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Parenting Advice Temper tantrums


My son is 16 months old and is starting to show his temper when he does not get what he wants. Last night I took him outside with me to grill out. He saw the swing on the other side of the yard and walked over to it and began pointing at it. I was still at the grill and told him he could not swing at this time because of my cooking our dinner. After a few minutes of this, crying and telling him I was sorry; he walked back toward me. When he got almost to me at the deck he began hitting the deck and crying to get my attention. I told him I was sorry and we would swing tomorrow when we got home. It took him several minutes to get over this. He has begun to do something like this anytime he does not get his way. Sometimes his mom or I will give in to the temper or tell him 'No Sir' and let him cry it out.

Is this an appropriate approach to take or what would be best to handle these situations?

David Wright

Jan's reply:

Hi David,

Thank you for writing about this important topic, and for being a caring father who wants to do what is best for your child.

Tantrums occur when a child, for whatever reason (hunger, fatigue, anger, fear, stress, allergy) has gone beyond his ability to cope with frustration.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a child - a person who is still learning about life and its complexities. He or she simply has not had the time and experience that we have had to understand and tolerate all the various sources of frustration. If we can remember to take this into account, our own level of tolerance and understanding will increase and make it much easier for us to intervene in a caring and successful way. If we act on the assumption that the child is doing the very best she can, given his age and level of experience, we will then be able to express the understanding and compassion that is necessary for handling a tantrum in the best way possible. If we act on the assumption that the child should behave as would an adult at all times, we are doomed to failure.

It is far easier on everyone, of course, if a tantrum can be prevented in the first place, by being alert to a child's growing restlessness or fatigue, and providing him with some enjoyable activity. In the example you describe, for example, your son was becoming restless while you were busy cooking. A busy parent and a bored child is a combination that can often lead to tantrums or other troublesome behavior. At those times, a little creativity can go a long way to prevent problems. In your example, you might provide him with a cardboard box and a spoon so he can pretend to barbecue as you are doing.

If, in spite of your attempts to prevent tantrums, they continue to occur, try to determine if there is a pattern to them. Do they occur at the same time of day, after certain foods, or with the same people? If possible, avoid the source of the frustration, change the child's schedule (perhaps he needs more rest before certain activities), or avoid stressful overexertion, such as lengthy shopping trips.

If a child does have a tantrum despite your best efforts, the most effective approach is one that is gentle, understanding, and non-threatening. Tantrums are also distressing to the parent, of course, but the child is less able to control his rage. If the parent reacts with anger, impatience, or threatening words, that will only increase the child's distress, because he is looking to the parent for help. If it seems to the child that the parent is unable to provide this support, that will only serve to frighten and upset him further. (Punishment will only make things worse, because the source of the behavior has not been addressed, the child will become more angry, and a vicious cycle will result.)

While it may be difficult for parents to remain calm when a child has lost control, it is vital that we provide this control for the child. As Dr. Judith Kariansky wrote, "Remember, when they have a tantrum, don't have one of your own."

As soon as a child allows it, try to calm him by gentle touching and soft words. If you are in a public place, try to move to a quieter, less crowded, and less brightly lit place. Nursing or a nutritious snack can be helpful at that point (always bring snacks with you when traveling away from home with a young child).

An excellent example of a gentle and effective approach to a child's tantrum is presented in The Womanly Art of Breast­feeding (written and published by the La Leche League):

"When our youngest was about two and a half, a friend had come for lunch, and Peter was for the most part amusing himself. But late in the afternoon, when I told him to stop something he was doing, his tolerance level burst and he had his first tantrum! I went over and sat on the floor beside him and reached over to pat him gently. At first he rejected my hand and literally threw it back at me. So I just sat by him and waited, whispering "I love you Petey."

"He quieted very quickly and rolled himself over to me, burying his face in my lap, and finished sobbing in comfort. When the storm was over, he had forgotten what started it and we trotted immediately to the kitchen. While I was happy and relieved to know that I had been able to calm him, I girded myself for repeat performances. To my surprise, he had only two or three more tantrums, and they were mild and quickly over."

Parents who have been able to stand by their child, letting him know they love him no less at difficult times, usually find that tantrums become fewer and easier to control. Knowing that we are loved for ourselves, regardless of whether we can always stay in control of our behavior, is a very powerful source of inner strength and further growth.


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