Although this site focuses largely on infants 0-12 months old, I wanted to touch briefly on tantrums in toddlers and older children. If a ‘fussy baby’ grows into a spirited or just plain persistent toddler, it is likely that sooner or later (usually sooner) you will be dealing with temper tantrums.
There are a variety of different perspectives on how to deal with them, with the keys being remaining calm, and being consistent.
The Happiest Toddler on the Block
In his book, Harvey Karp suggests a strategy for communicating with toddlers, who he likens to cavemen. For the purposes of the book ‘toddler’ refers to children ages 8 months to 5 years old. He claims that by using these techniques you can stop around 50% of tantrums within seconds. Dr. Karp says that these techniques work well with challenging toddlers, but also helps ‘easy’ kids be more patient.
Why it is Difficult to Communicate with Toddlers
According to Dr. Karp, the left side of the toddler’s brain is immature, which means they have poor language, logic and self-calming skills. In many ways they are also under and overstimulated. Overstimulated by video games, TV, etc., and yet understimulated in that they would prefer to run around outside for 10 hours a day, surrounded by many other kids, and constant activity. Instead, we trap them in a house all day and expect them to stay quiet. They find our houses boring!
We think that by being loving, logical and respectful with them, that is enough, but it’s not; the two sides of their brains are not yet communicating effectively enough. According to Dr. Karp, we need to set limits, but that’s not enough.
We are Ambassadors from the Civilized World
1. We need to show respect, but,
2. We also need to speak their language.
Normally, in calm conversation we take turns talking. Even with infants, we have this rule for conversation, called ‘protoconversation’). But when one person is upset and emotional, the rules change to: “Whoever is hungriest for attention goes first, and gets an extra long turn”.
What you say is less important than how you say it.
How to Speak Toddler-ese
- Use short phrases (instead of saying ‘I can see you really want that cookie’, say ‘you want cookie’)
- Repetition (3-10 times)
- Mirror even 1/3 of their emotion (we do this naturally when they are happy: “You did SUCH A GREAT JOB going down that slide by yourself!”
We have to communicate to the right side of the brain using non-verbal communication. Do what they’re doing…if they are waving their arms around in the air saying ‘no, no, NO!’, you wave your arms around and say ‘you’re saying no, no, NO!’.
The Key is Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’
While you have to mirror some of their emotion, you can’t get upset or start screaming! Exhibit some emotion, but not too much. When you’re learning this technique start slow, using it when your toddler is mildly frustrated.
But isn’t this using baby talk?
But isn’t it embarrassing for the parents?
Answer: Yes! But so is having a toddler melt-down in the store.
Isn’t it unnatural?
Answer: We do exactly this when our child is happy. We just need to apply it to when they’re upset too.
How to Handle Temper Tantrums
Reflect back to them what they are feeling, using toddler-ese. If this doesn’t work, ask yourself, ’Is this upset real? Is it exaggerated?’. Go to child and hug and help them. Then use kind ignoring. Turn away, but then come back in 10 seconds or when they are calm. Try the technique again. After 5, 6 or 7 times of this, the tantrums will get shorter.
We are much more likely to believe something if we overhear it (eg. More likely to believe ‘Hey, did you see how nice Harvey looks today’, than ‘Harvey, you look nice today). Use this with your toddler. Mention to Dad at dinner, ‘Daddy, Tommy was really good at listening today’. Or even pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey Elmo, Tommy is having a hard time listening today’.
Play the Boob
Toddlers are used to ‘losing’ most of the day. They are always being told what to do, and how to do it. Let them ‘win’ whenever possible. Pretend you can’t do something, and let them be the ‘one in the know’ for a change (eg. act like you just can’t get that block on the tower. Let them show you how to do it). By letting them win 90% of the time, that 10% of the time that they HAVE to lose…like when you won’t let them run out into traffic…will be less upsetting to them.
Help your toddler learn patience. If you are on the phone and they want your attention, do the following: Ask your friend to hold on. Ask your child what they want. Just as they are about to tell you, hold up your finger and say…’oh…I really want to hear, just wait one minute’. Keep your finger up, and go back to your conversation (but not for long!). Then go back to your child shortly after. This will teach them that waiting is ‘cool’ and that they will get what they want if they just wait a little while. Over time you can extend the amount of time you make them wait.