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Child Caring

Coping with tantrums

Barbara,

Any advice for handling toddler tantrums? My 18 month old son has some trouble with transitioning from activities. For example, if it's time to leave the park, he'll flop himself on the ground and kick and scream. Or when it's time to leave in the morning to go to daycare or to the store, if he's busy playing with his toys, he'll throw a kicking and screaming fit. I try to stay calm and explain that it's time to go, and we can come back to the park tomorrow. I usually end up just scooping up a kicking toddler and putting him in his stroller or car seat. I know this is very typical toddler behavior, as he doesn't have the language skills to tell me what he wants, but I was wondering for some advice on how to handle this better.
Thanks!

From: Kathryn, North Shore, MA


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Dear Kathryn,

I have to share a story with you of the epiphany I had about tantrums that changed my life, literally. The story became the introduction to my book. Briefly:

I was leaving the gym at the Jewish Community Center one morning, walking through the lobby when I saw a toddler having a tantrum like the ones you describe. He was on the floor, kicking and screaming. I watched, mouth agape, as the mom wordlessly lowered herself to the floor -- keep in mind this was a busy lobby, with lots of foot traffic and not exactly the cleanest of floors -- and put her face next to her son's. She didn't say a word and her face was expressionless. No anger or upset or anything. Her son's face, meanwhile, registered shock, surprise and, eventually, calm. He stopped crying, and sat up. She copied his behavior. They stood, took hands and walked wordlessly from the building. It was nothing short of amazing. I created a fantasy about this mom: that she was a child psychologist or a day care teacher extraordinaire. Weeks later, I bumped into her in the locker room and introduced myself. Reality had nothing to do with fantasy. Here's the conversation I had with her, as quoted in my book:
"'Oh God, did I totally embarrass myself?" she said. "He'd had two temper tantrums already that morning and I had vowed to myself that the very next one, I wasn't going to try to reason with him or yell, I was going to try to see the world the way he does. That was why I did that," she said. "I had never done it before.'
"She also had not done it since. There hadn't been the need. Her son had not had a temper tantrum since that day. "I probably totally freaked him out," she said.'"
As I go on to write, that mom had broken a pattern of behavior by responding in a new and different way and, in the process, she gained her son's perspective. Sometimes, when a child senses we are with him and sees us as an ally, it can make all the difference in the world. I'm not suggesting that you get down on the floor with him, Kathryn, but ... couldn't hurt! Meanwhile, here are some ideas to deal with tantrums:
* In the middle of a tantrum, a child cannot hear you. Trying to talk to him is a waste of time. When safety is a factor, picking him up and removing him from the scene is a sound plan.
* Try to anticipate what might set him off and short circuit the tantrum by diverting his attention; giving him lots of warming; or just plain offering empathy as if your child is a Neanderthal ala pediatrician Harvey Karp of "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" fame: "I can see you want to stay longer. You realllly reallly reallly like this playground, don't you? You realllly reallly don't want to leave. You say, no, mommy!"
* Let the tantrum run its course. Just be there, slightly removed but not far away. When it's finished, offer a hug, keeping in mind that your child doesn't like having a tantrum any more than you do.
* Sometime later, talk about it: "That was a tough thing, that tantrum. I bet you forgot that I can help when you're upset about something. Maybe next time, you can remember that I can help you."