Taming the toddler tantrums

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 3, 2012 06:00 AM

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We have a 25 month old son who up until about 4 weeks ago was a perfect little Angel (at least in our eyes!)! He really does have a very entertaining and sweet personality and he is usually a joy to have around! About 4 weeks ago, we started with what I am sure is common 2 yr old behavior, tantrums (huge kicking screaming head banging ones!!) when tired, hungry, can't have what he wants! It is almost impossible to get him to do anything asked (get shoes on, come inside to eat, get into chair to eat, bath, etc etc). I have tried giving warnings for transition (in a few minutes we will do...) and setting a timer (when the timer goes off we will...) and counting to 5 (if I get to 5 you will go into time out). NOTHING seems to work well. I feel like my 2 year old is running our home, and no strategies are working, this is also very frustrating and upsetting for both my husband and I as well as our little guy!

Background info: we have a new 3 month old baby too...just to make things more interesting!

Our 2 year old is very very good with the baby and seems to really like him...

In addition to the tantrums, we are also experiencing separation anxiety (leaving at daycare or with a babysitter or even grandparents!) and very clingy behavior!!

Any help would be so appreciated!

From: Melanie, Kingston, Ontario

Dear Melanie,

I have to chuckle that you mention the 3-month-old baby as background information. Sure, some of this could be attributed to the so-called Terrible Two's. More likely, though, it has dawned on your little guy that this baby-creature is here to stay. Imagine what he might be thinking: "What happened to those good old days? This baby used to just sleep, but I now, I don't know, this baby cries and wants attention and mom and dad, they make these silly noises and I don't have as much attention from them as I used to and what if I go to daycare or spend the day with grandma and mom and dad are with that baby and maybe they will forget about me while I'm gone so maybe maybe I shouldn't even leave mom's side. I need to make sure she remembers I'm here!..."

This is typically a stage when toddlers are feeling their oats and stretching a little bit further from you, literally and figuratively. They can do that because they trust the relationship; they know you're the safe base from which they can explore the world. The baby's presence likely complicates this process a bit for your son.

So here's what you can do:

1. Maintain as regular a schedule as possible for him so that there's predictability in his routines. Remind him now and then what the those routines are. On day care days, tell him, "Today, your job is to go to daycare. When you come home, you and I will....."

2. Cede control to him as much as possible and give him choices as much as you can,. It sounds like you're doing some of this already. Maybe you need to do it more often. Maybe you need to label it more clearly: "You're in charge of when you put on your shoes. Do you want to put them on before you go outside or on the front steps?" Maybe you need to make it more of a game. When my son was young and resisting shoes, we had the "shoe place." We would meet at the top of the stairs and sit down and do shoes. Both of us. Somehow, that was fun. It lasted for years: "Meet you at the shoe stair."

3. Anticipate what is going to cause a meltdown and stop the action to prevent it from progressing: "I can see you're getting frustrated. Let's take a break and then finish X." Not only does stopping the action divert his attention, but it also helps him learn to identify his feelings.

4. Don't assume everything is hunky-dory with the baby. I'm not saying he doesn't love the baby. I'm saying toddlers are impulsive: The feelings that sweep over them are powerful and they take control. Don't leave him unattended with the baby, ever.

5. Create time each day that is special for him: "Billy and Mom time." Arrange this time so that if the baby cries, someone else is there to respond. If your cell rings, make a point of ignoring it: "This is our special time together, I'm not answering that call."

6. Validate negative feelings he might voice about the baby: "You know, babies cry a lot, don't they?"

7. Forget Time Out, at least for now. He's way too young.

8. When he has a toddler, don't try to talk to him. As long as he's safe, let it run its course. I'm a big fan of Dr. Harvey Karp's 3-step "Cave Man" treatment: (1) Forget logic or explanations; acknowledge what he wants with the (2) same intensity he has and using the (3) same kind of language: "You say, No Shoes! No shoes"

9. Still want more? Read this column of mine.

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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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