Ah, tantrums. Aren’t they fun? When tantrums first start — somewhere between twelve and eighteen months, give or take — they’re actually kind of cute. They mean your child isn’t a baby anymore. He’s forming his own opinions and learning independence and stuff.
Actually, I take that back. They’re not cute at all. They’re awful and loud and scary. They’re like a colicky baby, only louder and bigger, and with the added fun of feet kicking at your face and little teeth biting your arm.
It’s just that in retrospect, after you’ve experienced REAL tantrums, which is when your three year old screams for three. hours. straight until you lock yourself in the closet to escape it, you look back on tiny toddler tantrums and think they’re kind of cute.
But either way, it’s hard to know what to do with tantrums. Especially when they first start. You’re used to doing everything you can to keep your baby happy, and after a year of practice, you’ve gotten pretty good at it. And then you wake up one day and you don’t have a baby anymore, you have a toddler who cannot be made happy no matter what you do.
I am still learning what to do. But I can tell you what not to do.
1. Ignore it. I know, I know. All the experts say to ignore tantrums and they’ll go away. Trust me on this one: they’re wrong. Or at least they were wrong for me. Maybe ignoring it will work for your kid. But just try to ignore my kid while she’s throwing a tantrum. I dare you. She will follow you around hitting you, pulling your hair, and trying to climb up your body so she can gnash her teeth in your face. This is not easy to ignore.
But feel free to try.
2. Give in. This is one where the experts are definitely right. Don’t give in to tantrums. Never, never, never give in. If you said no to something and then your child starts screaming, you cannot give in and say yes. Because then your child will never stop throwing tantrums. And I know the experts are right on this, because don’t we all know adults who still throw tantrums? Of course we do. That’s why your boss is gnashing her teeth in your face right now. Her parents gave in when she was two.
Solution? Don’t ever say no. Once you’ve said no, you’re locked in. Avoid it, and you’re allowed to backtrack.
3. Try to fix it. The lady at the coffee shop tried to fix a tantrum for my daughter the other day. Anastasia was eating a popsicle (organic and local, of course — yay King of Pops!), and the last bite of popsicle fell on the floor. Anastasia started crying. (This wasn’t even really a tantrum. She was just sad. With good reason. I would cry too if my last bite of chocolate sea salt popsicle fell on the floor. Wouldn’t anybody?) But the lady at the coffee shop started freaking out. “Don’t cry!” she said. “Don’t cry! You want another popsicle? You want me to give you an Oreo?” This while I was shaking my head violently at her and making frantic “no-way-in-h***-please-no” gestures at her. No, my daughter does not need another popsicle. She does not need a cookie. She does not need coffee. She is going to survive.
Sometimes, the only way out of a tantrum is through.
4. Get mad. Some people think that a little judicious anger — and maybe even yelling — will teach toddlers not to throw tantrums. Not true. If you get mad when your toddler is mad, the emotional level in the room will rise so fast it might set your house on fire. You can’t fight fire with fire. You gotta stay calm, mama. Breathe. Hide. Don’t take it personally. Your child’s emotions do not control you.
Keep telling yourself that. It will be true eventually.
5. Worry what other people think. Those critical looks that non-parents are giving you in the grocery store line because they have no idea what it’s like to try to buy the groceries you desperately need for a week while your two year old is screaming to buy the strawberry shortcake paper doll that some cruel shopper carelessly left in the checkout line? They do not matter. Those people are only judging you because they have never been in your shoes. You should feel sorry for them, because in a few years when they have kids, they will have to contend not only with other people’s judgmental looks but also with their own guilt for having done that to you. People who have never dealt with a toddler tantrum in public are not your friends. Karma is your friend. They will get it someday.
6. Distract. Ok, so distraction can work sometimes. Especially with young kids. But to be honest, I’m not a fan of the technique. It can be useful in the short term (and hey, we all need short-term solutions sometimes, so don’t think I’m above using it occasionally). But it just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would teach healthy emotional strategies in the long-term. Think about it. Your friend is crying. You dangle a shiny necklace in her face. “Look!” you cry, with exaggerated enthusiasm. “Pretty necklace! You want one? Let’s go shopping!” Sure, your friend might forget about her woes for a while. But not because she actually dealt with the issue.
I can totally see this technique creating shopaholics.
Not to say shopping is an unhealthy way to deal with emotion or anything.
7. Minimize your child’s emotions. It is really hard to take your child’s tears seriously when she is screaming like a banshee because she got a red balloon instead of a pink one. Sometimes you just want to laugh at the absurdity. But you should. Take it seriously, I mean. Not laugh. Because even though whatever is upsetting your child is actually not a big deal, to her right now it is a big deal. She deserves the respect of your concern.
You can laugh about it after bedtime.
So what should you do with a tantrum? The best approach I’ve found is to encourage it. Yes, really. It’s counterintuitive, but when you acknowledge and encourage the emotion your child is experiencing, they can move through it faster. So instead of “Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Have another popsicle!”, you say, “You’re sad. You’re so disappointed. You really wanted that last bite of popsicle. It feels like the end of the world!”
For some reason, this helps my kid calm down.
I have no idea whether it makes tantrums less common or not.
I’m pretty sure that no matter what you do, no one gets through the toddler years without much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But it’s okay. A few toddler bites never killed anybody.