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Managing Tantrums

A tantrum is your child’s form of protest.

You are pushing your child on a swing at the park, and it is time to go home for dinner. As you try to take your 18-month-old out of his swing, he starts screaming and kicking you. He clearly wants to stay. This is not unlike any toddler's tantrum.

A tantrum is your child’s form of protest. Whenever you interfere with her desire to have something, do something or go where she wants to go, she gets mad. The crying, screaming, yelling, and biting that just seems to come out of the blue, generally follow the word “no”. In essence, the underlying conflict of the parent/child relationship is that the child wants something, and the parent opposes it.

Tantrums are usually first linked to the toddler years of development, generally 0-3 years old. At this stage of development, the young child lacks the words he needs to express himself, so he communicates with the use of his body, instead. If you refuse to carry him, he may immediately throw himself on the ground, and the storm begins.

For generations, tantrums have been viewed negatively as a child's manipulation to get what he wants, and therefore experts advised parents to ignore the child. According to this old view of parenting, children should be left to cry it out, otherwise you’ll spoil them. Though it is true that parents can fall into a negative pattern of gratifying every one of their children's wishes, letting children cry and not intervening is very harmful to them.

A child who is crying is in trouble and needs your help. She is overwhelmed by strong emotions, feels helpless and alone and does not know how to calm herself down. Our job as parents is to comfort our child and help her work through her frustrations.

One of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood is for young children to build trust in their parents.This trust is the cornerstone of their feeling of safety in the world. Leaving a child to lie on the ground crying makes him feel abandoned and ultimately untrusting of his parents. Though tantrums are not easy to deal with, especially if you're being kicked, there are effective ways to manage these tough moments.

Keep your cool. Take some deep breaths to calm yourself down. If you react in a low key way to the situation, it will resolve more quickly.

Set a limit. It's important to teach your young child that physical violence is not an acceptable way to express herself. You might say, “There is no kicking. We don't hurt anyone in our family.” But she will not be able to follow this rule immediately. Only over time as you repeat this limit will she be able to stop herself. Ultimately your child will listen because she wants your approval and love.

Acknowledge your child's wish. The best way to deal with a tantrum is to quickly determine what the protest is about, and put it into words. For instance, if your 18-month-old is screaming because you refused to give him a muffin, tell him, “I can see that you really want that muffin.” Once you verbalize his desire he has less of a need to protest.

Give your child a reason for your refusal. You might tell her, “It's almost time for dinner. It's Mommy's job to make sure you eat your dinner and keep you healthy.”

Find an alternative solution, whenever possible. For instance,you can offer some carrot sticks instead of a muffin.

Move away from the scene of the battle. If you are standing in the same space and arguing endlessly, the negative energy of the interaction continues. You might distract her by saying, "Let's go find your new car in the bedroom and you can bring it to the table.” In this way, you will break the tiresome impasse.

If he is crying about leaving the park, soothe him. You might say, “It's hard for you. You really wanted to stay at the park. We'll come back tomorrow right after your nap.”

Encourage her to use words. You might say, “When you feel mad, say, 'I'm angry' and I'll help you.” Even is she does not have the language as yet, you want to support the idea that she can use words rather than have a tantrum.

Try to prevent the tantrum. Whenever possible avoid responding to your child using the word no. It is like flashing a red cape at a bull. Try other phrases. For example,when he screams for a cookie,you might quickly say, “It's not healthy to have so much sugar”. When he gets near the stove, tell him, “The stove is hot.”

Identify your child's trigger points. If you know it is hard for her to leave the park and she will tantrum, give her warnings: 5 minutes, three minutes and one minute. Then say, “Three more pushes and we have to go.” This gives her the opportunity to begin to let go of the park on her own. When she is crawling near the cat getting ready to pull his tail, quickly move him or the cat away and give her something else to do. If she tends to have her largest tantrums when she is hungry, always bring along a snack.

Working with a tantrum with these approaches will give your child the feeling that you hear him, you care about what he wants, and he can trust you to help him get past his disappointments in life. You also have fostered his ability to reason, let go and move on in a positive way. As your child grows and develops more language and self-control,the number of tantrums she has will diminish.

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