Let The Tantrums Begin!

Hi Mamas,

I have a 14 month old firecracker! She is a bright, fun and goofy kid that makes me laugh every day. As I am starting to use “no” and divert her away from things she shouldn’t be playing with, she is starting to have little meltdowns — crying, screaming, doubling over. This has only happened twice but I want to make sure I react appropriately. Is it bad to ignore her when she is crying so hard? Please advise so I can curb this behavior before it happens more often.

Thanks, Worried Mom

Dear Worried,
First of all, thanks for your great question. It’s clear to me that you are already on the right track and sensing the correct way to go. You just need a little confidence, a little clarification about what’s going on, and a few tips to help you keep moving in the right direction.

To make it as clear as possible, lets break it down like this:

What: Yep, it’s a tantrum. Kicking, screaming, crying, and whining are the most common behaviors seen but for no extra charge you can also get hitting, throwing themselves on the ground, and breath-holding, too.

Who: Girls and boys between the ages of 1 and 3.

Where: Anywhere!

When: Any time is possible but they can go to the dark side fast when they are overtired, hungry, FRUSTRATED, looking for attention or wanting some independence or control of their world.

Why: Because kids this age don’t have much say about their environment; want what they want when they want it; can’t communicate their wishes; don’t get the whole concept of sharing; don’t tolerate being sleep-deprived or hungry very well and have a really hard time with the idea of “no.”

You described the behavior perfectly and gave hints as to what’s setting her off — saying no and taking things that she shouldn’t have away. Imagine that you are waiting for a table in a fancy cafe in Paris– jet-lagged, starving, and dying to order a delectable Parisian feast like the one you read about in your Frommer’s Guide. But you don’t have it with you, you don’t speak French and the waiters don’t know what you’re talking about. And they are ignoring you, and just seated someone else in the table you wanted. Aaarrgghhh!

This situation is likely to set off a grown-up temper tantrum and we all know what that feels like. But we can walk out of the restaurant, make another choice, find someone who speaks our language or give up, go take a nap and come back again later.

Not so for the two-year-old. So, the best thing to do is to try and avoid those tantrums or be prepared to nip them in the bud the minute they start.

First of all, make sure you are covering the basics:

  • stick to the sleep schedule like it’s part of your religion (naps and bedtime)
  • put away fragile or breakable items that you don’t want her to touch until she’s a little older. Try to arrange your home so you’re not constantly having to say no.
  • make sure she eats good stuff at regular times.
  • let her make plenty of choices but only when they don’t matter or when you are in charge of what they are, like “Want to climb into your car seat all by yourself or want mommy to put you in?”
  • give her lots of attention when she is behaving well… all kids thrive on “watch me!”
  • make sure she has enough things to do and play with that are age appropriate and not too much for her to handle — this cuts down on frustration.
  • get good at distracting her when she’s going for something she wants and can’t have.

But even the most conscientious moms are not going to prevent all of the tantrums all of the time. And try as I might, I can’t give you a precise prescription for handling a tantrum in progress because so much depends on the specifics of the situation.

But there are a variety of things you can try based on your child’s age, history and what’s happening. The main thing is that you don’t want to reinforce the unacceptable behavior by giving in or making too much of a fuss over it. And obviously it’s never a good idea to spank or hit a child when they are acting out. It’s hard to convince them that hitting is bad if you’re providing excellent pointers on exactly how to do it.

Regardless of the situation, try your best to STAY CALM and to figure out what’s going on. Remember that over-reacting will just rile things up more.

If you see what the problem is and can intervene at that point, great! If she’s really out of control you may have to take her out of the room and explain that hitting, or screaming or whatever she is doing is not okay and that she needs to stop it and calm down. Distraction at that point may work.

Or, if she’s melting down in a place where you feel comfortable and she won’t stop whining after you’ve tried to redirect her attention you can try ignoring it, as long as she isn’t hurting herself or anyone else. If you’re at home and she doesn’t stop, you can calmly put her in her room for a couple of minutes and explain to her that she needs to settle down.

Later when the storm has passed, rock or cuddle with her a little. It’s scary for little ones when they get out-of-control like that and they need reassurance that you still love them. Tell her that you know she was really mad before and ask her what that felt like. Then explain, quietly and sweetly, that in your family you don’t hit, scream etc. when you get angry and give her ideas about what she can do next time she feels that way (like using her words and saying “I’M MAD,” for example).

Of course you’re not going to have a two hour seminar on anger management with a 14 month-old, but you get the picture. You can at least start the conversation about what behaviors are and are not okay when we’re frustrated or angry. And then be consistent about not allowing them.

You’ll have to hone your interventions a bit depending on exactly what ‘s going on and how old she is. But I’m sure you get the main idea. In the meantime though, I know it’s tough on everyone. Hang in there — this too shall pass.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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One response to “Let The Tantrums Begin!”

  1. Paige

    Thank you so much for the advice Ellen! I will let you know how it works for my daughter. You and Rachel are awesome!

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