By Michelle Mady
It’s about a half hour until dinner. Everything is calm and we have had a great day together. Laundry is done, dishes are caught up, now it is a nice transition into dinner time. Adria asks for a cookie. I let her know that it’s almost dinnertime and that she can have one later.
Then … chaos.
She screams and cries; she tries to take one anyway. I have now chosen this battle to fight until the bitter end. I courageously attempt to tame the beast that my child has become. I try to reason, and the screams get louder. I give an explanation of my decision, and the tears spring from her eyes. I fight fire with fire. I yell “THAT IS ENOUGH!” And, just when I thought, for sure, I have won this hard-fought battle, she picks up a toy and throws it. She kicks and screams. She makes sounds I cannot even describe.
And then … I give her the cookie.
I have been defeated. So, if reasoning, explaining, and yelling don’t work, then what will?
Minimize tantrums by giving choices.
Many toddler tantrums stem from a need to control a situation, or from a lack of control. Help them gain this back by giving choices.
When you give a child choices, offer no more than their age. So, a two year old will get two choices, a three year old will get three. Giving a choice that is open-ended can be overwhelming and can contribute to a lack of control or stability. For example, ask your toddler if they want carrots or broccoli with their chicken rather than asking what they want for dinner. In any good battle, you need more than one plan of attack.
When you give a child choices, offer no more than their age. So, a two year old will get two choices, a three year old will get three.
Sometimes they simply will not make a choice—no is always the secret, non-advertised choice on the battlefield, but it comes with a consequence. After allowing them a few chances to answer with their choice, let them know that you will make the choice if they do not. But the key is tone! Keep your tone calm and very nonchalant. It takes any pressure or emotion out of a possible power struggle.
Increase stability and predictability; call in the reinforcements.
Feeling out of control can also be a symptom of a lack of stability or predictability. If a child doesn’t feel like they know what is happening or what is coming next, it is another way they feel out of control. Children younger than five also struggle with a true concept of time. For example, how many times do they say that something happened “yesterday” when it happened a year ago? Put these two things together and a well-meaning warning of, “We are leaving the park in 5 minutes,” and tantrums are inevitable.
A great way to reinforce your child’s understanding of an upcoming transition is by using a timer (the one on your phone works great!). Let your child press the button to set the timer. When it goes off, it is time to go! Use the timer for playtime first, so the timer itself becomes predictable.
A great way to reinforce your child’s understanding of an upcoming transition is by using a timer (the one on your phone works great!).
Another way you can support predictability is to measure time in tasks. For instance, tell your child that you’ll stay at the park for three more times down the slide or after two more turns on the monkey bars. This will work for younger children who are not quite old enough to know they can stop using the slide to increase their park time!
Set realistic expectations; be compassionate with your child and yourself.
Maybe expecting a child to comply after your first request is setting yourself up for tantrums. Expecting a nice dinner out with the family 10 minutes before bedtime might not be the best idea. Changing your schedule at the last minute and expecting your toddler to go with the flow is a recipe for a stressed-out parent and child.
Changing your schedule at the last minute and expecting your toddler to go with the flow is a recipe for a stressed-out parent and child.
Instead, set yourself and your child up for success by introducing new expectations during calm, predictable times. Push that family dinner to earlier in the day, or bring plenty of distractions for your toddler and expect that you will be their entertainment for the evening.
Ensure that the expectations you are setting for yourself are also realistic. Tantrums are developmentally appropriate and actually are good for children. They learn problem-solving skills, coping mechanisms, and boundaries during these times. Children are learning some huge emotions and do not yet have the skills to process them. Tantrums are a developmental milestone as important as speech and walking. So expect them to happen and do not correlate those tantrums with your ability to parent.
Tantrums are a developmental milestone as important as speech and walking.
Stay consistent; firm up those boundaries.
Adria got the cookie in my earlier story. By giving in one time, I have negated any work I had previously done to minimize tantrums and other behavior. It will take another 10 times staying firm on the boundary to take back this one moment of weakness. Through tantrums, children are learning where the boundaries lie and how much flex there is in those boundaries.
In addition, by changing the rules, boundaries, or expectations because of big emotions, you are actually reinforcing the need for those big emotions. When things change, it takes away the stability that toddlers desperately need to thrive. Changing because of those loud emotions rewards that behavior, takes away predictability, and negates whatever the boundary was in the first place.
So the next time your child starts to wail, instead of meeting their demands, stand strong. Bring in reinforcements. Support their emotions with love, compassion, understanding, and firm reminders of the expectations.
About the author: Michelle is a mom of 5 children ranging in age from 5 to 15. As a toddler and preschool teacher, she shares experiences, activities and guidance to other parents, as both a parent and as a professional early childhood educator, at any stage of their parenting journey.
Photo credit: iStock.com/AaronAmat