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Tempering a Tantrum

Q. My 14-month-old son has major temper tantrums quite often and nothing I do stops them. I try to ignore him when he does this, thinking that if he gets no attention at all, he'll settle down. How do I teach him that screaming and yelling just won't work?

A. I agree: Ignoring a temper tantrum is far wiser than responding to it with lots of attention, negative or positive. As long as your son is safe and in view, it makes the most sense to simply wait it out. You can't reason with him at these times and you shouldn't give in, so the best you can do is to punctuate the howls with a quiet, gentle word or two of sympathy ("I know you're disappointed"). You can also remind yourself that you are not a terrible parent; virtually all toddlers have temper tantrums.

A big issue for children this age is establishing independence. They strive for self-reliance, or, at best, a certain amount of control over their lives. It is these efforts at asserting autonomy that generally contribute to the most vocal conflicts. If you can help your toddler feel like he has a bit of independence, you can reduce the frequency of his tantrums, even if you can't make them stop altogether.

Think about ways to give him choices, like asking if he wants apple juice or ice cream after medicine. These symbolic efforts go a long way toward helping a toddler feel like he has control over what happens to him even if he doesn't. Even though you want your son to know that he can't always get what he wants, don't say "no" to him just to make a point. He's going to learn this lesson in so many ways and from so many people in so many places; you do not need to make it a lesson in and of itself. Think about why you're saying no, and, if he is calm, try to explain it to him if it is reasonable to do so. This doesn't mean you have to explain everything  -- it's too complicated for a 14-month-old to comprehend why you can't buy the costliest toy in the store  -- but it does make the world feel less arbitrary when he knows there's a reason for your actions. And when your son can understand why you say "no," he can predict when you'll say it, making him more likely to comply. Remember, too, that your 14-month-old is just acquiring language. This can be a very frustrating time, because he has wishes and feelings that he may not be able to communicate as fully as he would like. Providing him with the words to describe his feelings will help him in the long run, because he'll be able to tell you that he's angry instead of screaming and yelling. Rest assured, as he develops more ways of conveying his feelings, there will be fewer tantrums.