his understanding and desire to communicate. He probably points at things he wants all the time already, so sign language allows him to use a more specific gesture from the get-go and offset any frustration when you aren’t sure what he actually wants.

The other main driver behind the epic meltdown, as you’ve correctly pinpointed, is your toddler’s desire for attention and natural instinct to test you and push boundaries. What kind of reaction will he get if he throws a toy? What if he screams as loud as he can? What if he kicks the floor or dog or you? It’s a maddening game of trial and error, and generally the best response is to NOT PLAY ALONG. Ignore him. Walk away. Move him to a safe place where he can have his fit and then leave the room. If you’re out in public, silently pick him up and remove him from the situation. Take him outside or back to your car. Give him as little attention as possible (safely, of course) and wait for him to quiet himself. When he seems calm-ish enough, you can then make the call to return to whatever you were doing or take him home.

(With older toddlers it can be helpful to have consequences beyond the cool-down time to curb public tantrums — you throw a fit at the playground or fun activity, you go home. Your son is probably too young for that, and since it can be a pain in the butt to enforce [it can end up punishing YOU more than him, if it’s an outing you’re enjoying] I wouldn’t rush it.)

After he turns two, it can help to have a designated “cool-down” spot in your house. A step is usually a good place, or a small chair. Don’t stress too much about him keeping his butt ON the step or chair, but focus on keeping him just in the general area for a couple minutes. Again, it should be a safe spot where he’s unlikely to hurt himself (no top of steps or near sharp corners) and be kept clear of toys and other ammunition to throw. This isn’t a punishment, although obviously it’s a precursor to time-outs, but it lets you remove him from whatever set him off to begin with, and provide a slight distraction from the fit that doesn’t involve any attention from you. It also sends the message that hey, it’s okay for you to be mad and frustrated and I’m not gonna tell you not to feel those things…but it’s not  acceptable to express those feelings by kicking and screaming and hurling things at the dinner table, for example. So stay here until you’re calm enough to rejoin us.

The last piece of advice I have about tantrums is to try EXTRA MEGA HARD to provide your son with POSITIVE attention whenever possible. Whenever he’s NOT throwing a fit, find some behavior to praise and reward. It’s hard not getting your way, but if freaking out about it = zero attention and not freaking out about it = YAY AWESOME HAPPY LOVE CLAPPING, he’ll sloooooowly start seeing the benefits of a little flexibility and easy-going-ness.

And I do mean slooooooowly. It’s a long-ass haul, to be sure. It probably won’t stop overnight once he starts talking, because words tend to fail toddlers when they get upset/tired/emotional and they default back to crying/screaming. Just like you may of had to teach your son how to self-soothe himself to sleep at night, you’re now faced with the challenge of teaching him to self-soothe during the day when he’s frustrated. Try to lesson possible frustrations whenever possible, pick your battles carefully (although don’t give in and cave once he’s tantrumming), and perhaps try limiting the endless choices a bit. Some toddlers do like having choices and feeling in control, but this can backfire when they are simply offered too MANY choices about EVERYTHING. They can feel overwhelmed by the choices…or become overly inflexible and angry at the first thing that ISN’T a choice. (And let’s face it, there are lots of things he just isn’t going to have a choice about, and that’s just life, kiddo.) Stay patient and calm, but don’t feel badly if YOU need to leave the situation for a few minutes of cool-down yourself.

 

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

  • MR

    Amy is absolutely right. Tantrums are completely normal. It is at this age that they figure out that they have power. “Look! When I throw myself on the ground and yell, my mom tries to give me new toys!” or whatever. Absolutely ignore it. You don’t have to leave the room. But completely act like you don’t hear it and it isn’t bothering you. We always found that the fastest way to end a tantrum was to carry on a conversation with someone else like it wasn’t even happening. And, yeah, the tantrums don’t stop for a while, although they won’t be as frequent as they get older. My oldest is 6.5 and sheesh, if she gets overtired, EPIC tantrums. Way worse than the ones when she was two and threw herself down to the ground in the store. Partially because two year olds are cute and not as strong. And partially because now when she throws a fit, it is because she simply can’t handle things – she is too tired, which means she can’t calm herself down either. When they are two, they can turn it on and off pretty quickly. My mom still laughs about the time my two year old daughter was on the wall for time out and screaming bloody murder, and my mom walked into the room and asked what was wrong. My daughter stopped crying, looked at her and responded calmly, “I in timeout”, then immediately resumed her screaming. So, yeah, unless your kid is going to hurt himself or someone else, ignore his tantrum. Good luck!

  • s

    This. Yes. and the head banging/butting and the biting himself. And wowza, not even two yet.

  • K

    My favorite advice from a fellow mom (of four!) – kids don’t do what doesn’t work. I literally repeat that to myself like a mantra over and over again when my three year old loses his ever loving mind (over this sock isn’t the right sock, this shirt does not have a pocket, this hot dog is “broken”…and so on, and on, and on, and on…). I quietly mutter it under my breath as I either walk away, or ask him to spend a minute on his bed, because mommy doesn’t like to be around yelling/screaming/whatever. He’s learned pretty quickly that it’s not up for debate – no one wants to hang out with someone who’s not playing nice, therefore, we all must try to be nice and respectful. And when we can’t? We sit in our room for a minute to calm down, and then we get to try again. Same thing when we are out – I find a quiet spot for him to reset.

  • Liz

    Oh Mama I sympathize!!!  I’ve been through that stage and it’s so hard to stay calm inside. It both frustrates you and breaks your heart to see your kid in that state. You are strong and this too shall pass! I second the “positive attention whenever you can”, but some kids just have to go through these tantrums, no matter how exhausting it is for both mom and kid. I hope it gets better!

  • Kim too

    Sign language is awesome and will definitely help, but tantrums are part of toddlerhood, for sure.
    For us, the key word in Amy’s advice is Do Not Play Along,also known as Do Not Engage.  By the time they’ve gone full out tantrum, they are deep down in the lizard part of their brain, and incapable of rational thought.  One local parenting expert says, “You do not argue with a drunk person – you walk away and wait for them to stop being drunk.”  This has led to me saying to my husband, “Honey, stop, she’s drunk” about my children, which then leads to funny looks from strangers.
    But that doesn’t always mean ignore it or walk away.  Sometimes the tantrum is about being overwhelmed with emotion or stimulation, and plain being unable to cope. What works for us is to get closer, pick the child up, and repeat a version of “I love you.  I want to help.  I’m going to hold on to until you feel safe again.” They will struggle, you might say “I won’t let you hurt me or yourself, I’ll keep holding you until you feel safe,” and eventually this storm will pass.
    I had to do that with my 5yo yesterday in the middle of my oldest’s Open House, but you know what?Embarrassing as it was, it worked. Frustration/anger management can be tough on adults, much less on little people with limited communication skills.
    And I know this is really long, but another parenting mantra of mine is “My child is not giving me a hard time, she is having a hard time.” Tantrums don’t feel good to anyone.

  • Melanie

    I recommend reading (or at least skimming) “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” by Harvey Karp. The basic premise is that toddlers are little cavemen. Simplify your words and acknowledge and repeat their feelings until they calm down (Lily mad. Lily want toy. Mommy say no. Lily mad mad mad!). this is especially helpful to ward off tantrums while we’re out and about (I don’t want to leave a whole cart full of groceries). my favorite tip from the book is the clap and grunt. I bust it out when no one is listening and my head is about to explode (babysitting + my two = 4 kids 3 and under). It keeps me from screaming at them pretty often.

  • Ann

    Last post, I promise. Here is a link to a great short video which explains emotional needs. COSI is a wonderful organization. circleofsecurity.net/resources

  • Niki

    I would like to piggyback on the choices thing. I can’t remember if this is something I read or something a child expert told me, but it helped a lot when we needed it. The gist is that if you ask a toddler “milk or juice?” their little minds are absolutist about it. They think that if they choose milk they will NEVER HAVE JUICE AGAIN, OMG. I can’t recall where this appeared in the developmental process, so maybe almost-2 is too young? Sorry to be so vague, just consider this a thumbs up for Amy’s advice to cut way back on choices.

  • Autumn

    We did, and still continue to do, lots of sequencing, which seems to help our daughter know what to expect next.  Along with reminders when a preferred activity was going to end before the transition to the next one, even before she knew what numbers were.  “It’s going to be bath time in 7 minutes” etc.  She’s almost 4 and the reminder really helps, now we rarely have melt downs with transitions, and usually if my husband doesn’t giver her a warning and just tries to move on cause he’s behind schedule since he was distracted by his phone. (that’s a different problem:))

    We did both the naughty corner, for time outs when she was truly misbehaving, and we called our boppy the “crying pillow” where I would take her if she needed to calm down.  I was/am very strict about no tantrums in the kitchen or at the table.  

    It’s draining, but a consistent response each time now will be worth the investment in the future.  Kind of like sleep training, your patience will be rewarded eventually.  My almost 4 year old knows Mommy isn’t messing around and means business, and if I give her a warning about a not-fun consequence, she believes me.  Just don’t “threaten” anything you aren’t willing to follow through on

  • Lisa

    What helps us with our son is explaining him what is going to happen. He is very sensitive to changes in plans – even if these plans are just in his head. So we try to anticipate and tell him: We go to the store and buy eggs and milk, but there won’t be any candy.