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Talking Down Tantrums

Dan Saelinger

Then you'll just go to bed hungry! Been there. I'm going to give all your toys away! Said that. Or if you're anything like Dafney Amilcar-Rodriguez, you've actually done it. “I made my son pack up his toys and put them on the curb for garbage day,” Amilcar-Rodriguez, an Albany, NY, mom, admits. (Don't call child services just yet: His toys were not trashed.)

“I don't even remember what he did, but in the heat of the moment, I really didn't have the patience,” she says.

“You have to remember, children aren't melting down to upset you,” says Lynne Reeves Griffin, author of Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment. “Children are doing it because they can't control those emotions.” And unsurprisingly, threatening, yelling, or ignoring your crying child is only bound to make a bad situation worse.

 “If you're not calm, you're going to say all those things you know you shouldn't say,” explains Claudia M. Gold, M.D., author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems By Seeing the World Through Your Child's Eyes. So take a minute to pull yourself together. Once you're levelheaded, try replacing those errant threats and empty promises you're used to making with these expert-recommended tantrum-tamers instead.


HE SAYS “I don't want to clean up!”

YOU SAY “Then I'll just throw away your toys.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “Hey, if you pick up your toys really fast, you'll get a check on the hand!”

Check on the hand, gold star, bonus point: They're all the same idea. It's always better to offer up a positive consequence for good behavior rather than a negative consequence for bad behavior.

Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block, emphasizes that incentives don't have to be tangible to work. He recommends giving your child a check on the hand whenever he does something good. Count how many checks your child has at bedtime and recount what each check was for. It's a no-fail way to ensure you send your kid to bed with a dose of self-confidence, and he'll wake up with a reminder of those good feelings.

SHE SAYS “I don't want to go home!”

YOU SAY “Bye, I'll see you later.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “I know. The playground is fun. But it's almost time to go. Would you like to go home now and play with your toys or take three more slides and then go home?”

When you pretend to walk off, prepare to do one of two things: Console or run. Some children will become even more distraught when a parent threatens to leave, but others, like Sasha Higgins's 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, will say “See ya!” “When I tell Olivia that I'm leaving her or say ‘bye-bye,’ she just walks away,” explains the Albany, NY, mom. “I wind up chasing her. It never works.”

Here's a tactic that will: Acknowledge your child's emotions, then present a compromise. “Before you say no or take your child away from the situation, it's important to validate what she's feeling and her desire to stay there,” says Dr. Karp. Next, lay out a few options. This will help give your child some feelings of control and power, and in turn, it will make her more likely to cooperate with you,” explains Dr. Karp.

Griffin also recommends doing some prep work before your next trip to the playground. Explain that you can stay at the park only for a certain period of time. Tell your child you'll tap her on the shoulder and that means one more slide or one more swing. When that time comes, stick to your word and leave.



HE SAYS “You're a poopyhead!”


YOU SAY “Wait until I tell your father.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “I'm really frustrated, too, but we're going to figure this out.”

We often deflect authority to our partner when we're feeling helpless. But surrendering it suggests to your child that you're not in control, and that's scary for a toddler. If you need a minute or two after your kid calls you a name, take it. It's better to pause than to say something that will only make your kid panic more. “Every child needs to know when he's having a tantrum that it's a safe space,” says Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids. “The most important thing is that he knows you love him no matter what and that you are there to help him.”

If you do feel like you need backup, don't invoke almighty Dad in a menacing way. Instead, Dr. Gold suggests saying something like “We're having a tough time now, but maybe when Daddy gets home, we'll calm down and be able to think better about this.” This way, you're not creating an us-versus-you dynamic but using your spouse in a positive way as reinforcement.

SHE SAYS “No! No! No!”

YOU SAY “I'll do anything if you just…”


No, really. Don't say a word. “There is a time for speaking, and there is a time for action,” says Griffin. If the tantrum has reached the point where you're willing to do anything, it's time to take the reins and get things under control. If that means picking up your child and her shoes and putting them on yourself, do it. If that means leaving your shopping cart in the middle of the dairy aisle, then sayonara, Go-Gurt. “In the moments when your child is most emotional and overwhelmed, you really should stop talking and start doing because she isn't capable of doing much for herself,” says Griffin.


HE SAYS “I'm not listening to you. I'm not talking to you. Leave me alone!”

YOU SAY “If you're going to have a tantrum, go to your room and come out when you're finished.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “You're so mad. You say ‘I'm not listening to you, Mommy. I'm not talking to you.’ But it's OK. I'll be right here.”

New York City mom Alicia Harper has a master's degree in psychological counseling, but she admits all that training sometimes goes right out the window when her 4-year-old son, Aiden, is uncooperative. “I've said things like ‘Please go to the bedroom to throw a tantrum, and when you're finished, you can come back out here with me,’” Harper explains. “Depending on his mood, it'll set him off even more.”

Exiling your kid isn't a viable option, which is why Dr. Karp devised the “kind ignore.” Rather than sending your child to time-out or walking away, simply narrate your child's words back to him, and then turn away to do something else (but stay close by). Reassure him that you'll be there and give him a few seconds to calm down. Some kids will require two or three narrations before they get over it, but this technique allows your child to see that you care and that you don't reject him for having these feelings. Walking away will only make him feel more ashamed and alone.

SHE SAYS “I'm going to hit you!”

YOU SAY “Your brother never hits.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “No hitting. It's OK to feel angry, but it's not OK to hit.”

First things first: You have to deal with the hitting. “Setting limits is particularly important around behavior that will hurt other people or themselves, so a very firm ‘no hitting’ is in order here,” says Dr. Gold. But just as important, you want to validate your child's emotion. “There is a difference between bad feelings and bad behavior,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. In the moments after a tantrum, especially a physical one, you may be tempted to just forget the whole thing, but once your child has calmed down, you want to make sure she understands it's OK to feel frustrated and angry, but it's not OK to hurt someone else. Talk to your child about why she acted the way she did and what she should do differently the next time instead of getting so angry and upset. “What you do after the tantrum is so important because that's your real opportunity to teach,” says Carter.

And what about that sibling comparison? Avoid it at all costs. “Parents think comparing children is a motivator, but it isn't,” says Griffin. When you compare, your child doesn't get mad at you, she gets mad at her brother or sister, and ultimately you're setting the stage for sibling rivalry.


HE SAYS “I hate broccoli!”

YOU SAY “If you eat two more bites, then you can have a cookie.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “So what would you like instead?”

There's nothing wrong with offering a child, especially a toddler, options at the dinner table. You don't have to present a smorgasbord, but giving your child the option of broccoli, carrots, or corn will only make things easier for you. Or cut the food into tiny bits for him to try (even half a pea is OK!). “There are battles you can't win,” says Dr. Karp, “and you'll almost never win the battle over broccoli.”

But don't tell that to Candice Williams of Edison, NJ. She has no problem getting her 3-year-old son, Mark, to eat his veggies. Her trick? “I tell Mark that if he wants to be like the Hulk, he has to eat his broccoli. He eats it all!”

Problem is, when you trick your kid into eating vegetables, you're not teaching him how to eat healthy. If you want your child to learn the importance of fuel foods and fun foods, have that conversation before mealtime. “Never get into a head-to-head confrontation with your child while eating,” recommends Dr. Gold.

SHE SAYS Boom! As in that block being thrown at your freshly painted wall—for the 15th time.

YOU SAY “How many times do I have to tell you?”

YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID “I know we talked about this before and maybe you forgot, but you can't throw your blocks. Let's put them away now, and I know next time you'll remember.”

As you already know, the answer to the “how many times” question is a lot. But that's because young children learn from repetition. You can say “We don't throw” a million times, but it's more impactful to pack up the blocks when your child throws them. “You have to show—rather than tell—your child,” says Griffin.

But don't stop there. Reassure her that you're confident she'll remember the next time. This helps build self-esteem and gives your child a sense of trust, says Healy.

So that solves it, huh? The next time your toddler is lying on the ground freaking out, you won't retaliate with some remark you picked up from the last episode of Toddlers & Tiaras, right? Wishful thinking. You can't expect to handle every meltdown gracefully. But when all else fails, take Griffin's advice: Respond with compassion. “You'd never yell at or threaten to abandon a friend having an emotional breakdown,” she says, so don't do it to your toddler, either.