Epic Tantrum Time
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.
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.
Published May 29, 2015. Last updated July 16, 2017.