According to my mother, who may or may not suffer from a severe case of “momnesia” (that is, forgetting everything difficult about being a mom with the passage of time,) I never threw a single tantrum as a child, and my brother threw exactly one. My husband, on the other hand, was somewhat of a family legend for his tantrum-throwing abilities. When did I discover this? Why, when I was already a mother to my first-born, who, lucky for me, inherited this, ahem, gift, of course!
My older son, while a smart, caring, wonderful child, has never been what I would describe as easy. He was a colicky newborn, then a stubborn toddler, then the king of the tantrums from about 2 and a half–4 years old. When I say I read all the books about tantrums and how to help end them…I can confidently say I read pretty much everything. I tried it all: the “minute-per-age” time outs, behavior charts, loss of privileges, verbal processing (talking), asking him to draw me pictures of how angry he was, increased physical activity, giving him choices whenever I could, the “1-2-3- Magic” method, timers, calming items…you name it, I probably tried it. But the tantrums persisted. His tantrums were not the “I’m having trouble communicating” ones that plague younger toddlers; they were entirely frustration-based. He was fully able to communicate clearly by this age. The issue was that he would try to do things that were way above his skill level and melt down spectacularly when things didn’t go as he wanted them to. Finally, in desperation, I called our pediatrician for advice. His advice saved us.
First, a disclaimer: Please know that I’m not recommending this method for everyone. Different kids respond to different approaches, and parents are comfortable with different styles of parenting. However, I wanted to share our story in case you’re where I was two years ago and looking for options to try.
Our pediatrician recommended epic, mega consistency in the face of our son’s tantrums. He knew he was frustrated; we knew he was frustrated. We all understood why it was happening, but he had to somehow learn that being frustrated is not an excuse to throw things, scream, and stamp his feet. So, our pediatrician advised simply sitting him in a central spot in our house, firmly but calmly letting him know he needed to stay there until he was ready to talk in a regular voice, then going about our business as if nothing were happening out of the ordinary. It was important that he be able to see that life was still going on despite his show, and that we hadn’t abandoned him, but we were not willing to respond to this behavior. Instead of us telling him when he could get up, which always turned into a screaming match of “Can I get up now? Now!? HOW ABOUT NOW?!?”, the rule was that he could get up when he was ready to talk to us in a calm voice.
I kid you not when I say I endured 30 minute screaming sessions while I washed dishes, folded laundry, and started dinner, all while attempting to pretend there wasn’t a red-faced 3 year old screaming at me. It took nearly all of my restraint to ignore him, and to calmly remind him to sit back down because he clearly wasn’t calm yet if he did get up. But in the end, our pediatrician’s advice was what ended the tantrums and saved us from our terrorist toddler.
Another key to this method was being extremely consistent. We have very few rules in our house, but the ones we have are quite strictly enforced: Everyone must help keep our house neat, no one may hurt anyone, and we all must be kind to each other. If he made a mess of the living room and refused to help clean it up, he had to sit until he was ready to help. Even if he sat for 15 or 20 minutes, he could not get up until he was ready to help. If he yelled at me, he had to sit until he was ready to say “sorry” in a kind voice. This was always the routine, regardless of where we were or who was there. Young children crave predictability and consistency, and it was important that we follow through with this routine every single time until this “tantrum phase” of life passed. And pass it did, finally!
I’d like to again say this is definitely not the one and only solution to tantrums, and it isn’t the right solution for every child, but in our situation, this truly made our home a happier and less stressful place as we endured a difficult phase of toddler and preschool-hood. I can happily say that now, at age five, tantrums are quite rare in our house. If you’re in that rough patch now, you certainly have my deepest sympathy! I hope that by sharing my experience I might able to help someone in a similar place.