What’s happened to my sweet little baby? This is her third tantrum today! Is there something wrong with her? Am I doing something wrong?
Ah, the delight of living with a toddler — charming and funny one minute, kicking and screaming the next.
The main milestone in the emotional development of toddlers is to separate from parents, learning to see themselves as individuals, not extensions of parents. They’re all about pushing limits and testing boundaries, and they have one mission in life: to BE THE BOSS.
When this mission is met with limits, or with the inability to accomplish a task, frustration ensues. Because even the most verbal toddlers lack the communication skills to say, “This makes me so frustrated!,” what happens next can range from a few minutes of crying and stomping to a full-blown meltdown. Add in fatigue or hunger — or, worst of all, both! — and the meltdown can go on for what feels like hours.
You can help your toddler by looking for ways to help her make choices, so she gets to feel like she’s the boss. Provide 2 or 3 options (any of which would be okay from your perspective), and let her choose. For example: “It’s time to get ready for bed — do you want to take your bath or brush your teeth first?” “Do you want peas or carrots for lunch today?” Skipping teeth brushing isn’t an option, nor are cheese curls for lunch — but when offered choices, your toddler gets a say in how her day goes. In her mind, she gets to be the boss.
Also, plan ahead. If you must be out and about at nap time, pack a healthy snack, to avoid the toddler double-whammy of Tired and Hungry. Don’t plan demanding activities late in the afternoon, when all of us get a bit tired and hungry, and plan some fun “re-entry” time with a healthy snack (think of it as an appetizer for dinner) after arriving home from daycare, before getting down to the tasks of the evening.
A good rule of thumb with toddlers is to choose your battles carefully, but always win the ones you choose.
You must always choose and win those where danger, safety, hurting herself or others are involved. You’ll never win battles around food or toileting (you can’t make her swallow, or defecate!), so don’t fight those. In between, parents should decide on the few things that are really important in your family, and stick to those as you do to safety rules.
When meltdowns do occur, just ignore them. As long as your child is in a physically safe place, just walk away. Most importantly, don’t give in if saying “No” led to the tantrum. Tantrums that get results will continue, and escalate over time. If the behavior gets no attention, and “using your words” is rewarded, then tantrums will stop as children develop better and better language skills.
Even with all of the tantrums, enjoy your two and three year old, because soon she’ll be four, asking you all sorts of questions like WHY she has to take a bath, or WHY she can’t have that cookie before dinner, or…!
Dr. Sarah Springer, a Kids Plus Doc, serves as the Medical Director of Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania.