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Tantrums

I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. Jimmy, my sweet boy, is at this very moment lying face-down on the floor, screaming his head off. And you know what triggered all that frenzy? I wouldn’t let him play with my cell phone, because he’s already dropped one in the toilet. What am I supposed to do, change cell phones every month? So now I’m trying to reason with him, but he won’t listen and just cries even louder. Okay, okay, Jimmy. Here’s the cell phone. Oh my God! He just threw it on the floor. What can I do? I know, I’ll give him some ice cream. That’ll calm him down.”

After the first birthday, children experience frustrations more intensely than previously. This is the period when your little angel turns into a raging monster, complete with the explosive outbursts known as tantrums. These fits can take you by surprise with their violence and shocking ferocity. As bad as they look and sound, however, these meltdowns are in fact a very important developmental milestone. Handled properly, they teach Jimmy how to resolve frustration, which is not a trivial affair.

In the first few tantrums, at least, Jimmy is reacting to a sense of being overwhelmed. The trigger may be having too many choices in a situation, combined with being unable to make a decision. Or it might be that he’s getting too much stimulation, especially when he’s overtired. With a little experience, you’ll learn to sense a tantrum coming on and how to avert it by providing comfort or distraction. At times, however, despite all your efforts, Jimmy will reach a point of no return and go into a full-blown meltdown.

The textbook cases occur around fifteen months of age. Jimmy looks as if the world has collapsed around him; he falls to the floor in a heap and kicks and screams. For a few minutes, he’ll vent his frustration and forget completely why he’s so mad. Then, magically, he’ll stop. During the process, he learns that moments of crisis—even dire crisis—pass. When you were Jimmy’s age, you lost control as well, and now you’re perfectly capable of sitting in traffic without jumping out of the car and screaming. Frustration management is as essential a skill for a child as walking or talking. And children who master frustration properly now will fare much better later, both cognitively and emotionally.

Though many parental strategies for dealing with tantrums are well intentioned, they can actually reinforce outbursts. Jimmy will most likely interpret any attempts to smooth things over as attention, and he’ll come to take malicious pleasure in the trigger: his own meltdown. The tantrums will become more frequent and more intense; children who always get attention for their shows of temper fail to develop the necessary coping mechanisms, and down the line they often become what are informally known as whiners.

Early Tantrums


At Home

  • Just ignore them. That means do nothing. Don’t distract, don’t hug, don’t yell. Do nothing. Even if Jimmy is banging his head on the wall, don’t interfere. Let him discover on his own that it hurts.
  • When you sense a storm coming, try to resist dissuading him with food, candy,
    or toys.
  • When the storm has passed, don’t commend Jimmy for calming down. Instead, resume regular business as if nothing has happened.

Away from Home

  • Even if you’re outside, try your best to ignore the tantrum. This may be a bit challenging and embarrassing, but you won’t be the first person in history whose toddler has rolled around on the floor of the supermarket because he wasn’t allowed to make a hat from a coffee filter. If it gets out of hand, restrain him in his stroller or the shopping cart with no comment or just leave the store.

If you stick to this laissez-faire routine, Jimmy will experience only a few of these tantrums within the second year of age, and they’ll disappear as his coping mechanisms evolve. Then he’ll be your little angel again.

Persistent Tantrums

By two years of age, Jimmy should no longer be throwing tantrums. If he is, it’s because you have not ignored them and have thus inadvertently reinforced their attention-getting value to him. By this point, a child who hasn’t learned to process his own tantrums may lack the coping mechanism necessary for dealing with frustrations. The laissez-faire strategy still applies, but expect trouble. Because you’ve established a different pattern, Jimmy may not settle for your new Zen approach with equanimity. He’ll bang on you instead of the floor when he doesn’t get his usual attention. Don’t ignore violence toward yourself or someone else; this is inappropriate behavior and should be disciplined. But don’t give it undue attention either [See: Discipline and Boundaries].

Long-Lasting Effects of Tantrums

If tantrums aren’t handled tactfully at the toddler stage, they can last well into childhood and even beyond. They take the form of explosive outbursts that occur when a child encounters a trivial frustration. Usually, this results from inconsistent parental reactions to the tantrums of a temperamental toddler. Parents who practice a grab-bag methodology—sometimes ignoring, sometimes punishing, sometimes soothing, sometimes rewarding—disrupt their child’s need for consistent behavior and predictable reactions. This variable approach not only destabilizes the relationship between parent and child, it also can destabilize the child’s own internal mechanism, resulting in emotional fragility. If the child’s predisposition to temper reaches extreme proportions, it becomes disruptive both at school and at home.

Child psychologists or teachers frequently raise the question of attention deficit disorder with regard to a kid who lacks frustration-management skills [See: Attention Deficit Disorder]. Occasionally, these well intentioned professionals drive parents to medicate a kid for a problem he doesn’t have.

It’s not too late to teach your child how to cope with frustration, although the longer you wait, the harder it becomes. As I outlined above, strict indifference to temper remains vital to the process except when it leads to inappropriate behavior such as violence, in which case you must clearly set boundaries.