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Stormy Weather

Mental preparedness helps a parent withstand a toddler’s tantrums
By Cary and Tonja Rector


Any parent who has experienced grocery shopping with her toddler soon learns to appreciate the “No Candy” checkout lane.

Yelling, kicking, screaming and crying are the hallmarks of the dreaded temper tantrum. Temper tantrums in young children are so common it has become a rite of passage for parents.

“Public tantrums,” whether at the grocery store or at family gatherings, seem to have the unique ability to rob the focus of all other activities and elicit unwanted parenting advice, even from strangers who don’t know you or your child. It’s enough to make an experienced parent sweat.

Research has started to look at the anatomy of the temper tantrum. Tantrums appear to have a pattern and rhythm to them. The research may help parents react and respond more effectively to tantrums and help pediatricians and clinicians discern the difference between developmentally appropriate tantrums and tantrums that are atypical, and symptomatic of future concerns.

Michael Potegal and James A. Green, both psychologists, recently recorded children’s temper tantrums and analyzed the sounds the toddlers make. They found a definite pattern. The old concept that temper tantrums begin in anger and end in sadness is not representative of what happens. Their research found that anger and sadness are entwined and simultaneous. Crescendos of screaming anger were superimposed on sounds of sadness.

They found three groupings of behaviors in analyzing a temper tantrum. Phase 1 is screaming, yelling and kicking (peak of anger). Phase 2 involves throwing, pushing and pulling things. Phase 3 combines crying, whining and falling to the floor (looking for comfort).

The researchers found the most effective way to get through a tantrum is to keep the “anger phase” as brief as possible. The old adage of ignoring a tantrum is initially effective. Once you get through the anger, sadness is left and your toddler is ready to be comforted.

When children are “cresting” at the height of their anger, they are not rational creatures. They are experiencing a “neurological storm,” during which adult logic is nonexistent. A toddler’s brain is still developing and operates quite differently from an adult’s way of thinking. This phase is not a teaching moment.

Lauren Wakschlag led another study on temper tantrums. The researchers developed an assessment tool that looks at frequency, quality and severity of temper tantrums. This tool could be used by pediatricians and other clinicians to help determine whether tantrums are typical or atypical. They found that less than 10 percent of children have daily tantrums. An atypical temper tantrum generally occurs with greater frequency, intensity and duration.

So what does all this mean for parents of toddlers?

Prevention is a primary defense. The “No Candy” checkout aisle is an example. You may learn that your child has certain “triggers” that lead to a tantrum, and you can try to avoid them. A tired or hungry child is certainly primed for a tantrum. Transitions requiring a change in activities, like getting ready for bed, may require some special consideration. Give your child some warning and allow time for him to prepare.

Ignoring a temper tantrum that is in the peak of the anger phase is still good advice. One of the challenges for parents is keeping their own anger out of the equation. It may help to think of the temper tantrum as a natural phenomenon resulting from an immature, developing and overloaded neurological system.

Developmentally toddlers see themselves as supreme rulers of this new world they think they have discovered. They have learned they can make things happen in this world of theirs and it’s exciting. So to have a larger, more powerful parent interrupt this vision with a limit or demand does not go over well. Pick your fights carefully and give your toddler as much control over their world as you can tolerate.

Changing the child’s home environment as opposed to expecting the child to adapt to an existing environment is encouraged. It takes time and maturity to adapt. Create an environment your child can safely explore. Keep “off limits” objects out of sight and therefore out of mind.

Establishing routines helps provide predictable structure to your child’s day. Toddlers love a good groove.
There will certainly be times when you will need to physically remove your child to a quiet, more isolated area until the storm clears. This could be your car or another room.

Don’t let the temper tantrum become a tool for getting one’s way. If you start to feel like the threat of a temper tantrum is a “club” being raised over your head, stand firm and try to be unimpressed.

When your child reaches the crying-sad phase of his tantrum, now is the time to comfort him. He may be emotionally drained and realize he has been out of control, and he needs some reassurance.

If you feel like your family is walking around on eggshells to avoid a tantrum from one of your children, and your child is experiencing intense tantrums that are lasting 20 minutes to even more than an hour, ending with your child being physically and emotionally drained, talk it over with your child’s primary caregiver or speak with a child therapist.

The good new is that this phase, too, will pass, at least until your child becomes an adolescent!