Pirates of the Crib-bian: How Can I Get My Child To Stop Having Temper Tantrums?

Turns out Johnny Depp is a lot more than a fantastic actor; he’s also an armchair psychologist. On a recent appearance with David Letterman, Depp said this about his kids: “Living with young children is like hanging around with miniature drunks. You have to hold on to them. They bump into things. They laugh. They cry. They urinate. They vomit…

Accurate comparison? Absolutely. In fact, Depp’s comment has striking relevance to an issue thousands of frustrated parents confront every day – “How can I get my child to stop having temper tantrums?

Your Toddler is a Drunk. Kind of. Think about Depp’s analogy. Alcoholics exhibit some distinct behavioral and physical signs – many of them quite similar to the actions of a toddler:

•    They are impaired in their ability to make decisions •    They have difficulty controlling their bodies, speech, behavior, and emotions •    They feel happy one minute and the next they are crying inconsolably •    They slur their words and often forget what they have heard, seen and done •    They fall down, get into accidents, hit people, break things and embarrass those around them

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re either a parent or a bartender.

You Knew The Job Was Dangerous When You Took It Toddlers’ brain development is such that their ability to control their behavior, control and understand their feelings, and use logic are barely starting to emerge. We might see our toddler acting patiently one day and screaming, hitting, and acting like Jack Daniels after an all-night whiskey bender the next.

Naturally, this behavior needs to be controlled – and the best way to get a handle on it is to understand your toddler’s frame of mind.

What If You Were a Toddler Too? Imagine yourself as a two-year-old. Remember how small and powerless and dependent it feels. Being a toddler is HARD, mostly because they are:

•    Unable to make their needs known most of the time •    Unable to make their body do things that others around them do easily •    Unable to make grown-ups understand what they need to say •    Needing help with almost everything. •    Being overpowered by their emotions several times a day

Why Your Child Is Acting Like That Girl From The Exorcist You certainly can’t prevent ALL tantrum triggers, all the time. But you can try to keep them in mind throughout your day with your toddler – and possibly prevent some tantrums as a result.

Here are some common situations that can trigger toddler meltdowns:

•    Not enough physical activity during the day •    Too many “forbidden” things or activities in the environment •    Frustration at inability to do something (e.g., speech, coordination, dexterity, size) •    Too many people and/or too much noise in the environment •    Unfamiliar/disliked people in the environment, especially if they want something from the toddler, like a kiss •    Major change in routine or environment •    Sleepiness •    Hunger/thirst •    Illness/teething pain/ear infection •    Potty conflicts and frustrations •    Parent “tuned out”/busy/not paying attention to what toddler needs •    Parents trying to accomplish too many “adult” tasks with toddler (e.g., adult conversations) •    Activity overload (e.g., too much TV) •    Environment is too active/chaotic (e.g., dinnertime, kids running around, TV on, neighbors coming and going)

A Personal Anecdote: Diffusing Dinnertime Meltdowns In our house, dinnertime is so noisy and chaotic that it used to lead to nightly meltdowns for our 20-month-old. Now, I try to eat with him, ahead of the rest of the family, so that we can all eat in peace.

Once my husband and "the big kids" are ready to eat, I take Tai into the bathroom for a nice long bubble bath, with the door CLOSED, so he is not distracted by all the noise from his older brother and sister. We work on “eating as a family” at other meals, and he will be far more capable of enjoying family dinners when he is a little older and a little less sensitive to the noise and activity of the house. Plus he gets tired at the end of a long day of trying to share with the “big kids”, trying to communicate with us; he’s exhausted and needs a little break to “mellow out” before bedtime. I know this forced family separation every night is just temporary, and it’s certainly worth everyone’s sanity. And since we have been doing this, we have NO nightly tantrums.

Decide What Works For YOU I’m not suggesting that all toddlers should be separated from their siblings at dinnertime, and I realize this is not practical advice for every family. But what is really important is that you develop routines for your family that work for you. Every family is different, and every toddler is different. KNOW YOUR CHILD. See how they respond in different situations. When are they feeling good? When do they behave well? When do YOU feel good, as a parent? These things are not random occurrences. There are patterns to your child’s behavior and feelings; there are patterns to YOUR behavior and feelings, and patterns to the rhythm of your family. What are those patterns? Become a detective. Observe. Take notes. Remember.  Put it all together. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

•    When does my toddler behave well?  What times of day?  What situations? With whom? •    What kinds of things seem to make my toddler angry or have a meltdown?  What changed in the situation just prior to the meltdown? •    What helps my toddler feel better when she is having a tantrum?  What has worked in the past?  Who is able to help her feel better? •    What was I doing just prior to my toddler’s meltdown?  How was I feeling?  Was I stressed/distracted/not “present”?

Start paying attention to these things.  Once you do, you will start to suspect certain patterns. You might not be sure if your hunches are correct. That’s OK; like any scientist, you will test your hypotheses. How? By being aware, in the moment, with your toddler; then when you see the pattern start to emerge again, do something to MAKE IT DIFFERENT.

If there is a certain time of day that makes him fussy and difficult, try to decrease the noise and stimulation at that time.  If there are certain places you go that make him crazy (WalMart, anyone?), don’t take him there! Change it up, and see what happens. Then, you start to have answers. Your detective work will lead to a much happier toddler. Good luck!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink