By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
My son must be among the most terrible two’s ever. When he doesn’t get his way or can’t have a snack or something he bangs his head on the floor. Today he hit a block leaving a mark on his forehead. What will make him stop?
It’s hard to be two. Let’s look at typical causes for a tantrum, consider some calming techniques, and choose effective strategies for prevention.
Causes for Tantrums
A temper tantrum is an expression of frustration. At two years of age a child is limited in his ability to put his needs and feelings into words. He’s thinking how delicious a cup of warm cocoa would be but instead he gets cold soymilk. He can’t negotiate, for example, for half a cookie when you tell him, “No,” when he asks for one too close to lunchtime. He has no concept of time, so when you say, “Not now,” he hears, “Never”. Picture yourself in a faraway country in which you cannot easily order the food you want, after an exhausting journey, and you can sympathize with his feelings of helplessness.
He may be frustrated with himself. He sees how amazing his grown-ups are: you can drive a car to take him places. You can make food happen. You pull markers and stickers out of thin air (because you know better than to leave these in his reach!) You unlock the magic of a storybook with your reading skills. Somehow you are always spot on about how to dress him for the weather. When he tries to do big things for himself, he often fails.
Teething pain is common for this age when the aptly named two-year-old molars come in. This can be days or weeks of gum pain. He may try chewing on inappropriate objects like the marker top that rolled under the couch or your cell phone cover. Mouth pain can make him grumpy. It doesn’t help that growth often occurs while a child is sleeping. The pain in his gums interrupts his sleep, (as does a tummy ache, a stuffy nose, or a bad dream), which adds to his irritability the next day.
Calming Methods to Use
In the face of a tantrum, your goal is to help your child return to a state of calm. If he’s not in danger of hurting himself (I’m picturing a padded and carpeted floor beneath the head banging), you can ignore a tantrum and quietly wait for it to be over. Try using the imagery that he is an erupting volcano. All that hot lava has to spew out and spill down the sides of the mountain before it eventually cools and pulls itself back together as solid rock. Give it a minute or two and the powerful emotions will have dissipated. This works best if you keep yourself calm as the volcano spews and subsides.
If his distress is only mild, it may be possible to distract him from what he can’t do (with his limited skills or because of your disapproval) by moving on to a pleasant activity. For example, pick up a picture book or two and move to where you normally read together. Make a short list of other activities that could bring out his happy side – dancing to music, a warm bath, play dough, big crayons and big paper, taking a walk with the wagon, etc. These ready-at-any-time activities are important for his mental health and yours.
Then again, there will be times you realize that what he wants really isn’t such a horrible idea. It makes sense to him, after all. You might need to modify his request – half a cookie instead of a whole cookie right before lunch, or set the cookie next to his sandwich as a concrete promise that “yes” he can have it right after. In other words, with your wisdom of what’s best for him, you make adjustments to satisfy the objections you initially had to what he wants. You are old enough to compromise while he can’t yet. Your calm and reasonable words are teaching him creative problem solving and that really, you are on his side.
Prevention: Stop Them Before They Start
There are patterns to temper tantrums. They may happen at the same times each day due to rhythms of hunger, tiredness, being cooped up inside too long, or his missing your loving attention. Change up the schedule to prevent the mis-timings of his day.
For repetitive tantrumming over food, re-evaluate the meal and snack schedule and what’s in the fridge and pantry. The appetite is usually high most of the day in toddlers due to their still rapid growth and constant movement. Avoid future fights about food by having acceptable options in every nutrition category – fruits and veggies, whole grain foods, proteins, and enough water (which can be in other foods) to prevent dehydration. Hunger and thirst can make anyone cranky. Too many sweets (and white flour) also make people cranky.
Match his rhythms for rest with appropriately timed naps and bedtimes. Satisfy his drive to keep moving with long periods of active play. (See last week’s blog about why and how to keep young children active even in the winter.)
Often a pattern develops in which a toddler learns that a sure way to get his adult’s attention is to pitch a tantrum. This can become his fallback when he has missed your positive attention for too long. His immature logic is, “She’ll have to get off her phone if I bang my head on the floor.” Let him know when you’re about to be busy with a call and help him get busy with a puzzle or his blocks before you begin. Make a habit of re-connecting with him, to let him know you are available again, as soon as you are finished.
He’s not terrible. He’s two.
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