Child Development Advice

Toddler Tantrums Tamed

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By Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D.

When your toddler is in the middle of a meltdown, it’s natural to feel embarrassed, ashamed, even helpless and unfit. But the reality is that nearly every parent has been in your shoes – and many feel like they don’t have the tools to muddle their way through.

Fact is, the toddler years aren’t as easy as many parents think they’ll be. Young children – specifically those between 1 and 4 – not only lack control over their environment, they also don’t have the language or developmental skills to express themselves. Most important, they can’t meet their own basic needs. Add it all together and it’s the perfect storm for tantrums.

Tantrums among children under 2 typically stem from not being able to say what they need – food, water or more sleep. For older kids, tantrums are usually about gaining power or control. In either case, following these seven basic strategies should help both you and your child escape unscathed:

  1. Plan ahead. Tantrums are essentially a developmental milestone. They’re going to happen. If you prepare in advance – and develop a plan for how to handle them – both you and your child will benefit. A hint: Most often a solid plan requires being calm and quiet.
  1. Know the triggers. Figure out what triggers the tantrum. Is your child hungry? Bored? Tired? Whatever those final straws are, make sure you’re armed with an antidote. Bring snacks on long road trips. Carry your child’s favorite blanket with you to the park. Go to the doctor’s office with a bag full of entertaining and tactile toys.
  1. Get down to your child’s level. If you sense your child is having trouble, or you are about to enter a trigger zone (e.g., a crowded bank or grocery store), get down to the child’s eye level and explain what lies ahead. Kids who know what to expect tend to do better than those who are caught off guard. You can even model or role play what is about to take place and how you expect them to behave.
  1. Practice being calm. Not only will you be modeling appropriate behavior for your child, you’ll also be better equipped to get their attention – and respect. Instead of engaging with him or trying to quiet him, speak slowly and calmly. You can even count to 10 out loud very softly. If your child is old enough, you can invite him to join you or alternate saying each number to give both of you time to regroup. You could say something like, “Mommy can hear you when you’re able to talk in a calm quiet voice … let me know when you’re ready.” Then don’t say anything else. Just wait.
  1. Be consistent. Your no should always remain a “no” – and your “yes” should stay “yes.” If you give in to sidestep a tantrum, your child will learn that if they cry, scream, kick and flail, you’ll eventually give her what she wants. Consistency is key, so make sure you, your partner and any caregivers are on the same page.
  1. Get some leverage. When I go to the grocery store with my 3-year-old son, or if I know he’s not well-rested, I use a 99-cent toy car as leverage to encourage good behavior. He gets to play with it in the cart and I get to shop tantrum-free. It’s a win-win for both of us.
  1. Be clear about zero tolerance issues. Make sure your kids know what is absolutely unacceptable. Hitting, biting, pushing, throwing toys and other aggressive or potentially harmful behavior is off limits – and always enforce the consequences. Whether that means a brief time out, or leaving the park, restaurant or wherever you are isn’t important. It’s the consistency of the message that really matters.

Related Topic: 10 Tips to Establish Healthy Childhood Eating Habits

Children crave your attention. If they’re not getting positive attention – praise, hugs and cuddles – they’ll act out to get negative attention. The key to avoiding this vicious cycle: Notice when they’re doing something good and shower them with praise. Ultimately, you want to think of yourself as a sort of mirror for your child and model the behavior you’d like to see from him or her. When they follow your lead, reward them with your words and actions – not always a toy or treat.

While tantrums are a normal developmental phase for toddlers, not all tantrums are normal. If your child’s tantrums are increasing in frequency – or the length of the outbursts go beyond 20 or 30 minutes – consider having a conversation with your pediatrician. Similarly, if your child is hurting himself or others on a regular basis, it’s important to get professional assistance.

To find a doctor or pediatrician at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Written By:

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D.

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford LiveWell. Dr. Leatherwood Cannon credits her love of helping people as the reason she became a doctor. She chose pediatrics because she is fascinated with children, their development and what she calls their incredible "bounce back ability.” She is currently writing a book and hopes to publish it in 2015. She considers her parents her heroes, noting that their hard work, sacrifice and belief in her have been the keys to her success.

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