Quite a while back, I wrote about a post about the terrible twos, the wonder weeks and temper tantrums and that I would follow up with another post on what I’ve learned about dealing with these difficult situations. My apologies for the long delay with the follow up post, but here it is better late than never…
From the fact that there is so much written about toddler temper tantrums, the terrible twos (and threes!) and even a need to create new labels for difficult behaviours like the wonder weeks, I think we can agree that difficult behaviour from infants and toddlers are a normal part of growing up. The notion that toddlers who act up are the result of poor parenting is an ignorant belief that belong to individuals who have never had children of their own.
Even the best behaved toddler will experience the occasional temper tantrum. How frequently and how extremely a toddler experiences temper tantrums depend on that toddler’s individual nature and temperament. Obviously, the milder the child, the less likely they are to fly into tantrums, while the more headstrong and high-spirited child is more likely to experience more frequent temper tantrums.
Temper tantrums in toddlers usually involve whining and crying and may include screaming, kicking, hitting, and breath holding. Thankfully, most of our experiences with Gavin so far only involve whining, crying and possibly screaming only. While there were some mild attempts at hitting when he was younger, we were able to nip it in the bud before they became the norm. Temper tantrums are equally common in boys and girls and usually occur between the ages of 1 to 3.
Why Do Toddlers Have Temper Tantrums?
Temper tantrums usually arise as the result of a toddler’s inability to articulate his frustrations (between the ages of 1 to 3, toddlers are still learning to communicate and often lack the language skills to express their needs, desires and disappointments). A toddler at this age is still learning new skills and trying to make sense of the world around him. He is often met with frustrations which his primitive coping skills are not equipped to deal with. He experiences strong and intense emotions that he has not learned to cope with and requires an understanding parent to help him manage them.
I strongly believe that how a parent manages a toddler with a temper tantrum is paramount to that child’s future development and ability to cope during difficult periods of life. Learning to accept frustrations and deal with difficult situations in life is part of growing up. Although a child will eventually learn to resolve these issues on his own, whether he learns positive or negative methods of coping may be the equivalent to a game of Russian roulette. A parent would be effectively leaving it up to chance by choosing not to educate their child on appropriate methods for coping with difficulties.
For instance, a positive method for dealing with anger might be to take a deep breath and count to ten, while a negative method would be to destroy a painting. Alternatively, think of the tennis player who throws her racquet when frustrated at having missed the ball versus the one that internalises that frustration and rises with a greater determination to play better. Both methods effectively diffuse anger, but have very different outcomes. Obviously, we want our children to develop positive methods for coping with difficulties in life.
To increase the likelihood that your child develops positive methods for coping, parents need to be actively involved in the process. We need to show understanding and provide appropriate guidance that show our children that there are better ways to deal with frustrations.
Part of providing that guidance involves an understanding that toddlerhood is an extremely challenging period in life that is fraught with disappointments and intense emotions. Being able to view experiences from the perspective of a child and understand the reasons for their frustrations helps parents to help toddlers navigate through such troubled waters. Appropriate management of temper tantrums can have a significant impact on how that child eventually learns to deal with future difficulties in life.
Let’s look at an example of the kinds of disappointments toddlers endure. For instance, running out of a favourite breakfast cereal may seem like a minor disappointment to a parent, but for a child, it might be the equivalent of being passed over for a well-deserved promotion. For a parent to reprimand a distressed toddler who is clearly unable to cope with the disappointment of not having his favourite cereal for breakfast would be the equivalent of berating an adult for being disappointed about not receiving a deserved bonus or promotion.
The aim is to eventually help that child manage emotions so that such outbursts at breakfast are no longer necessary. However, berating, belittling or even smacking a child for trying to express disappointment is unnecessary and excessive.
When dealing with temper tantrums, understanding the situation from a child’s perspective is first and foremost the most important part of dealing with the tantrum. Having an understanding guides parents on how to manage individual temper tantrums on a case by case basis. Each temper tantrum is associated with different triggers and may require different methods of management. Being able to determine the best method for managing a particular tantrum comes through understanding and experience.
Along with internal triggers, tantrums also have external factors that have a strong influence on them, such as environment and situations. Certain situations can also make temper tantrums more likely to occur. For instance, when a child is tired, hungry, uncomfortable or seeking a parent’s attention. Think about when you’re tired, hungry, or sick and how well you cope when you’re on the road and a car that cuts you off, or if your boss tells you off for something that wasn’t within your control.
As well as understanding the cause of the temper tantrum from the point of view of your toddler, the other part of dealing with temper tantrums involves managing and controlling external factors. Being in tuned with your child’s point of view also assists in your management of the tantrum that is triggered by these external variables. For instance, it would not be fair to berate a child whose mood and temperament has deteriorated due to being overtired or from low sugar levels.
While an adult who is grouchy and irritable from fatigue might be able to explain his behaviour by telling you he is merely tired, toddlers often lack the ability to communicate their needs effectively. Your toddler might realise he feels out of sorts but not be able to attribute it to being overtired.
With these considerations in mind, we will examine some of the various methods of dealing with temper tantrums in the next post on this topic.