Sometime during that period of life before having children of our own, we all witness, at least once, someone else’s child having a temper tantrum in public.
Naturally we convince ourselves that this will never happen with our own children, because we will be better parents — proactive, ready for any situation, full of discipline and with all the right responses. That so-called “brat” in the store is transformed in our minds to a wonderful 2-year-old who can easily take “no” for an answer.
Rest assured that it will happen with your child regardless. When you realize that it is indeed happening to you, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm and try to understand why he is acting this way. The phrase “terrible 2’s” allows us to think of this behavior as being “bad,” but these actions are simply part of a child’s development as an independent person. Don’t take it personally. Rather, recognize that these are signs that your child is asserting himself and trying to discover who he is.
WHY TEMPER TANTRUMS?
Sometime between the ages of 18 – 36 months, depending on the child, temper tantrums signal that something is wrong in your child’s little world. He is unable to regulate his protests according to importance — such as using larger protests for more important things. In his mind everything elicits the same degree of response.
Perhaps if he had the verbal skills necessary to tell us what was bothering him, the kicking and screaming might be eliminated. However, children at this age don’t have much control over their impulses, and their tolerance for frustration is quite low. If the blocks won’t stack just right or the shape can’t seem to fit into the puzzle, the child may overreact.
Family psychologist John Rosemond points out that the 2-year-old lives in a very self-centered world that was created by his parents during the first 18 months of his life. By catering to his every whim — and rightfully so during this very early stage — parents instill that crucial trust in the parent-child relationship.
However, sometime during the child’s second year of life the parents begin the process of socialization that transforms the child into a responsible member of society. This sudden change occurs when parents begin to place some limitations on behavior, which makes the young member of society absolutely furious. As a result, this important stage in a child’s development is often characterized by screams and denials. Hence, we have the “terrible 2’s.”
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO
First of all, remain calm. If the child is frustrated because those blocks won’t stack just the way he wants them to, your quiet assistance may be all that is needed. Perhaps he is tired and the solution is as simple as your soothing, comforting words. But don’t forget what caused the problem to occur in the first place and make a mental note to avoid similar happenings in the future.
In The Second Year of Life , Nina R. Lief, M.D. and Mary Ellen Fahs emphasize that parents can often reschedule to avoid conflicts and cut down on the number of tantrums a toddler may have. For example, don’t stay at a friend’s house until your child is tired. Arriving home earlier may be all it takes to avoid a nasty situation.
Parenting consultant Peggy Shecket advises that the more you get to know your child, the more likely you will have realistic expectations. For example, if your child is curious and needs to test his physical surroundings, it’s probably not a good idea to take him to the type of store where touching things is unacceptable. Don’t put your child in situations where his behavior could become inappropriate.
If a tantrum does occur, Shecket emphasizes the importance of staying beside the child and making sure he is safe. Acknowledge how he is feeling, if possible. The parent can be physically present, but not attend to the tantrum itself. Talking to an upset child in a contrasting, soothing voice will often calm him.
Because children at this age are struggling with the independence issue, use something as simple as diaper changing time to give the child choices. Offering the option of changing the diaper now or in five minutes means nothing to the child, except that given the choice, he has asserted his own independence. Consistency is also important during this time, because a child at this age must know his boundaries and limitations.
Another common approach is to divert the child’s attention. A parent can sit beside the child and quietly begin to play with a toy. Without paying any attention to the ensuing tantrum, the parent can casually make remarks about the toy, and in many cases the child’s attention will be shifted to the toy. He can begin playing again without “losing face.”
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
If nothing works and the screaming is more than you can bear, many child psychologists recommend that you designate a place where your child can throw tantrums. Rosemond calls it “The Tantrum Place,” and suggests that you let your child know ahead of time where he will be placed when future screaming sessions occur. Whether it is the bathroom, bedroom or big soft chair in a corner, the special place to scream should be no different than the special place to eat or the special place to sleep. When the child realizes that not much, if any, attention is given to the event, and he is simply removed to that special place, the screams stop rather quickly.
In the case of a child throwing a tantrum in a public place, “The Tantrum Place” is not accessible. You probably won’t be able to talk your screaming child out of his tantrum, and you most definitely can’t ignore him with everyone standing around. Therefore, the only answer is to get out of the public eye and find a remote part of the store. If necessary, Rosemond insists, go outside or return home to use “The Tantrum Place.”
Your attitude is important during this time in your child’s life. If you can perceive these behaviors not as “bad” or “terrible,” but as part of the overall developmental process of your child as he becomes an independent person, perhaps you will join other parents who have recently rephrased the stage, “The Terrific 2’s.”
When One Learns to Say “No!”
The defiance that occurs at age 2 causes many parents to run for cover. My own toddler threw a grade-A tantrum one afternoon when I tried to break him away from the Brio table on the second floor of Davis-Kidd Booksellers. A reasonably affable mother, I had made clear my intention to leave well in advance of our departure, giving him a 15-minute warning, then a 10, then five.
Soon it was time to go … and I had to go … but not him! All of Davis-Kidd witnessed me hauling a kicking, screaming toddler down the grand staircase. Hot, sticky tears ran down his reddened face. My face was red, too. Embarrassed? Of course! Wanting out fast? Yes! In my peripheral vision I saw people gawking like in that scene in the church from The Graduate when Benjamin comes to steal Elaine away.
We made it to our car, where I buckled him in his seat and fumbled with my own belt as I tried to calmly reassure him, but screaming prevailed. What a set of lungs! Panting and horrified I put on soft music and drove sheepishly away. Then I realized …
My child had only recently become empowered by the word “No.” A short time ago he didn’t have this word in his vocabulary. If I offered him a spoonful of food he didn’t want, he simply pushed it away with a pudgy hand. With this new word “No,” a whole world of possibilities came alive for him … and for his doting parents. Now he could loudly resist any suggestion or directive!
I turned to Your Child at Play by Marilyn Segal, Ph.D (Newmarket Press) for sage advice and found it:
“Tantrums tend to be short-lived and your toddler’s mood will soon change for the better,” she wrote. “As a matter of fact, a toddler’s temper tantrum may have a comic quality because toddlers are not too adept at pounding and screaming. Although it may be difficult to be consistently casual when your child is screaming, it is probably the most effective method of reducing the recurrence of tantrums.”
Take heart and remember: tantrums too shall pass. – susan brooke day
Lori Murray is a mother and freelance mother.