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Temper Tantrums

Stephanie Rausser

Little kids sure can create big scenes! No matter how sweet your child is or how good a parent you are, meltdowns are a fact of toddler life. So try to remember that your child's tantrums aren't a reflection of your parenting skills: They simply mean you've got a frustrated little kid on your hands. Here's how to handle them without losing your cool.

What causes tantrums

It may seem like your child's having a meltdown for no reason (or for a silly one). But there are real causes:

Toddlers can't express themselves very well. Your 2- or 3-year-old may know a lot of words, but he doesn't yet have the ability to construct complex sentences—or put words to all the emotions he's feeling. That's why instead of saying, "Mom, I'd really like orange juice with my toast, but only in the red cup because it looks weird in the blue one," he screams bloody murder when you gave him apple juice in the blue cup.

They are easily overwhelmed. Toddlers thrive on routine, and a change can really throw them off. That means that adding in an extra errand or missing naptime by even 15 minutes can spell disaster. Certain places, like busy stores, can be overwhelming, too.

They want to do more than they can handle. Toddlers are naturally very curious—and are thrilled to discover they can suddenly do so many things on their own. Unfortunately, your child's physical prowess doesn't keep pace with his curiosity, so he gets frustrated when the block tower falls or he's not allowed to climb the kitchen stool.

They don't understand delayed gratification. Little kids live in the here and now, not in our cookies-are-for-after-dinner world. Not getting what they want, when they want it, is a top tantrum producer.

Defusing tantrums

Acknowledge that she's frustrated. Your best first defense is to look your child in the eye and let her know you feel her pain. By saying "I know you want a cookie," or even just "I know you're upset," you're telling her you're there to help her feel better. That might be enough to calm her down so you can add, "I wish we could have cookies, too. It's too bad we can't right now."

Be silly

Laughter can be a great tantrum buster. If your child starts to pitch a fit about getting into the tub, try singing a goofy song—anything to make her giggle.

Try a distraction

Give her something else to think about. Try saying, "Let's finish shopping by picking out bananas together." Or if it's time to leave the park, but she doesn't want to, "How many dogs do you think we'll see on the drive home?"

Ignore it

Sometimes, tantrums escalate because your toddler thinks she'll get what she wants if she screams loud enough. If you don't react, she may give up.

Leave the scene

When all else fails, get out of line, off the slide, whatever. But do it without making a fuss—you'll be modeling calm behavior. It may be inconvenient, but it shows who's in control: you.

Preventing meltdowns

Avoid the triggers

Try to figure out what sets your child off. Does he lose it when he's hungry or tired? When he's in the car seat for longer than 20 minutes? Plan ahead to stave off tantrums: Carry a snack, make sure he's rested or stop for a break between errands.

Offer options

When toddlers feel overwhelmed, they need your help, but they still want to have a say in things. That's why offering two options (more is just confusing) can prevent a meltdown. Try saying, "Would you like to see the polar bears or the monkeys?" instead of "Which animal do you want to see first at the zoo?"

Give fair warning

If you have to tear your child away from something fun or drag him somewhere he'll hate, preparation can nip frustration in the bud. Say, "We're going to go home after one more trip down the slide." Little kids are more likely to behave if they know ahead of time what they can and can't do.

Show your child how you want him to act

Since one reason kids scream is that they don't know what else to do, teach your child to use words to express himself. Good ones to start with: "Can you help me?" and "Excuse me." The more specific you can be with your own requests, the better. Telling your child you want him to "be good" isn't really informative. Instead, tell him you want him to ask for things in a quiet voice.

Toddlers have tantrums because they're frustrated or overwhelmed, not because they want to make you crazy. Understanding the underlying cause can help you both get through a tantrum.

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