Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Preventing Tantrums

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Are temper tantrums inevitable? I can see early signs in my 18-month-old when he doesn’t get his way. He wanted to go outside in his pajamas this morning and fussed considerably when I wouldn’t let him. As soon as I scooped him up to go get dressed, though, it was over. I see other mothers flustered with two-year-olds who throw downright fits in public. What are some tips for avoiding this?

Seeing Trouble Ahead



Click here to read last week’s post on dealing with a biter.

Dear Seeing Trouble,

Tantrums can be described as an expression of helplessness and rage. What he wants makes sense to him, but isn’t always the best idea from your wiser perspective.

They’re not inevitable, but they are “normal” for the age. It comes with the “one thought at a time” thinking of children in the preschool years. This is an age when desires are way ahead of practical understandings of health and safety, time and other resource limits, and other people’s needs. Your son may get an idea about eating a cookie – if he hears the word or sees a cookie box – but you have several sound reasons to say, “No.” He’s had his limit of sweets for now and lunch is 5 minutes away, and there are only 4 cookies in the box and you were planning on serving them when a mom friend comes for a play date this afternoon. Don’t waste your breath explaining. Just move on.

Here is an ABC for keeping tantrums to a minimum:

Attend Closely

A young child is content when his physical and emotional needs have been met so he can happily engage in play, sharing discoveries and creations with his beloved caregiver. This state can change rapidly as he starts to run out of interest, energy, or tolerance. Keep close tabs on hunger and fatigue (watch the time), or boredom (a doctor’s waiting room), or overstimulation (a birthday party), so he doesn’t become more unreasonable than a toddler already is.

Be Decisive

Consistent routines and rules help you both to know what is a “Yes” and what is a “No.” There are objects he can pretty much do what he wants with, others he can use with supervision or “at the right time,” and a few tempting ones that he is never allowed to touch. Hold a running nutrition log in your head for the day so you can offer good choices – not enough veggies yet, overloaded on carbohydrates already. To make this easy, each meal and snack can have standard ingredients such that a vegetable always comes with lunch and dinner. For bigger picture decision making, clear out the “No no’s” until he has more self-control. Move dangerous/fragile/priceless objects out of sight. Only buy foods he CAN eat, or keep the restricted ones out of sight (and out of your conversations!).

Change Focus

It’s easier to head off a tantrum than to calm one down. When you realize that you are in opposition to his idea, you need to immediately offer him an alternative thought. Remember, he can only have one at a time. Use more than one sense to capture his attention – sing a silly song as you “dance” the lunch things to the table, pass the garlic under his nose on the way to adding some to the soup, rub his tummy to find the empty spot that will soon be filled with lunch, give him his spoon or bib to hold so he has a tangible promise of what’s coming.

If you focus more on an appropriate “Yes” than locking horns with your toddler about the “No!” you save a lot of frustration for both of you.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected].