I remember when Kid-Me vowed to never have children. I wanted to travel, never get married, and never, ever have babies. Ah, to be young. Adult-Me has stared down the barrel of a 3AM feeding, followed by a 5AM feeding. Adult-Me has a husband, a mortgage, a career and THREE kids. Adult-Me really blew Kid-Me's list out of the water, huh?
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, Alyssa, I remember fantasizing about coloring with my daughter, blowing bubbles in the yard, doing her hair, and dressing her in trendy outfits. Talk about an eye-opener when I encountered my first toddler tantrum. This was not the plan! Why was this little person so furious? Man, did I make make mistakes. We're talking bribes, yelling, crying, feeling defeated, and sometimes getting so down that I doubted myself as a parent. We've all been there! I'd like to tell you that I did it all right with my second daughter, Lauren, but that's just not the case. Sure, I improved, but her tantrums could make me feel just as desperate. Oh, and then when both kids had full on explosions at the same time, I remember calling my husband, Vinnie, at work and begging him to come home. I just felt completely defeated and needed to tap out.
With my third child, Sophia, things are so different. I don't have it all figured out, and I'm far from perfect, but I have one big thing up my sleeve that I can play for any situation. I can walk into any tantrum and spin that tantrum on its head. I walk away feeling like I'm in control, she feels like she's in control, and the world looks good again. I don't tap out of situations, I go running into that wicked situation like a firefighter. So what's the difference between now and then? I'll tell you. I'm a special education teacher and I've been teaching special education for 6 years. I use the techniques that I use with my students with my daughter and it works 98% of the time.
My daughter does not have special needs; however, with students with special needs, many times behaviors occur when a student feels frustrated, tired, bored, out of control, unable to communicate, or even sick. Sound familiar? Toddlers have it rough. They're growing, they're developing, they don't have a full vocabulary or complete comprehension skills, and they're always being told what to do. That's their everyday life. I'd freak out once in awhile too.
Let's start there.
5 Techniques for Handling Toddler Tantrums:
1. Rule Out Medical
Always rule out medical first. Are you bleeding? Is anything broken? Do you feel like throwing up? Do you have a fever? What's wrong? You're a parent, so this assessment takes like 10 seconds - 5 seconds if you have more than 1 kid. If it's an ailment, address it. If not, moving on...
2. Use Your Words and Empathize
Get in there and (try to) have a conversation. "Hey, buddy, what's going on?" If your child is able to talk, engaging in a dialogue is a nice way to figure out the problem. If your child is unable to talk, or just too far gone to even want to talk, you're on your own. Literally. The conversation will have to be one-sided. "Hey, buddy, it looks like your blocks fell over. I'd be pretty upset, too. You worked hard on that tower, didn't you? Yeah, I can tell. Do you think we can build it again together?" Make sure that you include statements that tell your child that you get it. This is a good time to offer physical comfort. I say to offer it rather than provide it, because sometimes people don't want to be touched when they're mad. Ask my husband. When I'm angry, he knows better than to try to wrap his arms around me. "I know, kiddo. This is frustrating. Do you need a hug?" Sometimes that's all it takes.
3. Options and Control
Presenting options helps your toddler feel some sense of control. "Good job finishing your snack. It's time to get ready for bed. We're going to read a book, brush our teeth, put on our pajamas and go to bed. Would you like to read a story first, or would you like to brush your teeth first?" If you get a positive response, continue to praise your child. "Wow, I really like how you made a choice. Whoa, you really know how to brush your teeth!" Now, offer options to get you to the next steps: pajamas, reading, and eventually bed. It would be ideal if your toddler selected options without more prompting, but ideal isn't always the world of a parent, right?
4. First/Then Statements
What are you doing negotiating with a toddler? Yes, you. You're the parent. You're the boss. Yes, that kid is way scarier, but you're bigger, so there. If offering options isn't working, move onto taking control. You tried offering choices, but, if your child can't handle making a choice, the decision making falls to you. "OK, so I guess you aren't ready to make a choice. Mommy will pick. Let's brush teeth." Keep in mind that you've just shifted control and gave it all to yourself, so expect things to potentially hit the fan.
Once you've made your statement, that's the plan, and we stick to the plan, right? We aren't negotiating. You can always reintroduce options again, after your child has listened. "I really like how you listened to Mommy, and brushed your teeth. Now, let's see, we can read a book now or put on pajamas. What would you like to do first?" Either your child will pick (hopefully), or you'll have to make the choice.
Begin with stating your routine in simple statements. "First, pajamas; then, story." When you're met with a possible tantrum. Restate exactly as you said it, "First, pajamas, then story." If this doesn't get your anywhere, help your Toddler to where the pajamas are using positive talk, "You're doing a great job. I really like how you're listening." If met with more resistance, show the pajamas and restate, "First, pajamas, then, story." If a tantrum occurs, you can simply say, "I see that you're upset. I'll wait until you're ready." Bunker down and wait. Remember, you're in charge. Your toddler is feeling frustrated and out of control. It's not a great way to feel, but it's also not productive to negotiate. You can revisit #2 at any point.
5. Simple Compliance
This one is pretty easy and super helpful. Find small ways to get your child listening and responding positively again. This means giving your toddler something to do that he can easily accomplish. Sometimes we all need a little restart to get us back on track. Think about all of the times you've used "baby steps" to get you over a hump - same situation. Simple compliance tasks not only help get your child refocused, but they are wonderful distractions. More importantly, they offer opportunities for you to build your child up again with some praise for that amazing listening/building/cleaning, etc. Some examples of simple compliance tasks are:
- sitting near a green ball and a red ball, say, "Can you please hand me the red ball?"
- looking at a book, "Where is the dog?"
- sitting with an empty basket and blocks next to it, "Let's put the blocks in the basket."
If you get resistance, head back to #3, and start offering options: "What should we look for in this book, cats or dogs?" Or, try this, "Should we put the blue blocks in the basket or green blocks?" You get the idea.
Toddlers are complicated little beings, and there's no fool-proof cocktail, but there are definitely things that you can use help make life a little more manageable. Practice these techniques, and before you know it, life will be that much sweeter with your cutie pie.