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Field Guide to Temper Tantrums

Oliver was normally a calm 14-month-old, but when I went to pick him up from the play area at a local bookstore before he thought he was ready to leave, he transformed into a howling, thrashing stranger in a matter of seconds. He sobbed, shrieked, and even hurled a toy at a kind (but foolhardy) customer who tried to distract him.

I'd love to report that I ended this tantrum quickly, earning me wild applause from the gathered crowd. Instead, it caught me completely off guard. Red-faced and humiliated by my uncontrollable offspring, I stumbled through every calming trick I could think to try. (What actually worked in the end: a hasty retreat, then a long afternoon nap -- for both of us.)

Tantrums erupt as your child starts to develop his own (strong) will and his impulse control lags far behind. It's just too bad you can't say to the Mommy Police (glaring at you in the grocery store like you're a terrible mother) that "Jimmy's still learning to express himself."

But I've discovered that you can brace yourself and get through it. Try to think of tantrums as beasts you can understand -- and master.

The Shopping-Center Showdown

Habitats: Malls, toy stores, supermarkets, and dollar stores

Triggers: Boredom, confinement, a desire for material gain

Age range: 18 months to 6 years; peak season occurs between ages 2 and 3, when attention spans run short

Look for: Squirming and fussing when secured in shopping carts and strollers; demands for toys and sweets

Field report: Meredith Roth of Atlanta knows the pressure of a public tantrum. Recently, a shopper at a department store accosted her after Julia, 2, burst into angry tears when Roth wouldn't let her climb out of the shopping cart. "This woman came up to me and said very loudly, 'Aren't you going to pick her up? This is the cruelest thing I've ever seen.'" Roth tried to tell the stranger that she was handling the tantrum, but the woman kept on criticizing -- as she followed Roth around the store.

"I wanted to go to my car and cry," says Roth. "I felt like a failure, a public embarrassment."


Prevention and handling:

* Distract! Young toddlers respond well to silly faces and nursery rhymes; ask older toddlers to, say, identify and choose items like bananas and apples.

* Escape the "public-razzi." Leave your cart at a courtesy desk (look for one before a tantrum erupts, even if you think everything's going fine) while you deal with your child in your car or outside the store.

* Ignore your audience. Focus on your child instead. What he remembers is a lot more important than what strangers say, says Stacy DeBroff, a mom of two and author of The Mom Book: 4,278 of Mom Central's Tips for Moms From Moms.

* Check your temper. If you're snarling and cursing at traffic on the way to buy groceries, guess who's getting a lesson in emotional mastery in the backseat?

* Keep up with your changing child. Your 3-year-old might have been happy to sit in a shopping cart last month, but now he may long for a little more independence. Nip a tantrum in the bud by allowing him to walk -- but only if he agrees to hold your hand or the side of the cart.

Diana Burrell is a coauthor of The Renegade Writer.

The It's-Time-for-Bed Blowout

Habitat: The bedroom

Triggers: Exhaustion, disrupted schedules, fervent wish not to miss anything

Age range: Mostly older toddlers and preschoolers, but occasionally overtired new walkers (and preteens!)

Look for: Squirming, yawning, and vigorous rubbing of eyes accompanied by a fierce, vocal desire to remain vertical

Field report: Even after a long car trip, 18-month-old Oliver was still going strong -- at 2 a.m. When I urged him upstairs, he burst into tears and pushed me away. Forty-five minutes later, I gave up and called it a night -- if you could still call it that. I lugged him into bed with me and, as he howled and thrashed, announced, "Oliver, I'm tired and I'm going to sleep. Good night." This ignited a fresh outburst, but five minutes later he snuggled up to me, an angel in repose. Score one for Mommy!


Prevention and handling:

* Stick to bedtime routines. If you get distracted by phone calls and expect your child to trot off to bed without incident, you're kidding yourself. Let your answering machine do its work.

* Announce transitions well ahead of time. Try "When the video is over, it will be time for your bath," or "Let's read these three stories, and then we'll turn out the light."

* Set the mood for sleep. Think dimmed lights, quiet voices, and calm music.

* Create a bedtime reward plan for kids 3 and older, advises Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., author of Rewards for Kids!: Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting. Make a plan together that after a certain number of peaceful bedtimes, your child will earn a modest treat, such as a day at the park or a video rental.

* Stop trying so hard. Put her in bed, shut the door, and let her cry for a few minutes alone -- it may tire her out enough to get her to sleep. If she doesn't quit after five minutes, go in and comfort her, then leave and wait again, this time for ten minutes.

The Playtime Pop

Habitats: Playgroups, playgrounds

Triggers: Sharing, certain playmates, competition with other kids

Age range: 3 to 6, when toddlers and preschoolers become more social

Look for: Rapidly diminishing interest in play; grabbing toys away from playmates; throwing, pushing, slapping, and biting

Field report: When child-development expert Bonnie Harris's son was 6, he threw a whopper of a tantrum after losing a board game to an older child. "It really shocked me, but in retrospect it was actually classic for that age: the need to win, to be perfect, and to have things go his own way," she says.


Prevention and handling:

* Assess the playgroup. Does it seem like the meeting times, length, and dynamics are going to jibe with your child's nap schedule and temperament?

* Head off a fight. If your child throws tantrums when he has to share a special toy, ask him to put it away before the playdate. And compliment the kids on their sharing skills when they do try -- you just might inspire more good behavior.

* Make up some rules. Kate Kelly, a mom of three and author of The Baffled Parent's Guide to Stopping Bad Behavior, recommends carefully explaining procedures: "It's your turn to hold this toy, but when I count to twenty, it will be her turn." Then "I counted to twenty, and now it's Jamie's turn."

* Take the lead when tempers blow. Sometimes parents are afraid to take action in front of other parents, says DeBroff. If you wait for one of the other grown-ups to step in, you -- and your child -- may find yourselves waiting a long, long time for relief.

* Call for snack breaks during minor altercations. A change in routine can nip a tantrum in the bud.

The Fearsome Fret

Habitats: Daycare centers, near baby-sitters and grandparents

Trigger: Separation anxiety

Age range: 18 months to 5 years, often during key developmental milestones

Look for: Your child clinging to your legs; piercing shrieks as you try to extricate yourself from her viselike clutch

Field report: Oliver adores his babysitter, who spends afternoons with him while I work at home. But the other day, he made it very clear that he wanted Mommy, not Dawn, to watch videos with him. I said my goodbyes and escaped into my office, whereupon a mini-tantrum erupted in the living room. Dawn weathered the storm, which passed when Oliver gave up and seemed to remember that she's a good video partner too.


Prevention and handling:

* Let your child "babysit" something of yours. Give her a pillowcase with your smell on it or a small photo album she can carry around with her.

* Talk up overnight sitters. Remind your child that Grandma is your mommy, and share some happy childhood memories with her.

* Bring the caregiver into the loop. Many tantrums erupt over "Mommy does it this way!" Your child will feel comforted if she's served the same breakfast cereal she enjoys at home.

* Say your goodbyes, then leave. Your hesitation and nervousness might just reinforce her anxiety over departures.

The Ouch Monster

Habitat: The doctor's office

Triggers: Fearful anticipation, dread, scary-looking medical instruments -- or the mere sight of a waiting room

Age range: 18 months to 6 years

Look for: Kicking, scratching, and clawing; panicky shrieks and howls

Field report: When Sharon Fisher of Kuna, Idaho, had to take Maggie, 3, to the doctor, her own mother joined them in the examination room. A nurse told them that Maggie's grandmother would have to leave, which sent the little girl into a fit. When the doctor arrived, he told Fisher that he couldn't perform the procedure because Maggie was "too fearful." Fisher explained to him what had happened. "So Grandma was brought back in," she says, "and Maggie sat on my lap, completely cooperatively."


Prevention and handling:

* Keep your child on a "need to know" basis. Telling him on the way to the doctor that a shot is in his future only serves to heighten anxiety.

* Take a teddy bear or doll. Ask the doctor to do all the exam procedures to the toy first, from checking its ears to administering shots.

* Pile on the compliments. Acknowledge your child's fear, then tell him how brave he is -- even if he's thrashing around on the ground.

* Forget all the bad stuff you've read about bribery. This is the time to promise a small toy, a lollipop, or an ice cream cone after the appointment.

* Do whatever it takes to remain neutral. If you're freaking out and tearing up, it's only going to reinforce his fears and anxieties. I admit that seeing my son in pain turns me into a blubbering mess. When Oliver needs immunizations, I leave him in the room with my husband and return when the dirty work is over.

* Check your pediatrician's bedside manner. The best ones carry a dependable bag of tricks to help calm their little patients.

The Unhappy Ogre

Habitats: Absolutely anywhere, from home to amusement parks

Trigger: Thwarted desire

Age range: 2 to 6, when children begin developing strong opinions about their wants

Look for: Begging and whining when decisions don't go her way

Field report: Leslie Lido of Merrick, New York, was in a public waiting room with her 4-year-old daughter, Madeline, who proceeded to fly into a rage over a piece of gum. Finally, Lido left the room, with screaming child in tow. Out in the hallway, though, Madeline continued the tantrum, grabbing hold of her mother's elastic-waist pants and actually pulling them down. "People were getting off the elevators, staring at us," Lido says. "Madeline was rolling around, screaming, and banging her head. It was my worst nightmare." When her daughter started to calm down, Lido told her they were going to return to the waiting room and sit nicely. Back they went, with Madeline acting as though nothing had happened.


Prevention and handling:

* Take mini-breaks when tempers ignite. Find a quiet place where the two of you can read a book together, talk quietly, or cuddle.

* Become a tantrum detective. Try to determine what sets your child off. Too much visual stimulation? Sugary sweets? Corinne Gregory of Woodinville, Washington, has a 4-year-old daughter who used to throw a major fit after naps. The culprit? Low blood sugar. A cup of juice right away eliminated the little girl's outbursts.

* Provide alternatives. Abbi Perets of Valley Village, California, offers her 2-year-old daughter, Liat, cheese or bananas before she has time to beg for the favorite sugary snack that puts her in a black mood when it's denied.

* Breathe deeply -- both of you. Even a 2-year-old can mimic -- and learn -- deep breathing. And it does help.

You're sure to discover that there's no such thing as a typical tantrum -- some are long, big, and loud, while others end quickly but leave a nasty bite. With some experimentation and (unfortunately) experience, you'll figure out the best ways to handle these messy moments. And soon, she'll develop enough self-control to keep her emotions in check (and her voice at a manageable decibel level). That is, until she's a teen...