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Toddlers and Tantrums

November 3, 2017
Plain English Version

The toddler is having a tantrum.

The tantrums of a toddler are normal. Except when they are not. Advice for parents is available from experts.

First, the wrong thing for a parent to do is to get angry.

A doctor said, “What are tantrums made of? The answer is anger and what I call distress. The term I use for ’sadness plus.’” Tantrums start with anger that recedes. The distress behavior stays the same throughout the tantrum.

Parents should note that tantrums usually end with crying and not with anger. That is because crying gets parents to give comfort. The distress, if not the anger, may still be there. The child is trying to manage what has happened.

Most two-year-olds will have had at least one temper tantrum in the past three months. Tantrums also are common in 3-year-olds. They are less frequent over the next couple of years. Tantrums come when fear and aggression peak. They typically happen at a time when the child is still working on language development and skills.

An expert said, “I do not think any child having a tantrum can respond to what I hear parents say all the time: ‘Use your words.’”

Instead, the parent should try to be a “container” to keep the child safe, and then talk about it afterward. An expert said, “You have to see it like a storm. Manage the storm, then find out what was happening beforehand.”

“Things are unglued,” a doctor said. “What do children need to become re-glued? They need the feeling that there’s a competent grown-up who is there to contain them.” She continued, “The last thing you want is for a child to have the feeling of pushing against a wall, only to see that wall fall down.”

Try to think about the reason for the tantrum.

Is it attention-getting? Is there something at stake, like food or a toy? Or is there something the child wants to escape having to do?

Tantrums typically happen when children are hungry or tired or when there has been some big change in their routine. Or, a child may not be tired. He may be furious he has to go to bed. Sometimes, a tantrum may have no reason at all.

Children who have a lot of tantrums or who have tantrums at school or with babysitters may have a more serious problem. A doctor said, “They may have A.D.H.D. or depression or another psychiatric disorder.”

If tantrums are frequent or aggressive (hitting, kicking, biting and breaking things), parents should get help. It is better to seek help than to blame themselves. If parents stop doing things because they are afraid of a tantrum, it is another sign that they should seek help.

Source: The New York Times October 30, 2017

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