Wednesday, January 9, 2013

FAQ: toddler tantrums - what should i do?

For awhile, I have wanted to start posting some of my responses to frequently-asked parenting questions that come my way. Unfortunately, my schedule has not cooperated. Parenting advice is not something to be given in a hurry. And it's hard to give, because while every child is different, parents tend to look for a one-size-fits-all solution to solve their current problem. I should know - I certainly have.

So for my inaugural FAQ post, I'm going to allow a new blogging friend I have gotten to know to do some of the work for me. Her name is Emily Morrice, and she blogs at {our nest in the city} on a number of topics you might enjoy if you're a mom with energy, taste and creativity (or if, like me, you just wish you were). Emily has small children, and this summer she contacted me to ask for advice on how to handle tantrums. She posted my response on her blog, along with her own observations on what was effective for her child and what was not.

I applaud Emily for applying common sense and context to any parenting advice offered to her, and I urge you to do the same. With that in mind, if you're dealing with tantrums (and based on my inbox, MANY of you are :) ) I hope you find my comments and her responses helpful. You can read her post here:

{disarming toddler tantrums}

I would add one additional thought to what I shared with Emily: sometimes children throw fits because they sense that we have not been giving them our full attention. A fit is a quick and easy way to gain it. Sometimes fit-throwing can be diminished or prevented by deliberately finding regular times during the day when you can focus fully on the child in question. Having had four kids in four years, I know first-hand how hard it is to find time to fully focus on a two-year-old when you are also caring for a newborn. But a little face-time goes a long way and is worth the investment, even if it's just a quick moment to work a puzzle or read a book together.

If you find yourself losing your temper over your child's tantrums, you might also check out this post I wrote a few months back. Toddlers teach us to marvel at the patience of God toward His children, don't they? May your patience and consistency with your child be richly rewarded - keep your eyes on the long-term!


  1. "Toddlers teach us to marvel at the patience of God toward His children, don't they?" Amen, sister! My third baby is three and a half, and sometimes I simply have to step back and marvel at her commitment to getting what she wants.

    I think the bulk of your advice is right on, but I do have one question. You say "If the fit doesn’t stop, and you're in public, go home. And yes, go home even if you have to leave a shopping cart or a party." While this is excellent advice when going home from the park or a friend's house, the problem comes when we are in the grocery store. My kids WANT to go home. Leaving because of a fit is not punishment; it is a reward. Any thoughts - from you or your wise readers - about some other strategies?

    1. This is an excellent observation. :) My advice was geared toward a fit that starts over wanting a toy or a treat. If the child's objective is to go home, you're right. You need a different strategy. I would plan a very short trip to the store (unbeknownst to your child). Basically, set them up to learn the skill of a successful shopping trip. Before you go in, set the expectation: "No fits in the store, OK?" "OK, Mom." Then offer a reward for self-control: "If there are no fits we will get gum at the check-out, okay?" "OK, Mom." "What will happen if there's a fit?" "No gum." "That's right - but I know you can do this!" Then go in, get five or six items, check out, and give the reward with praise for success. Gradually lengthen the trips. You want the child to enjoy the positive attention of successful self-control (versus the negative attention of a fit), so you stack the deck so they are likely to receive it. Just as with something like potty-training, the reward is given until the child has proven their ability to master the skill. Then a verbal reward becomes the norm. This worked well for us...I hope it helps! Jen

  2. Hi, Jen! I totally agree with creating situations in which your kids can understand the goodness of obedience, but I think this advice borders on bribing. Instead, I would set the expectation: "I expect you not to throw a fit in the store, understand? I know you can do this!" Then make it fun: "I only have to get five things! Let's see if we can get them really fast!" Then you have a little fun, racing around the store, or walking slowly down the peanut butter aisle under your child spies the PB. THEN, if your child hasn't had fits--and you've obviously helped her not throw a fit by engaging her--you say, "You were so good and helpful! You didn't throw a fit. I'm really proud of you. Let's get a pack of gum to celebrate!" This way, the first reward is the reward of obedience, not the reward of gum. It's internal versus external. We try to reward good behavior--sometimes with treats, but usually with praise or a special trip to the park or an extra bedtime book, etc.--but we try not to hold those rewards out as carrots to procure the desired behavior. Just my two cents!

    1. Hilary - your two cents are awesome. Yes, the line between bribing and rewarding can be a fine one - your approach is safely on the reward side. :)