Bette J. Freedson
Eliminating toddler tantrums altogether is impossible. Managing them reasonably well is possible.
Tantrum avoidance begins at home. If you do your home work, you will be more prepared to diffuse tantrums when they occur in the car, in stores, in restaurants, or in any place where you want to be, and must be, in charge.
Here is what to do—and keep doing—with tantrums in and out of the house:
Achieve ConsistencyHave a consistent set of rules and limits, and have a kit of small consequences that you can deploy after a tantrum, or after any negative behavior that you want to eliminate. You will be creating a trust in your toddler that you WILL respond with a consequence; that you WILL do what you say; that you WILL be on top of behavior issues. Have rules for in the house and out of the house that both parents agree to follow.Create Predictability and Follow ThroughBe as consistent and predictable as possible, while refraining from threats, such as “I will knock you upside the head if you do not knock it off!” The parent who says, “If you do this, then I will do that…” and who does not do “that” when the child does “this” is setting up for problems. Predictability lets your child know you mean what you say. This is necessary groundwork for diffusing tantrums when they occur at times when you need your child to know you mean business.
Capitalize on Expression and ExpectationsEven if the child is very young and may not understand all the words, your tone will convey meaning. When you prepare your child for going out to some place you know could be tricky, before you go, you might say, ”Sweetheart, you and mommy are going out in the car and mommy expects you to behave. That means no screaming, no whining, and no crying.” Note: Once you are out, if the child is very young and does evidence some sort of actual discomfort, it may be a good idea to check out the problem. But, once you determine the child is fine and safe, you can go back to your directive. “Now, you are fine, sweetheart, and I expect no more crying.”
Use Planned Ignoring—and Follow ThroughAt that point if crying continues and you are in a place where you can ignore it, ignore it. If the crying continues, and you can return home, tell your little one in a firm voice that the outing cannot continue because she/he is making poor choices, and return home.
Have and Use StrategiesOnce you and your toddler are out in tough spots, you will need strategies. They will work better if you have prepared yourself and your child with tips 1 through 4.
- You can use the “If this continues, we will need to leave.” Message: This is one a lot of parents use, but do not necessarily follow through with. If you say this and do not leave, it may work once or twice, but it can quickly become empty. If you are prepared to give up the activity once or twice, this might yield benefits for the future.
- Use ignoring if safety is assured. If you are in a place where you do not mind people staring or glaring, and the child is safe, plan to use ignoring. Ignoring can extinguish a tantrum, but it may take a few uncomfortable moments or incidents.
- Use distraction. Distraction will work better with no threats. If you have used the “if you don’t stop, I will...” threat, and then use distraction, the distraction can actually reward the unwanted behavior. Bring some items for the child to play with or look at, and try them when things look iffy, and use quickly before things go too far.
- Take a break. In a restaurant or other public place, removing the child for a short time can quiet things down. If in the car, you may have to pull into a safe parking spot and ignore him till he calms down. When the child quiets down, even for a moment, you can begin to go again. If he starts up again, and you know he is safe, ignore.
- Reward desired behavior. When the tantrum stops or wanes for a few minutes, you have a golden opportunity to offer a reward if the child pulls herself together. However, as with any consequence, you must follow through with any reward you promise in order to get your full benefits for the future.
An important Do, and a few important Do Not’s
- Never shame your child. Name calling and making the child feel bad about himself may have short-term relief, but usually creates potential problems in the longer term.
- Do not use physical punishment, even though you may be at your wits' end. It may cause much larger problems overall.
- Do not promise any reward that you do not intend to deliver. And do not wait long to apply consequences.
- Do not withhold love, food or shelter or other basic necessities.
- Do not put toddlers alone in a room or leave them in a car alone.
- Do not threaten to make them go live with someone else or to give them away.
Some of these do nots are obvious, but at a parent’s wits' end, going to desperate measures can seem appealing.
Do get professional help if tantrums begin to occur more frequently or if the child becomes self-destructive on some sort of regular basis. Also do consider stress management training for yourself and for any other caretakers who are becoming overly stressed by a child’s behavior. And, take heart, all toddlers throw tantrums. Yours is not an oddity or a casualty of some behavioral downfall.
By using the above tips and strategies you will be in prime position to avoid and diffuse tantrums in top spots—and at home.