Our toddler is having temper tantrums!


I am the mom of a two year old who has just started to have temper tantrums.  Most of my friends have slightly younger kids.  My best friend looks at my son as if he has chicken pox when he starts to scream—I can tell she wonders if her little angel will catch this behavior from my child.  Please tell me what to do—I feel like a really bad mom.

If your friend’s toddler has not had a temper tantrum before now, he’ll probably have one (and probably more than one)  sometime this year.  You aren’t a bad mom! A temper tantrum is a normal and typical toddler’s way of expressing anger and frustration at a time when he is feeling out of control.  Yells, shrieks, and screams are common.  Some children run around in circles or throw themselves on the floor.  Your child may even out at you by hitting, kicking or throwing things.  Of course, some children have silent or sulky tantrums, refusing to talk or make eye contact, some others make so much noise that parents worry that the neighbors will call the police!  

No matter how your child behaves during his first tantrum, you may feel very helpless as you watch your child erupt in fury.  You may have feelings of failure or incompetence as a parent, or you may be furious at your child for behaving so outrageously.  If you're out in public, you may feel as though other people are judging you and your child (they probably are!).  It can take a great deal of parental self-confidence to handle a toddler’s tantrums successfully, 

Even though tantrums are common and even predictable among toddlers, most parents wonder if the tantrums are a reflection on their own parenting ability.  They are not!  Tantrums are simply a part of life with a young child.  However, even though you can’t always prevent tantrums altogether you can help your child to have fewer tantrums, or to get through his tantrums more quickly.  

If you understand the causes of your toddler's tantrums, you will react better when he is spinning out of control. A toddler’s tantrums often take place is in response to his parents saying "No".  As your toddler becomes more capable and competent, he wants to have more control over his life.  Over the past two years he has learned that a good way to get what he wants is to ask for it.  It will take him more years to accept that even though he asks, your answer sometimes will be "No"!   At his age, he can't understand your point of view. He doesn’t know why you are refusing to give him what he wants and so he gets very angry.  He doesn't understand these angry feelings, and he hasn't yet learned to control them, so he has a tantrum.

A toddler may also have tantrums when he is unable to tell his parents or another person what he is thinking.  Even though he can talk, his ability to express himself in words is not as advanced as his ability to think.  He understands much more than he can say.  When he knows what he wants to say but can't say it, he will feel angry with himself and angry at you for not being able to understand him!  Many parents find that as their toddler learns to use more and more words to express himself, his tantrums decrease.  In fact, one of the best ways for parents to help children learn to control their anger is by being good models themselves.  If you are the kind of parent--and of us are, at times!--who kicks the furniture or storms about when you lose your temper, you should practice using the phrase, "I'm angry right now" so that your child will learn that there are words that people can use to express these feelings. 

Most parents would like to be able to prevent all temper tantrums, but that's not possible.  However, if your child is having tantrums every day or many times a week, it’s useful to look for patterns that will help you to decrease the number of tantrums, even if you can't eliminate them entirely.  Watch your child for several days, perhaps even taking notes, to see what you can observe about when, where, and under what circumstances the tantrums occur.

Some toddlers have tantrums when they are overtired.  Many parents learn that if their child misses his nap, stays up too late, or awakens too early, they can expect a tantrum.  Other toddlers have tantrums when they are overstimulated.  They may have a wonderful time at a birthday party or on a family outing, but when they come home they fall apart and have a tantrum.  Other children have a temper tantrum when they have to make a transition from one activity to another.  They don't want to stop what they are doing, and they get furious at having someone interrupt them.  All of these situations are likely to occur in the course of normal life with a toddler, so it's easy to see that it's unlikely that you can avoid them entirely. 

One pattern of tantrum behavior that often can be controlled is the tantrum that occurs in the hungry toddler.  Many children in this age group are so busy playing that they don't notice that they are hungry.  Some parents notice that their child starts to get short-tempered or fragile if he goes more than a few hours without a snack, and that a tantrum can be avoided by offering food.  Meals and snacks with protein will keep your child satisfied longer than food that is all carbohydrate— crackers are fine, but serve them  with cheese or a glass of milk.

Once you are able to predict the situations that are difficult for your child, try to avoid them! You can also watch for early signs that your child is about to melt.. If you can catch him before he loses control completely, you may be able to help him by expressing his feelings in words for him.  For example, if you see your child getting frustrated with a toy that he can't make work the way he would like it to, you might sit down next to him and say, "You're really having a hard time with that.  It looks like you're getting angry."  If your child is exhausted and cranky on the way home from an outing, you can say, "When we get home it might be hard for you to settle in.  Maybe we'll sit and read a story  while I cuddle you."  

However, no matter how careful and observant you are, your toddler will probably still have some tantrums and you will have to help him deal with his anger without getting caught up in it yourself.  The key to managing a temper tantrum once it begins is to stay calm.  When your child is out of control, he needs to know that he can count on you to take care of him.  If he feels that his anger provokes your anger, he will become even more upset.  Even though he may be yelling at you or even trying to hit or kick you, if you respond to him in the same way he will then be learning that it's acceptable to act that way.  When your child loses control, don't try to make him stop.  Instead, stay near him and let him feel that you are there to help.  If he pauses for breath, or seems to be continuing to tantrum for more than five minutes, you can attempt to comfort him.  Some children will welcome a gentle interruption, but others will push you away until they have gotten out their angry feeling on their own. 

Once your child calms down, he needs your help to put into words what he has been feeling.  You can say, "You were so upset.  You were so angry.  You screamed and yelled because you were angry.  Now you are quiet."  If you can let your child know that you can accept his angry feelings without rejecting him, he will not be so overwhelmed by them. You can also help your child see that it is O.K. to be angry, but that it is not O.K. to hurt you or anyone else.  Tell your child, "I won't hurt you when I get angry, and I won't let you hurt me."  Of course, to tell your child this and be effective, this statement must be true.

One of the toughest problems parents face with toddler tantrums is when they say "No" without thinking and their child unexpectedly gets furious.  This problem can be especially challenging if you are out in public and feeling awkward or self-conscious about your child making a scene.  You might feel that you would have said "Yes" if you had realized how important the matter was to your child.  You might want to change your mind in response to the child's anger.  Unfortunately, a toddler who learns that he can always get his parents to give in to tantrums will probably have even more tantrums to get his way.  Of course, all parents occasionally change their minds, and there are times that even the strictest parents will want to avoid a tantrum.  But if you feel that you have fallen into a habit of rethinking your decisions based on how upset your child gets, or if you find that you are giving in to his demands for fear of his having a tantrum, it's a good idea to start saying "no" more often and more consistently.  You may have to endure more tantrums for a short while, but if you can stay calm and firm, your child will learn that a tantrum isn't the best way to argue with you or to get your attention!