Having a two-year-old is like having a blender without a lid,” said comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
My son Jack has so far been easy on us with tantrums; they have not been too horrible (and have mostly been private). But as he moves from the “Terrible Twos” to the “Terrifying Threes,” I try to absorb as many tips as I can on how to deal with the challenges.
Are they really inevitable?
I laughed at someone referring to this trying time as the ‘Throat-Slitting Threes’ in an online forum, and with Jack’s own sudden schizophrenic switches from happy to horrible in a heartbeat, I had glimpses of what’s up ahead and prayed we won’t have such a rough time.
Procrastination, indecisiveness and rebelliousness. Some adults brush these off as typical toddler traits and so they “allow kids to be kids” by just riding out these moments—and expect others to put up with them.
We can’t expect tots to act maturely in restaurants or at church, can we?
As God doesn’t give us more than we can take, it wouldn’t be fair to expect more than toddlers are developmentally able to handle, especially when they are too wired and too worn out.
Mae, stay-at-home mom to Jon, 6, Cathy, 3, and Anthony, 1, said: “I try to avoid taking the kids to the store if potential for boredom is high or if they are tired or wound up from a busy day.”
Laura Markham, a mom and clinical psychologist at Columbia University, advised, “Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation—whatever it takes to calm down and rest—prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny.”
She expounded that toddlers need the following from their parents:
The validation of her own agency
“She needs to learn that there are things she is in charge of, such as her own body, and she needs to experience herself as competent and powerful,” said Markham.
Mom-of-three Mae shared, “I read a lot of books with the kids and some about good behavior. Sometimes, I quote a book when applicable to the circumstance and I have their attention.
“My 3-year-old Cathy has tantrum staying-power. She has screamed for a full 45 minutes. It’s upsetting, but she’s learning that we expect her to overcome her anger/frustration before we can talk about her getting what she wants. We have modeled to her how she can learn to tell us what she wants without kicking, screaming or whining. But of course, since she is a 3-year-old, that behavior is natural, which is fine, and she may forget sometimes. So I try to teach her the expected, better behavior by example as much as humanly possible.”
Mae added, “When we go grocery shopping, Cathy and my six-year-old Jon help me push the shopping cart, put things in the cart and put them on the conveyor belt at checkout. I praise them as soon as we leave the store: ‘Thanks for being really helpful!’”
Structure, limits, routines and security
“Toddlers are beginning to grasp that it’s a big world out there. Even their own feelings seem overwhelming to them at times. They need the reassurance that the parent is in charge and can keep them safe—from the world, and from their own big feelings and lack of self-control,” Markham clarified.
My husband Jason and I are such sticklers for time, but we learned that having a toddler means it takes longer to get things done. So while such forward planning can be a hassle, having to lug everything like a doomsday prepper, we realized that it’s helped us avoid major meltdowns.
We continue to keep Jack on a relatively steady routine as we find it helps assure him of what to expect. We give him as much attention as we can, plan our days around his nap time, and held off on bringing him to “good behavior” places like church till he was a bit more able to amuse himself with quiet toys, books and snacks we were armed with.
Help understanding and structuring time
“So he feels less out of control and pummeled by circumstance,” explained Markham. “Toddlers need to know what to expect and do better with a definite routine.”
The first day Jack had swimming lessons, he loved it. So we couldn’t understand why he cried all throughout his second through fourth sessions. We realized that since the sessions were irregular (we sometimes went twice a week, sometimes once), he couldn’t predict what was happening next and hated that he was just expected to obey.
So we found it helpful to prepare Jack days in advance, reminding him about what he will be doing through stories and videos and getting him excited about what’s to come. From his fifth session onward, he thoroughly enjoyed his classes.
“Look at it from his point of view, and you’ll see it makes sense,” Markham said. “Even if you can’t do what he wants, it will help him to cooperate if you can understand and sympathize with his unhappiness.”
Rinna, mom of four, shared, “At the supermarket, my 3-year-old was on the floor crying, wailing, kicking and screaming. While she wanted to be consoled (and for me to purchase whatever it was she was crying about), I decided to leave her be and walked not too far away. I asked the yaya to do the same. She shortly came to her senses and walked after us. I asked, “Are you done crying?” She nodded.
I asked her to talk to me properly about what was bothering her. She said she wanted candy. I explained why I could not buy it for her. She replied, ‘Ok, mama.’”
Tantrums and special needs kids
Mae’s six-year-old son Jon has Down Syndrome. “To me, having Down Syndrome is not an excuse for bad behavior or not trying,” she said. “I think parents handle it differently depending on circumstances, perspectives, knowledge-base and support. But just like any typical child, a behavior (good or bad) is a form of communication. The difference is typical children are likely to easily communicate their wants, needs, thoughts verbally.
“Jon has a hard time pronouncing his words clearly, he has a hard time organizing his thoughts and composing a long proper sentence to tell me what’s on his mind. He is still learning how to answer “wh-” questions (when is the hardest, what is subject to content and information being asked, forget about why!), and in unfamiliar or high-stress situations he gets very high anxiety. So it’s very frustrating lots of times for him when I ask him to repeat what he said a few more times because I didn’t understand. It’s frustrating not to quickly retrieve words from the brain and organize the thought process.
“When frustration is high, bad behavior is likely to happen. Also, health issues play a role in behavior. I’m likely to hear a lot of whining and refusals to listen when Jon is tired or sick and sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s not feeling well,” Mae admitted. “One time, my year-old Anthony got upset when he hurt his lip and cried really loudly. Crying upsets Jon and creates anxiety. He came over and hit Anthony’s foot. I’ve been teaching Jon to say ‘Are you OK,” but it’s a work in progress. He hasn’t generalized the skill yet. Once, he saw me accidentally bump my head. I said, ‘Ouch! That hurt.’ He immediately asked me, ‘Are you OK?’”
Mae professed that she doesn’t handle Jon’s bad behavior too differently from Cathy’s. “Jon’s version of a tantrum is refusing to do what he’s told and whining ‘no.’ Then he tries to run. I have put him on a timeout at a grocery aisle, just sitting on the floor. I tell him, ‘You’re in timeout for not listening, for running away from me in the store.’ Then I wait until he looks like he’s ready to listen and comply. I ask him, ‘Are you calm now? Ready to listen?’ I have waited 5-10 minutes. Timeouts help him refocus. Cathy, on the other hand, hates timeouts,” said Mae.
In his book “How to Really Love Your Child,” Dr. Ross Campbell explained that children require: eye contact, physical contact, focused attention and discipline. When these needs are fulfilled, children’s “emotional tanks” get full, and would less likely misbehave.
In an age where mobile phones and tablets are threatening to be fixtures on dining tables, this can take discipline on the parents’ part as well.
Whether parents opt to spank, do timeouts or take away privileges, their loving discipline needs to be consistent.
“By the time you have told your child over and over to stop doing something, you probably are correcting in frustration. You can give a warning, but you need to act, not after five times. You need to agree with your husband on your approach and both follow it. One being the disciplinarian and the other having a ‘whatever’ attitude will not work and will cause problems,” warned author Nancy Capo.
“Cathy threw a major tantrum as we parked outside the grocery,” Mae shared. “I told her she needed to take deep breaths and calm down before we entered the store. The store is for calm girls and boys. She usually listens at home but that day she refused to comply.
“I gave her one more chance to calm herself down and told her it was her last chance; otherwise, she was going home with dad (we live five minutes from the store). She didn’t stop screaming so I went in the store while my husband took a screaming Cathy home.
“They came back for me when I texted them I was ready to be picked up. The next time we went to the store, I headed it off at the front-end with a kind but firm reminder that they need to be calm and listen to me while we were in the store. It hasn’t been a problem since.”
But parents aren’t perfect. While we are bound to mess up sometimes, we can use these instances as teaching moments.
Mae disclosed, “I’ve tried swatting their bottoms as a punishment for being disobedient or extremely rude. But that backfired as that was just teaching them that hitting was okay. So sometimes, Jon hit me back, but to him it was more a reaction to my action. And since he has a hard time expressing his emotions, verbalizing how he’s feeling, he lashes out physically instead.
“Thankfully, that has stopped now since I stopped using ‘swats.’ I still do timeouts if the situation calls for it—usually if Cathy is out of her mind screaming and kicking or Jon is hitting because he’s mad. The timeouts are done in the most boring place in the house without any toys or attention from me if possible. The only way they get out of timeout is if they calm down and get a hold of themselves.
“Now I have a button reward system in place for helping around the house—encouraging helpfulness, independence, teamwork and responsibility,” said Mae.
Indeed, these mortifying moments can be manageable. As parents, we can strive to inspire good behavior without making our children lose face.
Parenting is inconvenient and time-consuming.
“But it’s vital,” said Capo. “The toddler years are intense. But by choosing to proactively parent with knowledge, excitement and love, they can be terrific!”
God help us all.