“Tantrums can be the way kids communicate,” reassures Dr. Jill Sonnenklar, a clinical psychologist with Cohen Children's Medical Center. “When they're little, they know that when they cry, they get food.” But as babies get bigger, she explains, so do their emotions. Demands become louder and more intense.
I know my daughter is no different from most toddlers—frustrated, conflicted, angry (then happy, then angry), trying to find their voice and establish their independence. They have no one else to take their frustrations out on, and they certainly don’t have the vocabulary or social-emotional maturity to process what their big (and I mean BIG) feelings mean yet.
Thus infant cries morph into massive toddler meltdowns. “It's really up to parents to step in and teach them other ways to get what they want,” Dr. Sonnenklar says. “It’s hard.”
One approach, she says, is to identify certain triggers that might set your child off in the first place. This can help parents develop more effective strategies to avoid a tantrum before it begins.
On that fateful Tuesday morning, my daughter was likely sensing my anxiety over trying to get out of the house (on time) on a work day. “They know you're in a rush, and your stress becomes their stress. They simply react to that,” says Dr. Sonnenklar.
I’ve now learned that preparing my daughter for what’s to come with intermittent announcements like “In ten minutes we have to get in the car,” and “Once your show ends, we have to get ready for school,” would be a more productive way to help her navigate the transition. And when I stopped to think about it, I realized I wouldn’t like it very much if my husband—without warning—interrupted a show I was watching, shoved a hat on my head, and threw me in the car, headed to destination unknown.
“It takes a little planning on the part of the parents, but just keep reminding yourself what the goal is—to get out of the house in a calm manner," Dr. Sonnenklar says.
She also encourages ongoing skill building to help your child find constructive ways to express what they want. This starts with clear communication from parent to child and positive reinforcement (praise, hugs, kisses) when your child handles a “trigger” situation without tantrumming.
But make no mistake, toddler tantrums can’t be avoided altogether. Like a bad case of gout, there will be flare ups.
“For a run of the mill tantrum, the best thing to do is to ignore the behavior and not give in," says Dr. Sonnenklar. And consistency is crucial. Your stalwart approach to each tantrum must be the same, which means you, your partner and any other caregivers need to be on the same page.
Luckily, once your child starts to notice your new, nonchalant attitude to even their loudest wails…
… it will get worse. But then it will get better.
Cue Dr. Sonnenklar for an explanation on WHY, GOD, WHY would I ever want things to get worse?
“It's called the extinction burst, and I always warn parents—your kids are going to test you. They're going to try to break you. But if you're consistent, the tantrums will usually decrease. You just have to get over that hump. It's worth it,” she promises. She also points out that parents must trust their instincts. “If you are consistent and you don’t see positive changes happening in your child’s behavior, or if you are concerned that the tantrums are so violent that there is a risk of self-harm (or harm to others), it makes sense to reach out to your pediatrician for guidance.”
After that remorse-laden day, I headed home early, yearning to hold my baby, kiss her battered nose, and make sure she knew her mommy loved her. I feared I’d walk into the house and find a sad, damaged child. What I found was the exact opposite. “Hi, Mama,” she giggled. Then she hugged me. Then she ignored me (Mickey was on). Then she ate her chicken nuggets, sang her ABCs and drifted off to sleep—like normal.
I wished I could be more like my 2-year-old—resilient, strong and carefree.
“Our lives are very stressful and if we get so caught up in that stress, we don't have the energy to be patient and calm with our children,” says Dr. Sonnenklar. “Remember to take the time to do something nice for yourself whatever it is—every day, but preferably not with a glass of wine,” she advises.
As I sipped a glass of wine (sorry, Dr. Sonnenklar) and contemplated the day, I was able to let some of the guilt melt away. I told myself that tomorrow is a new day. I’ll be more patient. More understanding. And more consistent. And I’ll be armed with an action plan that will help our family manage our mornings better. All I need is a strong cup of coffee and an iron will, right?
And then I told myself to calm the F-- down and enjoy the silence.
And the wine.
And wait to see what tomorrow brings with the inevitable sunrise, tangled bed-head, guilt and giggles.