Q: My 2 year-old daughter is constantly having tantrums, sometimes over the smallest things - like not being able to draw on the walls. She will drop to the floor, scream, bang her fists and sometimes try to hit me. I’m at my wits end! If she isn’t having a full-blown tantrum she is forever whinging. How can I make this behaviour stop?
A: There are few things that can make you really sit back and question your life choices in relation to having children. No, it’s not the sleepless night and subsequent soul destroying fatigue. It’s not the little post pregnancy squishy belly. It’s not even the fact that you can’t leave the house without seemingly packing for a weekend away for seven.
It’s toddlers and “the terrible two’s”. Somewhere between the ear splitting screams and violent outbursts, you sit back and think “why didn’t anyone tell me about this part?” You begin to wonder if someone did tell you about this and you forgot in your oxytocin induced joy. Sadly, the chances are no one told you because it’s one of those things parent generally don’t talk about. No parent likes to admit that they have locked themselves in their room, trying desperately not to lose their mind while their two year old terror rampages around the house like a miniature Attila the Hun.
Which is probably why most of us don’t really understand how to deal with this exceptionally trying time.
Toddlers are in that awkward “between” phase; not quite a bub, not quite a child. Their communication skills are still developing, as are their emotions. Their understanding of the world around them is growing, interests are starting to seed in their minds and their desire to absorb all the information they can is all consuming. They want to touch, taste, feel, use, draw, play. Basically, they want to express themselves, just like the rest of us.
Tantrums are your toddlers way of expressing difficult emotions: frustration, disappointment, anger, stress, sadness. Lacking the ability to communicate their feelings, these young firecrackers will yell, scream, hold their breath, break things, react violently to normal situations, throw themselves dramatically onto the floor or cry. Or all of the above. My son wouldn’t make a sound, he’d just hold his breath until he went blue and passed out. His twin sister would scream louder than any emergency siren, throw toys, crayons, DVD’s… sometimes the cat… at anyone who came within a five metre radius.
Tantrums can range from something quite mild to truly violent outbursts. Sometimes, they’ll stick with the same pattern all the time; they’ll drop onto the floor, drop the bottom lip and howl. Other times, they may employ the more dramatic actions. Generally it depends on what they are struggling to communicate. Is the lid coming off the Play Dough with appropriate speed? No? Tantrum time. Can’t find their favourite pillow? Tantrum time. Did you feed them carrots sticks instead of cucumber? Tantrum time. Are you wanting them to sit still in a trolley for longer than half an hour? Tantrum in 3… 2… 1…
The key to dealing with tantrums can be broken down into three parts: what caused the tantrum, how you react to the tantrum and what happens after the tantrum. Sure, very easy to rattle off. Makes it look easy, doesn’t it?
Let’s break it down in pieces.
Firstly, what’s causing the tantrum? If it makes it easier, start keeping a bit of a diary (yes, with all that free time that you have as a mum…). What was your toddler doing before the tantrum? Was it just before nap or meal time? Was it while you were out and about shopping, having lunch or coffee? Was your bub playing with a particular toy or particular type of toy (Duplo, Play Dough, drawing, interactive games on tablets)? Chances are, there will be some indicator prior to your child’s hostile takeover over of your home. Something is happening that is making them experience difficult emotions that they are unable to adequately communicate. Maybe a particular toy is frustrating them. Perhaps they are becoming overstimulated by something they are seeing or doing. They could be tired. Or hungry. Or stressed. If your child is having a tantrum while you are out in public, you may need to consider if you are asking your toddler to act a lot older than they are. Remember, it’s not in a toddlers repertoire to sit still for more than about fifteen minutes. They have a rapidly developing brain that is absorbing everything around them. Sitting still in a shopping trolley isn’t overly exciting.
So; Your reaction to the tantrum. This is so, so important. Trust me when I say I have thrown my hands in the air and walked away, not knowing what to do, how to do it or even how I was going to cope. It’s a dark, dark place, let me tell you. However, here’s your tantrum survival info:
Remain calm. When you lose control, they lose control. Your child is looking to you for stability.
After ensuring child is safe, i.e. not able to fall and hit their head, away from anything they might injure themselves on.
Walk away from bub, make yourself something to eat or drink. Have a coffee. Sit down and make yourself comfortable (this is harder in public but again, look at your surroundings).
At this point, your child will notice that you’re not there. You’re not reacting. Nothing is changing. Invariably, their next step will be to pick themselves up, walk to a location within your line of sight and continue on with their one person riot. By now, the tantrum is actually over. The cyclone has passed but the rainy days are still hanging around. It is vitally important that you still stay calm right now. Fight the urge to rush over and hug all their difficult emotions away. If you do provide affection at this point in time, it is positive reinforcement for ongoing negative behaviour. So stay strong! It won’t last much longer.
Which brings us to the next step: how you react after the event. Once bub is calm, your opportunity to rush in for hugs is NOW while reinforcing to your child, In a calm but firm voice, to “USE THEIR WORDS” or a short phrase like “show me what you want/need.” Sweep in and cover them with kisses and hugs. Tell them you love them. Reinforce the positive and calm behaviour they are now displaying.
Have a game with the Duplo. Do some painting and move on.
After a while, the source of your child’s frustration should become apparent. Whilst not allowing them to completely rule your life, try to minimise the stress placed on your child. This is not a situation where you stand your ground and say “they just have to learn”. Your child is going through a trying time. Trying for them, trying for you.
The good news is, once you get past the terrible twos and language development improves so will your child’s episodes.