I’ll never forget a particular lunch out with a friend when our daughter was a toddler. Something didn’t go my child’s way and she was definitely thinking about her best course of action. Suddenly, she quickly settled down and the crisis was averted without changing my decision and giving in to her request. My friend looked at me and asked how I did it. At first, I didn’t know what she meant. My friend replied, “I could see her thinking about pitching a fit, but somehow you not only convinced her not to have a tantrum, but that she was perfectly content to obey you.”
I began to analyze why our daughter never pitched a tantrum during her toddler years. Don’t get me wrong, she misbehaved quite a bit (especially at three) and could do her fair share of crying when she was unhappy. She even had to be unwrapped from my legs once or twice as I left her at home with someone else. She never threw a tantrum, though.
Here is the crux of my secret (although I have specific tips for you below): Preventing a toddler from having tantrums requires self-discipline on your part and is the most important early way to teach your child self-discipline, too.
Christianity is definitely about God’s grace and forgiveness. We can’t deny though, that the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) is full of admonitions for us to practice self-control in general and by controlling our behavior in a variety of specific ways. You may be surprised to learn self-control is one of the most important skills you can teach your children if you want to dedicate them to God.
So what exactly does this toddler tantrum preventing self-control look like in action?
- Keep your child on a schedule. This has fallen out of favor with many modern parents as being too constraining. Actually, it is just the opposite. It reassures your child his needs will be met and allows you to plan effectively to meet your other demands. The main cause of tantrums is a frustrated child who does not have the verbal skills developed to effectively communicate his level of frustration. (This only applies to the first couple of tantrums. After that, your child has learned you will give in to her fits. As Dr. Phil would say, “It is working for them.”) The top cause of frustration for a young child is not knowing when they will get their next food or rest. Knowing that after nap we play and then there is snack or whatever your schedule is, reassures your child you always give him the things he needs on a regular basis. There will be times you have to vary the schedule, but this self-discipline on your part actually makes it much easier for you to plan your activities around the schedule of your child.
- Make sure your child gets no less than 10 – 14 hours of sleep a day. Often parents want naps and early bedtimes to disappear quickly, so they can be out any time they want with their child. Pediatricians will verify that even older children and teens need ten to twelve hours of sleep a day. You will be surprised at how much the behavior and attitudes around your house will improve when everyone (including you!) is well rested. Do not under any circumstances eliminate afternoon naps for children not in school. The rule in our house was that you didn’t have to sleep, but you had to lay there quietly for a specific amount of time. It was amazing how many times she fell asleep any way.
- Establish the role of parent. I am not advocating becoming a military style parent. Your child (starting at about age one) needs to begin to understand you are the parent though and your word is final (except if properly appealed). This is an important skill which will take some practice. Once you make a decision, stick to it no matter what. Refuse to hear whining, crying, begging, etc. If your child has a somewhat rational, thought out reason why he thinks you should change your decision, he may say “May I appeal?”. At that point, you will listen to calm arguments. It is actually in your favor to throw them a couple of “give-me’s” when they practice, but be careful how you do it. If you go overboard, they will begin to appeal every decision, which can be almost as bad as tantrums. People will look at your family like you are from the Victorian era, but having children use formal words reminds them to take a more rational, mature tack in their arguments. If appeals start to spiral into whining or worse, remind them how to make an appeal and revoke appeal privileges for a period of time. I think our daughter had professional negotiation skills by age four or five and can still make an awesome non-appeal presentation when she wants us to consider something!
- Master the “look” and the “tone”. If you don’t know how to do this, ask any good professional teacher. You should have a look and a tone your child knows means you absolutely mean business and will not tolerate disobedience. The funny thing is, it works with kids who don’t even know you! When you see your child begin the wind up that can lead to a tantrum, give them the look and in the tone say, “Don’t even think about it.” You will be surprised how it can quickly shock them back into reality, especially if you have mastered the first three steps. This will only work right up until they begin the actual tantrum. If you watch your child carefully, you can see the wheels start to turn and that is when the “look” and the “tone” are most effective. Once your child is in full tantrum, it is very difficult for them to get themselves back under control.
- Pay attention to your child. I have watched many tantrums happen because a parent totally ignored their child the first ten times he politely asked for something. If you hear what your children are saying, respond to the need and if necessary explain why you will not or cannot give them what they want or need, you will reduce your child’s frustration level. Remember how frustrated you get when you tell somebody something ten times and they don’t hear you? Now add hunger, exhaustion and the inability to communicate well and it makes your toddler’s frustration level understandable.
- Give your child a fun alternative to pitching a tantrum. Sounds silly, but we encouraged our daughter to growl like a tiger when she got really frustrated as a toddler. Until she had a larger vocabulary, we all knew a polite, but definite growl meant she was getting really frustrated. It gave her a feeling of control over the communication process and kept her from getting so frustrated she spiraled into inappropriate behavior. Sometimes, if she were really frustrated she might growl two or three times in a row and then we would all start laughing.
- Ignore tantrums if they do occur. If you have allowed tantrums in the past, you will have to wean your child off of the behavior. If the child is not hurting himself or things, totally ignore the situation. The tantrum requires an engaged audience. once the audience is no longer engaged, the tantrum looses its “life force”. Do not try to reason with or punish a child in tantrum mode. He is out of control and can not really hear anything you say. Wait until he has calmed down to give consequences. If you are in public, drop everything and remove your child to the confines of your car until the tantrum has played out, but still ignore the tantrum. (Don’t try to drive anywhere until you and your child have calmed down, stay in the car with him and make sure the temperature is comfortable.)
- Tantrums always require serious consequences. This will vary greatly from child to child and even from time to time with the same child. Children change interests and preferences from minute to minute. What may have been a serious consequence last week, may mean nothing the next. Don’t stick to the same consequence just because it worked once. You can see on their faces if your consequence has any impact. Your child needs to know that without a doubt any time a tantrum is thrown there will be serious repercussions. The consequence should be given as soon as the child calms down. If you wait much longer with a young child, she will not remember why she is being punished. Long punishments are not really effective for young children either. Immediate and dramatic works the best.
- Never, ever give in to a tantrum. Once you relent and allow a child in tantrum mode to have his way, you are sunk. It takes a lot more effort to convince a child who has had tantrums “work” that they will no longer work. For some of you, this may take every bit of self-control you have ever developed. The pain you suffer in the short term will be worth it when you are living the tantrum free life.
The other day, I was teasing a parent of toddlers about the “terrible threes”. I remember calling my dad when our daughter was about three and asking him if I would have to punish her every day for the rest of her life. He assured me that if I was consistent when she was a toddler, the rest of parenting would be a breeze (for the most part!). He was right. After a couple of tough years, our daughter settled into the beautifully behaved child and teen she is today. Slip ups? Sure, but nothing compared to her peers who were allowed to run wild as toddlers and pitch tantrums at will. So hang tough and help your child begin to develop crucial self-discipline skills by banning tantrums for life.