Help! My toddler's tantrums are wearing down the whole family. Why does she have them? How can we get them to stop?
"An explosive outburst... occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon a person outstrip that person's capacity to respond adaptively." (Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child.) In simpler terms, children have tantrums when they don't have the emotional or physiological resources to cope with whatever is frustrating them.
Ideally, as children mature, they become increasingly able to tolerate disappointments or limitations. But meltdowns can and do happen at any age; in fact, I know many parents who have had their share of tantrums when things have gotten to be too much!
Our job as parents is to do our best to avoid sailing into the rough waters that can cause our little ones to lose their footing and fall apart. But no matter how hard we try to prevent our children from having tantrums, there may still be times when they cannot cope with whatever demand has been placed on them. Perhaps they're tired or hungry, or they could be feeling overly jealous or hurt.
Usually, there is a buildup of tense moments that warns parents to change course before an explosion happens. But some tantrums seemingly appear out of nowhere; one minute little Michael seems to be playing fine with his cousins, and the next minute he's rolling on the floor, howling with everything he's got.
In addition, some children seem to be born with an easy-going, carefree nature. These kids rarely have tantrums; they handle whatever life brings with ease, unaffected by stress or over-stimulation.
And there are those children who are born with a fragile temperament. For these kids, any disruption in the routine -- staying up a little late, eating too many sugary snacks, having a new babysitter -- can send them into Tantrum-land. These little ones are more vulnerable to change or sensory overload, and don't have the internal resources or self-control to cope at all well.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Be flexible. If you sense that your child is teetering on the brink of having a meltdown, forget about doing that final errand and take your child home for some quiet down time.
• Nourish your child with loving attention throughout the day. Some meltdowns take place when a child is desperate for attention, and has figured out that a sure way to get you to stop what you're doing and focus on them is to have a tantrum.
• Acknowledge upsets with empathy and connection. Sometimes a tantrum can be avoided by simply bringing a shaky child onto your lap for a cuddle and a few words that let her know you understand. "You really wanted your big brother to draw with you, didn't you, honey. It's hard when he goes off to do something else when you're wanting him to stay..."
As children get older, they usually grow out of having tantrums when life doesn't go their way. With words to express big feelings and better self-control, most kids develop the resources to handle upsets without the drama of a full blown meltdown.
If your child continues to have tantrums beyond the age of four or five, it may be worth mentioning to your pediatrician, or seeking some professional guidance.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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