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Ask Dr. Sears: Intolerable Toddler Tantrums

Q. My 17-month-old's tantrums have become absolutely intolerable. He cries hysterically until, within a couple minutes, he throws up. The only way to calm him down is to distract him or to give him whatever it is he wants. I know it's not good for me to cater to his every whim, but I get so frustrated, I don't know what else to do. How can I temper my son's excessive tantrums?

A. Your son is going through a typical stage of toddler development, albeit more intensely than many other children. Highly sensitive and deep-feeling children seem most inclined to throw extreme tantrums. The child's desire to communicate a feeling or to perform a particular skill forges ahead of his ability to do so. This leads to frustrations that are released through bad behavior. Since your son's motor skills are developing more quickly than his language skills, he's showing you what he feels, instead of telling you. Although his intense emotions are exhausting to you now, they can, if channeled properly, work to his social advantage later in life. In the meantime, here's how to better parent your toddler through this energy-draining stage.

Identify the triggers

Is he tired, bored, hungry or frustrated? Keeping a tantrum journal will clue you in to what sets him off. For example, if tantrums occur when he's overwhelmed by lots of other children, stay alert to this trigger and intervene before your little volcano erupts. One of my children would crumble whenever he tried to retrieve a toy stuck under the couch or to stack a tower of blocks that kept toppling. When we saw him engaging in either activity, we would simply sit down and help—always being careful to show him how to do it, rather than to do it for him. You want to assume the role of facilitator for your child, teaching him to perform feats more easily or redirecting him to less frustrating activities. It also helps to know your child's pre-tantrum signals (body language, facial expressions). Quickly step in when you see them crop up.

Identify the purpose of the tantrums

Tantrums come in two forms: frustration tantrums and manipulative tantrums. Frustration tantrums require your empathy and support. These emotional outbursts an opportunity to get closer to your child and to teach him to value you as a helpful, comforting resource. If he gets stuck trying to climb higher than he's able, for example, offer him a helping hand. Your support is especially valuable if he's going through the "I do it myself" stage.

Manipulative tantrums ("I'll throw a fit until I get my way!") need to be parented more creatively. If your son is throwing an obviously manipulative tantrum, don't indulge him. Simply be on standby a few feet away, making it clear that you're there to help him when he calms down and asks for what he needs in a more appropriate manner. Your child will gradually get the message that undesirable behavior gets him nowhere. Other times, you'll just have to offer a substitute ("You can't play with the knife, but you can play with a spoon") and explain the reason.

Teach him alternative ways of expressing his feelings

Part of childhood development is learning what language gets one's needs met and what doesn't. When your son is yelling and screaming, calmly put your hand on his shoulders, look him in the eye, and say, "Use your nice voice, and tell Mommy what you need."

Know your anger tolerance

If you lose patience easily when your child throws a tantrum, know when to walk away. Count to ten (or more!) so that you can gather your thoughts and react calmly. Remember, your son is simply acting his age. You aren't responsible for his tantrum, nor for stopping it. When a toddler loses control, he should at least be able to count on the adults to stay in control.

Know when to intervene

Some children, like your son, get themselves so worked up during a tantrum that they vomit. Others may deliberately hold their breath and, on occasion, even pass out. In these cases, "holding therapy" works best. Hold your child in a relaxed and comforting way (even if he squirms) and reassure him with the most soothing voice you can muster. The message you're trying to convey is that he's lost control and you're there to help him regain it. Later in life, when your son is past the tantrum stage, his memories of calm during the stormy behavior will prove valuable.

Temper tantrums usually end between 18 months and 2 years of age, when a child develops the language skills necessary to express his feelings with words rather than actions. So when you're at your wit's end, remember: This too shall pass.

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