Child Caring

Temper, temper: Helping toddlers through their tantrums

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / September 25, 1997

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Three weeks before Kathy Levinson was due to deliver her second child, her first-born, Peter, then 2 1/2, entered the tantrum stage. As his grandmother watched in horror (``My God, what's wrong with him?!''), he grabbed his mom's shirt, pulled it off her shoulders, and collapsed on the floor in what Levinson describes as a world-class tantrum: near-hysteria with body-racking sobs.

All over a glass of juice.

Sort of.

The onset of tantrums is hard for any parent to fathom. One day your toddler is as she's always been, adorable and agreeable. The next day, she's crying and screaming, kicking and flailing, uncontrollable and inconsolable.

Most parents are like deer caught in headlights, says Levinson, a family therapist in Boca Raton, Fla. ``You're in a state of shock, frozen with surprise and fear.'' Unlike deer, however, we don't have the luxury of running away.

An out-of-control, tantruming toddler is also a frightened child, as stunned by her behavior as you are. She needs you. She needs to know that what she's doing isn't so scary that it frightens you away, and she needs to know you will help her learn better ways to express herself.

Tantrums usually begin at about 18 months and typically occur until 4 or 5, although prime time is 2 to 3 1/2 when language skills lag far behind what a child wants to say. Not all tantrums look alike -- some children hold their breath, some bang their head against the floor, others become quiet but immovable.

``Intense, persistent children with high activity levels have the worst tantrums,'' says pediatrician Barry Zuckerman of Boston Medical Center. A specialist in children's behavior, he is also a professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

What causes tantrums?

Luckily, tantrums aren't nonstop. Usually, there are plateaus says Levinson, who is author of ``First Aid for Tantrums'' (published this month by Saturn Press, and yes, Peter was her inspiration). Tantrums might erupt as frequently as several times a day for several months, then level off, perhaps even disappear, until the next growth stretch.

What usually prompts them is the discrepancy a toddler feels between wanting to be more independent and not having the skills or the freedom to do what he wants, as in, ``No, no! You can't climb on the counter to get cookies!'' If a child is hungry, tired, or wired, it only makes matters worse.

In the beginning, at least, tantrums are not manipulative, although they can become that way if parents give in to them. For 2- and 3-year-olds, however, ``it's not as if they choose to do this. Feelings and situations just overtake them and they fall apart,'' says educator Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of ``Parenting Your Toddler'' (Addison Wesley, 1995).

Children don't fall apart without warning, though.

``Each child's signals are different but each child does send signals,'' says Zuckerman; for instance, a voice that gets louder and whinier or an increasingly agitated affect.

Don't ignore these signals, advises Levinson: ``It's a big mistake to say to yourself, `I can do one more errand.' '' At this early-warning stage, it's often possible to head off the tantrum by diverting or redirecting her attention, or zooming in with a big dose of empathy: ``I can see you're getting upset because you want to stay longer. You must really love this playground. Should we plan to come back tomorrow?''

Once a child is into a tantrum:

-- Don't talk to him. He can't hear you.

-- Don't pick him up unless he comes to you for comfort or is physically unsafe, banging his head on the floor, for instance. Then pick him up and place him back down in a safer place.

-- Let the tantrum run its course, usually three to five minutes. Sit nearby but remain neutral and impassive; tantrums feed on attention.

-- Don't leave the room. ``That's scary,'' says Shimm.

-- When the tantrum is over, it's over. Hug him and say, ``I'm glad you feel better,'' and move on.

You do need to talk about it, but not until some time after it's happened, when everyone is feeling fine. Avoid judgmental statements -- ``That was bad!'' -- and focus instead on letting him know you understand how frightened he is when he has a tantrum. With a 2-year-old you might say, ``I know it doesn't feel good when you have a tantrum. Next time, try to remember I'm there to help you.'' With a 3- or 4-year-old you could add: ``When you are angry, use your words; you don't need to lie on the floor and cry.''

Don't look for results today, tomorrow or even next week, however. ``You're doing this for the long run,'' says Zuckerman, teaching that it's OK to express frustration and anger at life's disappointments, as long as you do it in socially acceptable ways.

Helping your child learn to delay gratification can speed the process, says Shimm. ``Don't jump up every time she wants something. Tell her, `In a little while . . .' ''

Not surprisingly, tantrums in public are the ones that get parents the most. ``You're mortified,'' says Levinson. ``All those people staring at you.''

Her advice is simple: ``Don't look at them. Pretend they don't exist.'' Otherwise, the temptation is too great to yell, hit or yank or give in to his demands. Anything to shut him up.

Always try first to head off a public tantrum (diversion is the best tactic) but if a full-blown tantrum ensues, pick him up and go, even if it means leaving groceries behind. Keep your talk to a minimum: ``You're having a hard time and we're going to leave.''

If he quiets once you're outside, you can tell him you're glad he's calmed down and ask if he wants to go back. Otherwise, just go home, but, Levinson cautions, ``Don't drive while he's in a tantrum in the back seat. It's dangerous.''

When you're on the phone, when you first come home from work, when you're rushing around and when you try to run an errand after day care -- these are also prime potential tantrum times. Part of the reason is that a toddler easily feels left out -- ``Who's paying attention to me?'' -- and part of it is being overwhelmed and even frightened, by the level of activity: What's happening?

Levinson says a combination of those feelings occur at the end of a mother's pregnancy. ``It's high anxiety: `Why does my mommy look like this? Why are people always asking her how she feels? Why does she have a suitcase packed?' He certainly can't ask you these questions, maybe he can't even formulate them to himself, but he's picking up vibes and he's worried,'' she says.

One-on-one time

When Peter had his tantrums, her antidote was to spend a lot of one-on-one time with him, playing, soothing, and reassuring. ``I'm not sick,'' she would say. ``It's almost time for the baby to come and people show their interest by asking questions.''

Levinson is convinced world-class tantrums at the end of any mom's pregnancy are in a class of their own and have little to do with wanting juice or independence, or being tired or hungry.

``They're just about wanting Mommy,'' she says.

-- Take along an activity bag with snacks and a variety of small toys whenever you take a toddler any place in public.

-- Giving in to your child's tantrum may get you immediate results but in the long run it reinforces tantruming and probably will make you feel awful about your parenting as well.

-- Offering choices -- ``Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue one?'' -- can head off a tantrum.

-- When you can't figure out what your child is trying to tell you, avoid saying to another adult, ``I have no idea what she wants,'' and say to her instead, ``I'm not sure what you're telling me but I want to help you,'' and then offer choices.

-- When you first come home from work, head off a tantrum by interacting with your toddler before you do anything else, including plugging into your caregiver or spouse.

-- Tantrums while you're on the phone are very common. Don't get on the phone unless your toddler has something to do. If you're talking and a tantrum's blooming or formed, get off quickly and deal with it as you would otherwise. Don't say, ``Gotta go, he's having a tantrum.'' That can be reinforcing.

-- Many school-age children still have temper tantrums, (typically, feet stomping). Consult your pediatrician if they happen several times a week and if the rest of his life is problematic -- difficulty keeping friends, problems at school.
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