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Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Everything in Between

Why tantrums are so common in toddlers, and what parents can do about them.

A year or so ago, I noticed a toddler having a meltdown near the library and his father sitting down next to him and saying, "I understand that you are upset right now..." I walked away before hearing the rest, but I'm sure I could have predicted exactly the way that sentence was going to end.

Any parent familiar with parenting magazines could have predicted this. The fact that my daughter was then just an infant and too young to have tantrums probably caused me to chuckle at this well-meaning dad. "He's just mouthing off words that he's read off of a book," I thought. Similarly, I'd chortle each time I overheard a parent telling their toddler to not act out and "Use your words." It became like a little game, to see how similarly internet-era parents were handling their kids' aggression.

Fast-forward to now, and I find myself on the other side of the fence. Daughter is now a little over two years old and tantrums at our home are not uncommon at all. Just the other day, she had a minimeltdown because she wanted us to extract a picture of a pig from one of her books for her to hold. How’s that for unreasonable?

Despite the fact that Sam is usually a very adaptable kid, getting her out of the bathtub after her bath each day is nothing short of a battle. Kicking and screaming, she's extracted from her joyous time in the water, only to start kicking and screaming again a few minutes later about not wanting to be clothed. I've resorted now to bribing her with the prospect of some screen time—yes, I sense you rolling your eyes—and it's working. You get to watch some nursery rhymes, but only if you wear your clothes.

I'm not proud of bribing my toddler, but if you're a parent, you probably empathize. I'm happy to report, however, that in the process of reading up material for this blog post, I've learned a bit about toddler tantrums, and some techniques on managing them that are probably better in the long run (and less lazy) than bribing the kid.

Scientists at the University of Connecticut developed a onesie for toddlers to wear with a high-quality microphone attached to it. They then analyzed the audio of over a hundred tantrums to better understand their emotional content. Traditionally, it was believed that tantrums begin in anger and end in sadness. This study, however, found that both the anger and sadness are intertwined.

The trick to managing a tantrum successfully, according to the author of this study, is to do absolutely nothing at all during the tantrum, and let the anger simply wither away. This leaves just sadness, which is easier to control and manage, as toddlers usually reach out to their parents for comfort when they are sad.

During the tantrum is the absolute worst time, according to experts, to try and reason with the child, or to get them to understand why they should not be throwing a tantrum in the first place. It is suggested that parents give the toddler short instructions, such as "Don't pull my hair," or distract them by saying "hey, let's read this book." Later, when all has calmed down, the talking-to can take place.

My daughter has now learned to very cutely say "Ammaaa, I want the toy" when I ask her to stop crying and ask me nicely for something. She now believes that she can get anything she wants if she asks "nicey," but that's a story for another day!

It's also important for parents to understand that not all tantrums are created equal. Older toddlers often, usually at grocery stores, have the "I want this" tantrum. They see a sweet treat, and when their parents don’t seem interested in buying it for them, go on to have a public meltdown.

My husband and I try and make sure our daughter is well fed and rested before we take her out anywhere, so that she's in the best mood possible—one just cannot reason with a tired or a hungry kid. Distraction works best, so if you have a book or a toy with you that will grab baby's attention, don't be afraid to use it. Of course, we sometimes end up resorting to the ultimate weapon for 21st-century parents—some rhymes on YouTube—if all else fails. As anyone would agree, an occupied toddler is better than a tantrum-throwing one.

There's also the "I don't want to stop doing this fun activity" tantrum, and, as mentioned, this is the one that we encounter most at our home. Toddlers, despite being tiny creatures that entered this world only a few years ago, like to feel that they have control over their lives. Almost nothing pushes their buttons more than having to stop playing in the water, or at the park, just because their parents told them they would have to.

One way to get them to comply, according to experts, is to give them the illusion of control. Instead of saying "We have to leave the park right now," maybe ask them: "Do you want to go to the grocery store or the restaurant first, before going home?" Sam is usually more ready to leave the bath if she knows there's a dress that she picked out waiting for her to wear.

Another way to get toddlers to comply with stopping an activity is to give them plenty of advance notice before it's time to leave. Also, toddlers don't understand time yet, so rather than saying "we have to stop taking a bath in 5 minutes", it might be better to tell them "you can finish giving your bath toy a bath, and then we have to get out of the tub". I'm going to try this the next time I'm tempted to bribe Sam with the prospect of nursery rhymes.

At the end of the day, tantrums are a natural part of toddlerhood, and we must try and view them from the perspective of a tiny person who's just discovering her personality and doesn't yet have the language skills to assert it.

If tantrums are frequent or aggressive for your child, or happen often outside the home with babysitters or teachers, parents might want to seek professional help.

More from Aditi Subramaniam, Ph.D.
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