Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Toddling and Tantrums

Our darling son has become a bi-ped. He is walking, in the cutest new-walk waddle, anywhere and everywhere. He started off a couple months ago with a few brave steps, but for a long time felt quite comfortable crawling or holding on to mommy and daddy. When he finally got brave enough to let go and take off, he put his hands in the air and giggled across the room. Our parental pride went through the roof! Now that the new-milestone pride is fading, I'm realizing that with walking comes independence. And, with independence comes tantrums. Uh-oh.

Toddler tantrums have always been interesting to me. They are an inevitable part of childhood, and a real challenge for some parents. When your once cuddly, dependent baby squirms out of your arms, stomps his feet, shakes his head, and screams, a parent can feel shocked and helpless. It is hard to not take it personally. Why doesn't my baby want to do exactly what I want him to do anymore? Now, we're hardly at the stage where our son is having full-blown tantrums, but we are seeing enough willful fits that I'm giving it more thought.

I came across this new study in the journal Emotion that breaks down the stages of a tantrum and gives some great advice on how to approach a child that is having a tantrum. The researchers recorded the vocalizations made during a tantrum and analyzed them. They found that there is a rhythm to tantrums and two clear emotions: anger and sadness. Peaks of yelling and screaming indicate anger; crying, sobbing, and whining are a sign of sadness.

Ok, any parent probably knows that to some extent. But, here's the useful part of this study - parents that know about the "rhythm" of tantrums can respond appropriately to peaks of anger, thus shortening them and bringing the child to sadness, where a child will be responsive to your attempts to comfort them. The authors suggest that there is an "anger trap" that parents often fall into where they feel compelled to respond in some way to the screaming and yelling. Asking questions during anger can actually prolong the tantrum. Instead, try to "do nothing" during the anger (easier said then done). The child should move more quickly through the anger into sadness, where they will seek comfort from you.

Taking this new research and adding it to my previous experience, I would suggest the following basic strategy for dealing with tantrums:
  1. Ignore. To the best of your ability, try to "do nothing" during angry outbursts. Stay calm and wait for the storm to pass. Remember, this is normal behavior for toddlers as they learn boundaries for their behavior. Try not to think about the judgemental eye of the passer-by in the grocery store. They'll understand when they're a parent.
  2. Remove them. If the behavior is in public and too disruptive, do your best to calmly remove them from the situation.
  3. Avoid questioning. The new research shows this can prolong the tantrum. Where we used to suggest that giving a child choices may end a tantrum, this might actually be counterproductive.
  4. Don't give in. It is important that you don't teach your child that you will eventually let them do or have what they want if they scream loud enough. Stay steadfast.
  5. Be consistent. This is my advice for everything. Consistency allows for predictability. In predictability there is no chaos. A child knows what to expect and your battles will be fewer. I promise.
  6. Comfort. Does this seem intuitive? Probably not. I think we immediately want to punish for this type of outburst, but if your child has moved into crying, whining, and comfort seeking, then comfort them. Reflect their feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. Let them know that although you won't change your mind, you can empathize with their feelings and you love them.
I'm learning that handling tantrums is harder than it looks. And, shoot, it looks hard. Lord bless us all!
Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children's tantrums. Green, James A.; Whitney, Pamela G.; Potegal, Michael Emotion, Vol 11(5), Oct 2011, 1124-1133.

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