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Ask Dr. Sears: Toddler Tantrums

Q.  My 1-year-old daughter has started throwing tantrums. Occasionally, she will get frustrated at something and hit herself in the head. Should I be worried? How can I stop this behavior.

A. Toddlers throw tantrums. That's a developmental fact of toddler life. Many kids ago, my wife, Martha, and I learned that the key to understanding and dealing with the normal nuisance behaviors of children is to try to see through the eyes of your child to help you better understand why she's acting a certain way. Between 1 and 2 years of age, toddlers have an immense desire to explore their surroundings and communicate their needs. Their desire to do and say things, however, outweighs their capabilities. Because your child does not yet have the verbal skills to express her frustrations, she acts out by throwing a tantrum. Tantrums are her way of venting, as well as her way of getting your attention. Although you may be advised to ignore the tantrums, we generally advise you to shy away from the "ignore it" school of parenting. Pretending that undesirable behaviors don't exist prevents you from developing creative ways to show and tell your child other, more acceptable ways to communicate and it deprives your child, who looks up to you as a valuable support resource, of the help that's necessary to get through this difficult stage. You want your child to learn early on what type of behavior is acceptable in your home ... and what isn't. Here's how:

Identify the triggers.

Keep track of triggers that send your child into a tantrum by keeping a tantrum diary. Like other undesirable behaviors, when a child bangs her head, it bothers her parents more than it does her. Make a list of the circumstances that provokes these tantrums: Do they occur when she's tired, hungry, when she misses you, when you're on the phone, in a public place or around nap time? Watch for pre-tantrum signals. A few moments before the flare-up, do you notice that she's starting to grumble or whine? The time to intervene is before the volcano erupts.

Model calm behavior.

We call this the Caribbean approach: "No problem, be happy." Children often take their cues from their caregivers' body language. When the tantrum begins, it's easy to loose your cool, but remember to stay calm. Your body language should be saying, "It's OK ... no need to worry ... Mama's here." As soon as you see your child's pre-tantrum signals (lower lip curling, whining), put on your happy face. This upbeat facial message might be just what your toddler needs to forget to fuss. As with breaking any habit, use the substitute-and-distract technique. As soon as you see your child's hand going for her head, quickly distract her into a different activity, such as playing her favorite game, coloring or some one-on-one cuddle time while watching her favorite video.

Be attentive.

Tantrums often occur when a young explorer begins her quest for independence and becomes frustrated when she's unable to communicate her request or complete the task at hand. If you see her about to get in a jam, such as getting stuck climbing over furniture, be on standby to help her out.

Concentrate on the "biggies."

We like to divide toddler protests into biggies and smallies. Remaining in the car seat is a biggie: Even a tantrum will not get her out of her car seat when the car's moving. On the other hand, a toddler who wants to wear her green shirt and is on the verge of a tantrum because you want her to wear her red shirt? A smallie. You can avoid a tantrum by giving into life's smallies.

Provide warm arms and a warm heart.

Oftentimes, even the strongest-willed child loses control and crumbles into a tantrum. In this case, hold her firmly and lovingly and help her regain control. You'll find that she'll melt in your arms, as if thanking you for rescuing her from herself. Also, don't take tantrums personally. Whether or not your toddler has tantrums isn't a measure of your child's "goodness" or a reflection of your parenting. Very bright, curious and persistent toddlers often have the most annoying tantrums.

Finally, don't let your toddler use tantrums as a manipulation tool to get her way. Sometime toward the end of the second year, toddlers gain a better understanding of how to communicate, so when you say, "Use your nice voice in the store," they should respond to your request and your corresponding facial gestures when they're uttering their ear-piercing screams. Once your toddler develops language skills to express her needs with words (rather than her actions), you'll find that these tantrum times will be a stage in your toddler's past.