Why Toddlers Throw Temper Tantrums
Research explains why toddlers have temper tantrums and the reasons behind bad behavior.
How to Handle a Tasmanian Tot
The next time your child has an episode, Potegal recommends asking yourself “What function does this inappropriate behavior serve?” If your tyke is looking for attention or a “tangible” (toy, food, or other treat), the best response is to ignore the behavior and maintain your own emotional composure. My friend Mana Heydarpour of New York City learned this lesson the hard way: When she told her strong-willed 3-year-old, Ella, that she couldn't watch her favorite TV show, she screamed, “I don't like you! I'm so disappointed with you!” “It made my blood boil so much that I couldn't help yelling back at her,” Heydarpour says. As a result, Ella's fit lasted for half an hour. Potegal calls this the Anger Trap. “If you get just as mad and irrational as your child, it's like throwing gas on a fire,” he says.
But he warns of another trap, too: the Sadness Trap. “When you comfort a child in the middle of a tantrum, you reinforce the behavior. Instead, say ‘I'm sorry you're upset. When you calm down, I'll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.’” This way, you offer support and sympathy while still showing your tot how to regulate his emotions. “Since that meltdown, I've learned to say ‘I'm not talking to you while you're behaving like this,’” Heydarpour says. “Ella composes herself so much faster when I manage to do that.”
But the above strategy doesn't apply to an “escape” tantrum: a child going bonkers because he doesn't want to do whatever it is you want him to (clean up, sit at the table, etc.). In this case, ignoring him gives him what he wants: You're no longer demanding that he wear his coat, or whatever it is that needs to be done. Putting him in a time-out chair doesn't work, either, since that's time he's not putting on his jacket. “Every second he's not complying, he's winning,” says Potegal. Instead, tell your kid that if he doesn't get dressed in five seconds, you're going to put your hands on his and do it together. If your tiny rebel makes no move after the five seconds are up, which he won't at first, take his hands in yours and gently force the coat on. “It's not meant to be pleasant,” admits Potegal, but it should never include physical harm. If your child begins to slap or bite you, continue putting the coat on and then put him in time-out (or take away a privilege, if that's your standard discipline tactic). That way, your child sees he still has to wear the coat (so his protests were ineffective) and now has an additional consequence for his unacceptable behavior.
Toddlers are a literal force of nature who confound even the most calm and prepared. But there's a silver lining to these flop-and-flail-filled years: Just as kids can quickly slip into anger and sadness, so can they slip out of them. The average tantrum lasts about three minutes, according to Potegal's research. That's why, shortly after a tantrum, your kid is back to playing as if nothing happened, while you're still quaking from the event a half hour later. His immature PFC (that mushy part responsible for social cues) allows him to move on without dwelling on past hurts. “Toddlers can transition from sad to happy and from angry to calm incredibly easily,” says Potegal. So enjoy that post-freak-out cuddle, and gird yourself for the next round.