Stopping tantrums

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 11, 2009 06:00 AM

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My son, who just turned two a few weeks ago, is beginning to become very hard to deal with.

He has tantrums that escalate into hitting either myself or himself. He'll remove my glasses and try to scratch my face. When he is told something he doesn't like, for instance, "No, you can't walk in the road," or "time for a nap," or even putting him into a stroller or shopping cart, he goes crazy. He starts screaming and it turns into full head-on rage. I have tried putting him in his crib so he is safe and unable to destroy anything around him. However this does not seem to be working. I have also told him I know he is upset even though he can't say it but that enrages him more. He is in speech therapy and occupational therapy. He is a bit delayed in his speech and does become frustrated very easily. He also has low muscle tone which has delayed his motor skills a bit. I am just at a loss at what to do to control the situation or at least try to calm it. Please help.

From: Karen, Albany, NY

Hi Karen,

I know you know this, but it's worth repeating: tantrums are very typical, starting at about 18 months; they can range in intensity and duration; and often (as you obviously know) have a lot to do with a child's inability to verbalize. Given that your son has some delays, that may add to his frustrations..

Heading tantrums off at the pass is any parent's best strategy. Here are some other tips 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.

Do 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 to the child.

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

Meanwhile, I have to wonder, as I am sure you have, if there is a relationship between the tantrums you're describing -- which, let's face it, sound pretty extreme -- and your son's delays beyond the obvious. Since your son is already in OT and speech therapy, I would definitely talk to the professionals involved about the tantrums to see what guidance they can provide.


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16 comments so far...
  1. My son is two and a half and while he's not prone to tantrums unless he's hungry or tired,he does have a strong independent streak. I've had a lot of success giving him time to transition to the next thing, either with "two-minute warnings", or by explaining my expectations (it's time to get ready for a nap, to go to the store, have a diaper change, etc.), then telling him that I'm going to count to three and if he's not ready when I'm done counting, I'm going to pick him up and take him to wherever I need him to be. It's as though he doesn't begin processing the command until I've begun counting. But it works!

    Posted by ellen1124 September 11, 09 08:13 AM
  1. If your child has some developmental problems (as my twin boys had) he may be frustrated in part because he can't communicate. My boys learned some simple sign language in their therapy (Early Intervention). It might really help and its pretty easy. I'm sure that online you can find some sites that have simple sign language.

    Posted by maria September 11, 09 08:34 AM
  1. I think it also helps to give them some kind of choice between two things that you are okay with - which might avoid a major meltdown (not always!). this gives them a feeling of control over whatever is happening. for example, if walking somewhere that isnt safe for him to run free, say "you can ride in the stroller or i can carry you - its your choice" or when its time to go (to the car, up for a nap, up for a diaper change) - let him choose to walk on his own, or be carried instead of just scooping him up and taking him, or choose between toy A and toy B to bring with him. if he puts off making a decision then counting to 5 until you will make it for him would help. the only place this can go wrong is if there are too many choices - providing more than 2 or 3 concrete ones is too much for a toddler.

    Posted by oreo45 September 11, 09 10:38 AM
  1. My daughter was in the Early Intervention program when she was 2 because she wasn't speaking as well as the doctors thought she should be. While her motor skills were above their expected levels, she simply wouldn't use her words. When I'd try to force her to use her words, refusing to give her whatever she wanted until she'd actually SAY it, rather than just pointing to it, she'd throw herself on the ground and scream until she was red in the face, sweating, and exhausted. I didn't give in until she finally said "Wanna milk pwease" (or whatever she wanted at the time).

    She's 4 now and still occasionally throws a tantrum. Instead of fighting that battle (I'm not a big fan of her screaming in public when I won't give her a yogurt at the store or can't uy her a new doll when she's already got 50 -literally- at home), I make her look at me in the eyes and as "Are you done?" and most of the time, she'll say "Yes" and quiet down. If she tells me she's not done, I wait about 5 seconds and ask her again. "Are you DONE?" "Yes momma." Then I explain to her that she can have whatever it is she's asking for later on.

    My cousin took my "Are you done" approach and applied it to her 2 year old son and 2 year old step-son. So far, it's working well for her, though it doesn't work for everyone.

    I also saw a pretty amazing video called "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" that gave us some great tips on how to deal with tantrums: Act like a toddler, yourself. If they're throwing a fit, you throw one too! Throw your hands in the air and whine (like a baby... don't make it out like you're making fun or being mean to them). Say things along the lines of why they're throwing a fit "I'm so angry! I don't want to go to bed!" so that they know you understand why they're upset.

    Hopefully some of this helps.

    Posted by Catharine September 11, 09 10:50 AM
  1. My child did the same thing. Turns out his hearing was terrible. Maybe go get his hearing checked just to rule it out! Best of luck, I know it isn't easy!

    Posted by Melissa September 11, 09 01:29 PM
  1. i agree with alot of the postings in this board though the child needs to know hitting (you or himself) is unacceptable. my kid tries to hit us and himself for attention. He does it much less now because we give him time outs for hitting. he thinks twice now and if he does hit out of anger he is really understanding that he is about to get a time out. But I also agree with Catherine that you show him you understand why he is angry so he can justify his feelings but that the act of hitting and scratching etc behavior is unacceptable.

    Posted by jadee September 11, 09 03:06 PM
  1. I have the worlds greatest 2 and 1/2 year old daughter. My wife and I are very lucky. She is smart, has an excellent vocabulary, fiercely independant, beautiful, I love her to death.

    She still throws blood curdling, eardrum breaking tantrums when she doesn't get her way, is too hungry or tired. They stink. I too, will put my nose against her nose and ask: "Are we all done?" It does have some good results, I will throw the tantrum with her, I am a bad dad and will laugh at her too...... I figure with loving attention and my own personal patience this will pass in time. I will also ask her to breath with me and take a big animated breath and ask her to do the same, 5 or 10 breathes later, she doesn't seem to remember why the need for the tantrum.

    Persistents defeats resistance! Good luck.

    Posted by lucky dad! September 11, 09 03:54 PM
  1. Sometimes you just have to live through it. My son, an early speaker, had no problem communicating. He just didn't like it when he didn't get his way. He screamed, kicked, bit, hit the wall. A couple of tantrums lasted up to an hour. Our neighbors called the police once (ah, the joys of living in an apartment building) but of course there was nothing we were doing wrong. Just keeping an eye on him so he wouldn't hurt himself. The tantrums stopped after the age of three. He seems pretty normal now, so outlook is pretty good I'd say. Be patient, be strong. It's all worth it!

    Posted by Voice of experience September 11, 09 04:33 PM
  1. A two-year old in Speech Therapy?? Are you joking? It's called reading. Try reading books to your child, there will be no need for speech therapy and it will save you alot of money! Some kids don't start speaking until they are 3 or older. That I would say is maybe a delay. Certainly not at child who "just turned two a few weeks ago". I agree with the sign language comment, try teaching him some signing skills that might help until he can better develop his vocabulary.

    It's really sad and amazes me how many parents are "hands-off" when it comes to their own kids. I read my kids everything I could find. I would read them the dinner menu from restaurants and even the TV Guide, just so they could hear "talk" and learn from it. No need for Speech Therapy!

    Posted by daveg September 11, 09 04:46 PM
  1. I feel like you are describing my daughter exactly when she was two and she was also in early intervention for speech delay, physical therapy and ot for low muscle tone. They called it "sensory integration" or sensory deficiency. She had horrible temper tantrums beyond what i thought was normal. She eventually grew out of them and at eight years old is a gem. You are not alone.

    Posted by Katie September 11, 09 05:58 PM
  1. #7 - "I am a bad dad and will laugh at her too"

    What?! Do you do that to adults, too?

    For shame you do that to a child! You're both humiliating her, and teaching her a bad way to treat others.

    I'm lucky, too - lucky I never had your type for a dad!

    Posted by reindeergirl September 11, 09 09:54 PM
  1. What happened to spankings. Give him one good spanking and he will never ever hit you again.

    Posted by GK September 11, 09 11:21 PM
  1. Not a fan of some posters' advice to parents about throwing a tantrum too. Here is why: a toddler generally does this out of extreme emotional agitation -- he/she is completely overwhelmed and hasn't learned what to do with all that emotion. Does it make the child feel less overwhelmed and emotional if mommy or daddy also throws a tantrum? No! Mom and dad's job is to model stability and reinforce that the child is safe. Throwing a tantrum models the exact opposite. So while I can imagine it might work to stop a tantrum temporarily (the novelty of it happening, perhaps, shocks the child), it does not do anything to help the child learn to cope. And it certainly does not do anything to teach the lesson little kids really, really need to learn: mom and dad will keep you safe, we have things handled. Kids spend their young years (well, most of all their years) testing boundaries, seeing how far they can push -- a lot of it, child development experts explain, is to test how mom & dad are keeping the child safe (they go looking for boundaries, because the structure at some level is very comforting -- it tells them that mom & dad are taking care of them).

    Posted by jlen September 12, 09 12:03 AM
  1. Wow. Sounds hard. Try it all and see what works, but mostly I think just hang in there and try to ride out this rough wave. We found some useful ideas from author of Happiest Toddler on the Block: http://dadtoday.blogspot.com/2009/05/cave-boy.html. Feels sort of ridiculous, but worked once or twice.

    Posted by Stefan September 13, 09 09:53 AM
  1. jlen, read The Happiest Toddler on the Block before you reject the advice other posters referenced. It's nothing like you're imagining.

    daveg, it's just barely possible that in fact this parent DOES read to her child, and that you aren't an in fact an expert in language acquisition, and that the child is benefiting from speech therapy, and you're kind of an idiot. I know, hard to imagine, what with you being an expert on this child based on a couple of paragraphs that never mentioned reading in any way, not to mention your obviously deep understanding of toddler development.

    Posted by MelissaJane September 13, 09 03:49 PM
  1. GK wrote: "1.What happened to spankings. Give him one good spanking and he will never ever hit you again."

    What happened to spankings is this - many, many people came to recognize spanking as the child abuse that it is. How would YOU like to be spanked, say, for an abusive-toward-children comment that you just made?

    Posted by reindeergirl September 19, 09 11:06 PM
 
16 comments so far...
  1. My son is two and a half and while he's not prone to tantrums unless he's hungry or tired,he does have a strong independent streak. I've had a lot of success giving him time to transition to the next thing, either with "two-minute warnings", or by explaining my expectations (it's time to get ready for a nap, to go to the store, have a diaper change, etc.), then telling him that I'm going to count to three and if he's not ready when I'm done counting, I'm going to pick him up and take him to wherever I need him to be. It's as though he doesn't begin processing the command until I've begun counting. But it works!

    Posted by ellen1124 September 11, 09 08:13 AM
  1. If your child has some developmental problems (as my twin boys had) he may be frustrated in part because he can't communicate. My boys learned some simple sign language in their therapy (Early Intervention). It might really help and its pretty easy. I'm sure that online you can find some sites that have simple sign language.

    Posted by maria September 11, 09 08:34 AM
  1. I think it also helps to give them some kind of choice between two things that you are okay with - which might avoid a major meltdown (not always!). this gives them a feeling of control over whatever is happening. for example, if walking somewhere that isnt safe for him to run free, say "you can ride in the stroller or i can carry you - its your choice" or when its time to go (to the car, up for a nap, up for a diaper change) - let him choose to walk on his own, or be carried instead of just scooping him up and taking him, or choose between toy A and toy B to bring with him. if he puts off making a decision then counting to 5 until you will make it for him would help. the only place this can go wrong is if there are too many choices - providing more than 2 or 3 concrete ones is too much for a toddler.

    Posted by oreo45 September 11, 09 10:38 AM
  1. My daughter was in the Early Intervention program when she was 2 because she wasn't speaking as well as the doctors thought she should be. While her motor skills were above their expected levels, she simply wouldn't use her words. When I'd try to force her to use her words, refusing to give her whatever she wanted until she'd actually SAY it, rather than just pointing to it, she'd throw herself on the ground and scream until she was red in the face, sweating, and exhausted. I didn't give in until she finally said "Wanna milk pwease" (or whatever she wanted at the time).

    She's 4 now and still occasionally throws a tantrum. Instead of fighting that battle (I'm not a big fan of her screaming in public when I won't give her a yogurt at the store or can't uy her a new doll when she's already got 50 -literally- at home), I make her look at me in the eyes and as "Are you done?" and most of the time, she'll say "Yes" and quiet down. If she tells me she's not done, I wait about 5 seconds and ask her again. "Are you DONE?" "Yes momma." Then I explain to her that she can have whatever it is she's asking for later on.

    My cousin took my "Are you done" approach and applied it to her 2 year old son and 2 year old step-son. So far, it's working well for her, though it doesn't work for everyone.

    I also saw a pretty amazing video called "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" that gave us some great tips on how to deal with tantrums: Act like a toddler, yourself. If they're throwing a fit, you throw one too! Throw your hands in the air and whine (like a baby... don't make it out like you're making fun or being mean to them). Say things along the lines of why they're throwing a fit "I'm so angry! I don't want to go to bed!" so that they know you understand why they're upset.

    Hopefully some of this helps.

    Posted by Catharine September 11, 09 10:50 AM
  1. My child did the same thing. Turns out his hearing was terrible. Maybe go get his hearing checked just to rule it out! Best of luck, I know it isn't easy!

    Posted by Melissa September 11, 09 01:29 PM
  1. i agree with alot of the postings in this board though the child needs to know hitting (you or himself) is unacceptable. my kid tries to hit us and himself for attention. He does it much less now because we give him time outs for hitting. he thinks twice now and if he does hit out of anger he is really understanding that he is about to get a time out. But I also agree with Catherine that you show him you understand why he is angry so he can justify his feelings but that the act of hitting and scratching etc behavior is unacceptable.

    Posted by jadee September 11, 09 03:06 PM
  1. I have the worlds greatest 2 and 1/2 year old daughter. My wife and I are very lucky. She is smart, has an excellent vocabulary, fiercely independant, beautiful, I love her to death.

    She still throws blood curdling, eardrum breaking tantrums when she doesn't get her way, is too hungry or tired. They stink. I too, will put my nose against her nose and ask: "Are we all done?" It does have some good results, I will throw the tantrum with her, I am a bad dad and will laugh at her too...... I figure with loving attention and my own personal patience this will pass in time. I will also ask her to breath with me and take a big animated breath and ask her to do the same, 5 or 10 breathes later, she doesn't seem to remember why the need for the tantrum.

    Persistents defeats resistance! Good luck.

    Posted by lucky dad! September 11, 09 03:54 PM
  1. Sometimes you just have to live through it. My son, an early speaker, had no problem communicating. He just didn't like it when he didn't get his way. He screamed, kicked, bit, hit the wall. A couple of tantrums lasted up to an hour. Our neighbors called the police once (ah, the joys of living in an apartment building) but of course there was nothing we were doing wrong. Just keeping an eye on him so he wouldn't hurt himself. The tantrums stopped after the age of three. He seems pretty normal now, so outlook is pretty good I'd say. Be patient, be strong. It's all worth it!

    Posted by Voice of experience September 11, 09 04:33 PM
  1. A two-year old in Speech Therapy?? Are you joking? It's called reading. Try reading books to your child, there will be no need for speech therapy and it will save you alot of money! Some kids don't start speaking until they are 3 or older. That I would say is maybe a delay. Certainly not at child who "just turned two a few weeks ago". I agree with the sign language comment, try teaching him some signing skills that might help until he can better develop his vocabulary.

    It's really sad and amazes me how many parents are "hands-off" when it comes to their own kids. I read my kids everything I could find. I would read them the dinner menu from restaurants and even the TV Guide, just so they could hear "talk" and learn from it. No need for Speech Therapy!

    Posted by daveg September 11, 09 04:46 PM
  1. I feel like you are describing my daughter exactly when she was two and she was also in early intervention for speech delay, physical therapy and ot for low muscle tone. They called it "sensory integration" or sensory deficiency. She had horrible temper tantrums beyond what i thought was normal. She eventually grew out of them and at eight years old is a gem. You are not alone.

    Posted by Katie September 11, 09 05:58 PM
  1. #7 - "I am a bad dad and will laugh at her too"

    What?! Do you do that to adults, too?

    For shame you do that to a child! You're both humiliating her, and teaching her a bad way to treat others.

    I'm lucky, too - lucky I never had your type for a dad!

    Posted by reindeergirl September 11, 09 09:54 PM
  1. What happened to spankings. Give him one good spanking and he will never ever hit you again.

    Posted by GK September 11, 09 11:21 PM
  1. Not a fan of some posters' advice to parents about throwing a tantrum too. Here is why: a toddler generally does this out of extreme emotional agitation -- he/she is completely overwhelmed and hasn't learned what to do with all that emotion. Does it make the child feel less overwhelmed and emotional if mommy or daddy also throws a tantrum? No! Mom and dad's job is to model stability and reinforce that the child is safe. Throwing a tantrum models the exact opposite. So while I can imagine it might work to stop a tantrum temporarily (the novelty of it happening, perhaps, shocks the child), it does not do anything to help the child learn to cope. And it certainly does not do anything to teach the lesson little kids really, really need to learn: mom and dad will keep you safe, we have things handled. Kids spend their young years (well, most of all their years) testing boundaries, seeing how far they can push -- a lot of it, child development experts explain, is to test how mom & dad are keeping the child safe (they go looking for boundaries, because the structure at some level is very comforting -- it tells them that mom & dad are taking care of them).

    Posted by jlen September 12, 09 12:03 AM
  1. Wow. Sounds hard. Try it all and see what works, but mostly I think just hang in there and try to ride out this rough wave. We found some useful ideas from author of Happiest Toddler on the Block: http://dadtoday.blogspot.com/2009/05/cave-boy.html. Feels sort of ridiculous, but worked once or twice.

    Posted by Stefan September 13, 09 09:53 AM
  1. jlen, read The Happiest Toddler on the Block before you reject the advice other posters referenced. It's nothing like you're imagining.

    daveg, it's just barely possible that in fact this parent DOES read to her child, and that you aren't an in fact an expert in language acquisition, and that the child is benefiting from speech therapy, and you're kind of an idiot. I know, hard to imagine, what with you being an expert on this child based on a couple of paragraphs that never mentioned reading in any way, not to mention your obviously deep understanding of toddler development.

    Posted by MelissaJane September 13, 09 03:49 PM
  1. GK wrote: "1.What happened to spankings. Give him one good spanking and he will never ever hit you again."

    What happened to spankings is this - many, many people came to recognize spanking as the child abuse that it is. How would YOU like to be spanked, say, for an abusive-toward-children comment that you just made?

    Posted by reindeergirl September 19, 09 11:06 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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