It started innocently enough. My first born, B, waltzed into the room, picked a book, and asked me to read it with him. The book was “Dotty’s First Book,” and it was a simple numbers, shapes, and colors book. He was having a good time until we got to the page that named a few animals. He identified “penguin” and demanded that I produce his Lamaze squeaky toy. I mustn’t have been fast enough because that’s where it began: the meltdown that would fill the house with screams for a full 10 minutes.
What causes a tantrum?
B is almost 2.5 years old and I’ve experienced enough tantrums for them not scare me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t grate on my nerves — after all, what mother really wants to see their kid in that kind of emotional turmoil? And if the tantrum started much like the scenario above, it’s easy for a mom to feel like it’s all her fault.
It isn’t, though. It turns out that a tantrum is a natural response to anger and frustration because the part of the brain that helps us regulate our emotions is still immature in our little toddlers. In other words, it’s just little kids trying to manage big feelings and sometimes it could even be scary for them.
So remember, when faced with a screaming toddler, science says no one’s to blame (except maybe an immature prefrontal cortex).
What We’ve Done During a Tantrum
First, here’s what we have never done during a tantrum:
- we have never hit our child
- we have never scolded our child
As parents, we have decided that hitting or scolding in order to stop a tantrum is counter productive. Once our son has gone over the edge, hitting and scolding would not make him stop. What it could do though, is make things worse and damage our relationship.
A lot of parenting articles have a list of ideas of what to do during a tantrum. Though we haven’t tried them all, the following have worked for us:
- Taking away the trigger. When B was just a year old, I bought him the “Goodnight Moon ABC” book. I was so excited to read a book to him for the first time but each time we opened the book, he would decide that I wasn’t reading the letters on the inside cover right! Each attempt — I’d read slowly one time, cheerfully the next, in a sing song voice, or sing the ABC song — sent him kicking and screaming while trying to communicate the way he wanted his book read. After about eight attempts to get it right, I decided the book was cursed and kept it where he wouldn’t find it. These days, he doesn’t mind the book and I could do no wrong with it, but I still don’t know why it caused him to lose his rag.
- Distracting him. During the earliest tantrums, my husband and I would distract B by taking him on a car ride. Those short car rides worked instantly and we’d park back at home with the added bonus of having our toddler sleeping at the end of the drive. That was short lived, though, because we later read Janet Lansbury’s “5 Reasons We Should Stop Distracting Toddlers (And What To Do Instead)” and decided that we didn’t want our child to depend on us to regulate his feelings. This led us to:
- Letting our toddler ride the emotional wave. Provided that he wasn’t hurting himself or others, we decided one night to let B scream and cry. We lay him on the bed, pat his little cheeks and told him that we were right there for him waiting to hug him when he stopped feeling bad. Then we took a step back (still in the same room) and just watched him release all that rage. In under three minutes it was over. This has become our preferred method of handling a tantrum, especially if the tantrum is about B not getting what he wants.
After the first time we let our son finish a tantrum, we were surprised at what we got. He stopped crying, sat up, and calmly walked over to me. Then he sat on my lap, smiled, and leaned over for a hug. He then did the same to his dad. Our son didn’t feel judged for misbehaving and I don’t think he would have come back to us as easily if we had scolded him or hit him. Nothing was broken, instead I feel that the trust between parent and child had grown stronger between us. At the end of a tantrum, we had a smiling toddler.
B no longer has as many tantrums as he did a year ago when he had multiple episodes everyday. Now, scenarios like the one caused by the Dotty book are fewer and shorter. That alone makes me happy that we decided to take the gentle approach to dealing with our toddler’s meltdowns. Maybe one day he’ll lose his temper even when his brain is more mature. By then he will also be ready to learn other ways to regulate his feelings and express himself other than kicking and screaming.