Being a toddler is not easy. You want something, but you don’t yet have the words to explain it. You want to keep playing, but your mum insists it’s past your bedtime, or you just want
a little more independence, but your shoes are still a tad tricky to put on all by yourself. So, what comes next? A tantrum obviously…
Tantrums, something that all parents of a two year old will have had to deal with at some point, are a consistent feature of the toddler years. This can be a hard lesson for mums and dads, not least frustrating, but it can also be embarrassing if played out in public or in front of a judgemental crowd. A testing of wills that often seems never-ending, but it is an important process that both parent and child will have to go through. The term discipline is often associated with punishment, when it should be more about setting boundaries and providing safety and security. Finding ways to deal with common issues that work with your family set up is vital for getting through the tough days.
Why do kids have tantrums?
Every child is different so there is no one-size-fits-all instruction booklet for parents to follow. It all starts with understanding the issues and being able to anticipate trigger situations.
In almost every case, children between one and three have meltdowns because of one of two things - frustration or a cry for attention.
As she changes from a baby to a little person, she wants more independence and is willing to fight for it. However, she may not be developed enough to be able to do what it is that she wants. Or maybe she’s simply not allowed, therefore she becomes frustrated. The easiest way for her to communicate this is by shouting, crying or kicking out. She wants to be able to control a situation and is pushing to test the limits. ‘Your toddler understands that her actions matter - she can make things happen. This leads her to want to make her imprint on the world and assert herself in a way she didn’t when she was a baby,’ says child development specialist, Claire Lerner, who’s also director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit organisation promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers. ‘The problem is she has very little self-control and she is not a rational thinker. It’s a very challenging combination.’
It might also just be a cry for attention - she wants a cuddle, a bite to eat or she may even be in pain. In these instances be sure to offer comfort and try to rectify the problem. But if what she wants is not suitable or possible and she doesn’t react well to the answer ‘no’, opt for your preferred discipline strategy.
Avoiding and removing triggers
No one enjoys having to discipline their child, Instead of letting things slip in fear of a battle or not being the ‘nice’ one, try to avoid triggers that may set her off to begin with. So, if you know your little one is due a nap, then perhaps it’s not the best time to go food shopping. Or, if your toddler tends to get hungry while you are running errands, ensure you take some snacks out with you. And, if your tot needs a lot of attention and you are busy, then give her something fun to do to keep her entertained.
Tantrums may also occur at certain times throughout the day. For example, getting into bed or brushing teeth in the morning. Once you have found a pattern of trigger events, then you can start to set out a strategy to try and avoid them or improve your routine.
However, as you all know, every child is different, and there isn’t always a reason for a tantrum. Emma Peile, 32, has two toddlers: James, three, and Danny, one. She says there’s no specific trigger, but tiredness can have a lot to answer for. ‘Normally both boys are pretty placid, although if they’re tired, they can have the mother of all meltdowns over the slightest little thing, such as their drink in the wrong cup, chair in the wrong position or a toy out of place.
‘I can usually calm them down with a little negotiation – although the eldest can take a little persuasion at times, he tests my patience!’
‘We know kids push the limits but when we can be clear as a first step on what those rules are, and follow through on such consequences, we see a difference in behaviour.’
‘It’s important for parents to realise they can’t control their children’s emotions,’ warns child psychologist, Christina Rinaldi. It is also wise to remember you cannot foresee everything. However, there will be times when you have to enforce discipline. We’ve spoken to mums and other experts to find out what works for them.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
Define what is important to you as a parent and learn to let go of the little things. ‘You have to decide whether it’s worth fighting about, and about half the time it’s not worth fighting about at all,’ says pediatrician, Lisa Asta. This means it’s OK to let your child wear her favourite costume two days in a row or not to do her zip up for the walk to school. These are minor concerns and she will grow out of these little habits in time.
Anger can mirror anger so it is very easy to get wound up during a toddler tantrum. But it is vital that you stay calm, otherwise it can escalate and make the situation worse. It will also send out the wrong message to your child. You must be a role model on how to deal with tricky issues. Take a deep breath, countdown from five and start again.
Mum of two, Georgina Maric, 45, agrees. ‘My son Max is five and has always had a temper so when he blows, he really blows and he won’t listen to anybody or anything. What I did when he was younger – and still do now – is take a time out. And this is more for me than him! When you are trying to discipline a child it takes a will of iron not to lose your temper and end up bawling at each other.’
ALLOW YOUR TOT SPACE TO CALM DOWN
Giving her space doesn’t have to mean sending her to another room. It can be as simple as taking a minute or two to turn away from the situation, don’t try to comfort her and allow the frustration to cease. Pushing your child to relax or holding her when she’s wound up can make things worse.
Filippa, 46, mum to Samuel, four, agrees. ‘My son gets irritable and sulky when he’s tired. I have learned the hard way what the warning signs are, but now I know just what to do! If he wants to be left alone, he’ll say no to everything, even if you offer him something he loves, and gets restless, not knowing what to do with himself.
‘I used to try to cuddle him and calm him down, or go after him when he took himself off to another room. This just exacerbated the situation, I got stressed out and wound up, he would then get really agitated and it was carnage. Now, I leave him to it. I ignore him, let him calm down by himself and wait for him to come to me. It is so much better and a lot less stressful.’
SEND HER TO HER ROOM
If stepping away for a short amount of time still doesn’t help, some parents find putting their little one in a room on their own a better option. Before resorting to this, warn your child what the consequence will be and give her time to come round. If it continues, then take her to her room and explain why she is there and how it can be resolved. This can be extremely effective for some children.
Sarah Sinton, 32, sends Eve, three, to her bedroom until she calms down. ‘She knows she has to go there and when she’s ready to say sorry she can come out. This can range from a few minutes to much longer in extreme cases. If she’s found her dolls to play with, she sits there for a while. It can be a welcome distraction to be honest. She’s like a different person when she comes out!’
‘Between the ages of two and three, children are working hard to understand how their behaviour impacts the people around them,’ says Claire. ‘If your reaction to a situation keeps changing – one day you let your daughter throw a ball in the house and the next you don’t - you’ll confuse her with mixed signals.’ Equally, if you respond in the same way to certain misbehaviours, the chances are she will begin to learn what is – and isn’t – acceptable.
Consistency also offers a level of security. Children like having boundaries, it makes them feel safe and looked after. Georgina also advises you to remember it’s not always your child who needs to be taught.
‘What I know I need to do is stick to what I say and not back track – and I’m working on that. Sometimes you have to look at how you, as a parent, discipline and work on yourself, rather than your child!’
REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOUR
‘You’ll get a lot further with positive – rather than negative – reinforcement,’ says Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente SF Medical Center. So don’t always focus on discipline. Of course, parents need to rectify bad behaviour, but ensure you balance this out with recognising and rewarding good behaviour, too.
If you don’t do this, children can start to misbehave just to get any form of attention they can.