On the blog today, guest writer and parent researcher, Ashley Trexler from LiesAboutParenting.com is talking about why our kids have tantrums and how we can stop them. Ashley is strongly aligned with the Positive Parenting philosophy and has some great solutions to offer that really work when it comes to tantrums and power struggles with your kids…
I caught myself doing it again, just the other night. Standing over my 2.5 year old daughter, I demanded she brush her teeth, and get ready for bed – now.
Are you kidding me?! I know better. Ordering a toddler around, especially at the end of the day, is a recipe for disaster. You know what’s coming, right? I got The Look. The Look is an attitude – a glint in my daughter’s eye, a sudden hardness in her stance – that makes me want to run and hide, preferably under the bedcovers.
Why? Because The Look comes before The Tantrum.
The Look forces your hand, and makes you demand, plead, cajole, and maybe even bribe your child in an effort to stop the coming storm. Nothing helps. Bedtime will be a battle, the shopping trip will have to be cut short, the nice dinner will end. Tantrums never happen at a mutually convenient time.
Hunger, anger, or disappointment – I used to believe the reasons didn’t matter; that once The Look made its debut, a tantrum was unavoidable. By then, you have two choices: follow through with your demand (ensuring a tantrum), or cave (reinforcing inappropriate behavior).
If any of this sounds familiar, here’s some great news: I discovered an alternative that works…if you remember to use it.
The standoff between my daughter and I didn’t end the way you might think. There were no threats, tears, forced teeth brushing, or shrieking toddlers. Before she could open her mouth to verbalize her anger, I jumped in – with a rephrased request:
“I’m sorry. Would you like to brush your teeth or use the potty, first? Your choice.”
She thought about it, and headed for the potty. Crisis averted. My daughter wanted a say in the matter. That’s all.
Yes, it is possible to stop a temper tantrum in its tracks.
Is a Tantrum a Reaction, or a Valid Need?
The key to stopping tantrums is to understand why they’re happening.
Tantrums are a physical manifestation of an unmet emotional need. Typically one of the following:
– a need for empathy
– a need for control
– a need for environmental change (overstimulated, bored, tired, fearful)
As parents, it’s not our duty to meet every single demand of our children. That would be exhausting, impractical, and result in an army of terrifying toddlers. It is our job to empathize with their emotions, foster independence, and know when our child has had enough.
Toddlers can’t differentiate between large and small problems, because every problem is a large one at this age. If we can anticipate, and respect, our child’s emotional needs, the result will be a calmer, healthier, happier child – and (mostly) tantrum free household.
“Traditional” May Work, But Not For Long
We’ve all done it. (Well, most of us, anyway). Tried the traditional, time-tested methods of halting tantrums. Our parents always say that it worked with us, right? Plus, you don’t want to spoil your child, by caving into their demands all the time.
Your tried bribery, promising your child a sweet, or a fun activity, in exchange for behaving. You try to only bribe occasionally, when it’s really important that your child behaves. The problem is bribery escalates; it’s a lollipop today, and an xBox tomorrow. Human beings are wired to always ask for more, and your child is no different. Bribery also teaches your child that they control you, and your actions, so it’s not a very healthy option.
What about time-outs, and talk-it-outs? Making a toddler “think about what they’ve done” is impossible, because they’re not developmentally ready to process abstract thought. Toddlers understand cause and effect. Do this, that happens. Time-outs, used properly, are a useful tool for overstimulated children to calm down, but not to eliminate tantrums stemming from unmet needs.
Have you tried using a toddler’s most hated word? “No.” You hold your ground and let your child pitch their fit, to prove you’re stronger than them. If your older child is planning tantrums to get what they want, this technique is useful, and often necessary. Toddlers, however, aren’t planning anything. They react, and live in the moment. Holding your ground is simply forcing your toddler to “break” first – to give up. It’s not the gentlest parenting technique.
So now that we know all the methods that don’t work with toddlers, let’s talk about the ones that do work.
The 4 Strategies That Stop a Tantrum In Its Tracks
Okay, so what does stop a temper tantrum?! There are four effective methods designed to stop temper tantrums, before they start. It may not stop every single one, but incorporating these methods into your parenting habits will eliminate the majority of tantrums.
1. Display Empathy
You may not understand why your child is heartbroken over the split banana peel (yes, it happens), but you can still offer your empathy. Empathize by calmly saying, “I understand.” Meet your toddler’s need for reassurance that their feelings are valid, and real. Explain you understand they’re upset, disappointed, or hurt. Empathize with your child’s feelings. Let them feel, and don’t rush to distract or repair.
2. Enforce Strict Boundaries
One of my favorite exercises for parents struggling with behavior issues is to write down the basic “house rules.” On paper. List the rules you refuse to break. TV off during dinner, appropriate dress for church, clean up work before choosing another activity, consistent bedtime, no food in the car seat. Build a “cage,” and within it, set your children free. Work hard to say yes, inside your family’s personal boundaries. It’s freeing, fun, and offers your child some much needed independence.
3. Give Up Control
I’m all for appropriate dress, but does it really matter if your child wears rain boots on a sunny day? Or clashing colors? Or no socks? We hear it all the time – choose your battles. Except it’s not a battle; it’s about respecting your child’s individuality. What you want is not what they want, and honoring their preferences is important. It teaches self-control, discipline, and cause and effect. Really, is it crucial your child brush their teeth prior to using the potty? Which brings us to the last method.
4. Offer a Choice
This is so important, I wish parents received a reminder text, every day. Strive to create independence and autonomy in your children. Children need to make decisions. They want to help, and to be independent. It’s how children learn, grow, and succeed. You can turn anything into a choice. Taking too long to get out of the car? Would you like to use your own feet, or shall I carry you? Don’t want them to devour a whole bag of candy? Ask if they want 3 pieces, or 7. Teach them, through action, to be conscious of the decisions they make every day. That said, limits are important. Toddlers can handle 2 options, and preschoolers maybe 3. Any more, and they will quickly become overwhelmed.
Averting temper tantrums requires a change in thought, not just action. Take a moment, and think about what you can do to allow your child more autonomy in their lives. Make sure your children knows you understand how they feel. You may not always agree, but you can always relate.
Connect with Ashley over at LiesAboutParenting.com and grab her free report The 2 Magic Words That Stop Temper Tantrums in their Tracks.
About the Author
Ashley Trexler is a passionate parent dedicated to debunking popular parenting advice that doesn’t work, and raising healthier, happier kids. To connect with Ashley, head over to LiesAboutParenting.com for a breath of fresh air. Ashley is a contributor to Washington Post, Scary Mommy, Tiny Buddha, and BLUNTmoms.