Managing toddler tantrums gently and effectively
Dominique from Oh Beehave! and I have created a podcast to help mums manage toddler tantrums gently and effectively (if you prefer to read the transcript, see below).
Dominique has a background in psychology and teaching. Through her work, she found that while there were common behavioural issues that parents asked about, it was hard to find a credible and reliable place to find information on how to manage these issues.
She was also concerned that there were a lot of articles telling parents what they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing, rather than giving options to empower them to make decisions that would suit their family best.
Knowing there had to be an easier way, Oh Beehave! was born!
A common concern amongst parents of young children is how to manage tantrums. What would be your top tips in relation to managing tantrums?
Tantrums are very common and can be thought of as a normal part of development, especially when it comes to the infamous “terrible twos” period.
When it comes to tantrums, it’s important to understand why children have them… which may seem like a baffling concept to understand, but if you think about it from a toddlers point of view, they have recently learnt to walk, they’re starting to talk, and the possibilities for exploration are endless!
Which is exactly where the tantrums come in. What a toddler wants to do is look at, touch, and explore…
Every. Single. Thing. They. See.
But unfortunately, what they hear is
“don’t touch that”
They get picked up and carted away from whatever they were about to do or explore.
Which is EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING from their point of view. Can you image someone telling you all. day. long. that you can’t do pretty much every single thing you try?
So of course, they want to let you know they’re not happy about it.
Unfortunately, they haven’t learnt the words to tell you that they are unhappy, so they default to what they know… which is to cry & scream to get what they want (that’s essentially an infant’s natural mechanism for communication… so they default to that, because it’s what has worked for them in the past… think about how they communicate that they need feeding, changing, sleep… etc) It’s what they naturally revert to.
So that’s all well and good… but what can you do about the tantrums?
My 3 favourite tips for tantrums are:
- Identify Triggers
- Remove reinforcers
- Communicate Expectations
Firstly – Identify triggers. This strategy is about identifying what happens immediately before a tantrum and immediately after. For example, is there a particular day, time, event, experience, place, game, TV show that triggers a tantrum? You may need to monitor your child’s tantrums over a few days and write down what happens before and after. If you can identify a trigger, it can be easier to work out what strategy will work best in alleviating the tantrums.
Secondly – Remove the reinforcer – A reinforcer is anything that encourages the “tantruming” behaviour. A couple of common examples include when a child asks for something (like a chocolate at the shops, or to use iPhone, iPad etc) and you say no… and then they have a tantrum, and the “tantruming” behaviour escalates to the stage where it becomes so unbearable that you give them the chocolate, iPhone, iPad… or whatever it is because you just want the tantrum to end. In this particular scenario the chocolate or iPad or whatever acts as a “reinforcer” and the child learns that they need to have a tantrum to get what they want.
A reinforcer can also be when the child “gets out of something” they don’t want to do – so for example imagine every time you ask your child to pack their toys away or clean their room or similar and they have a tantrum so say you send them to time out while you pack up their toys or clean their room or whatever, that can act as a reinforcer… the child learns that having a tantrum can get them out of doing things they don’t want to do.
Thirdly, and most importantly, communicating can have a major impact on tantrums. This includes communication about the tantrum itself and communication about expectations if you have identified a particular time, place, etc that you have identified triggers a tantrum.
For example going back to the chocolate at the shops scenario, if you have pre-empted that a tantrum is going to happen, talk to your child about the scenario before it happens. This might sound something like “we’re going to go to the shops after lunch today. You might ask me for a chocolate and I’m going to say no. It is ok if you feel sad or angry, but my answer will still be no.”
I’ll leave it there – so to sum up, identify triggers, remove reinforcers and communicate expectations to help manage tantrums.
Would you use different strategies depending on the age? For example, an 18 month old compared to a 3 year old?
The same strategies can be used for different age groups, but you might alter them depending on age.
So if we’re talking about communicating with your child when it comes to tantrums, for an 18 month old you might say something like “you’re upset because I took the iPad off you” while you comfort the child and distract them with another activity.
Whereas, with an older child, the communication might sound something more like “It’s ok for you to be upset because I said you can’t play with the iPad right now.” Explain why they can’t have the iPad (it might be “Mummy needs to use it for work”) And follow it up with “how about you play with your lego instead” to help the child learn how to re-direct their own attention.
For child who are older again who have particular difficulty with recovering from their upset or anger, you may even prompt them to use some calming strategies.
The important thing to remember is that just communicating with your child in general (from as early an age as possible) can help. There was a really interesting study that found children with larger vocabularies at 24 months showed better behaviour regulation and less behaviour problems once they started school (and as an bonus they achieved higher results in Maths and English at school too!)
Even a young child can understand a lot more of what you say than you might think! Imagine it’s like when you learn a new language, you can usually understand what is being said before you can speak the language yourself.
Do you have any suggestions on how to manage family members who are suggesting strategies that aren’t comfortable for parents, for example grandparents who suggest that the child ‘just needs a good smack!’
Good question – and very timely as the smacking debate was back in the news (WA today) just yesterday – the article is worth reading if you get the chance.
But in response to your question about people who say a child “just needs a good smack” I like to respond with the question “what do you think a smack will achieve?”
Smacking is one of those strategies that has been used for many years I think a lot of people still think it holds merit as a behaviour strategy, even though there is really no evidence to suggest that it is effective.
The only good argument I’ve heard for smacking is that it “stops behaviour immediately” which is probably true, in most cases, however, the problem with smacking is that it won’t achieve a behaviour change long term.
Unfortunately, when a child is smacked, they only learn that certain behaviours should be avoided when their parents are looking, in order to avoid a smack and they don’t learn the connection between behaviour and logical or natural consequences, it stops them from learning about WHY they should or shouldn’t behave in certain ways.
There are also so many negative follow-on effects from smacking.
You might have heard people saying things like “I was smacked as a kid and I turned out fine.”
The problem with this statement is that there is a really strong relationship between people who were smacked as kids and behaviours that manifest in adulthood such as aggression, the belief that “hitting” is an acceptable way to control the behaviour of others, anti-social behaviours in adolescence (such as underage drinking, smoking, stealing, graffiti etc) mental health difficulties (anxiety, depression, feelings of “lack of life purpose.”)
As well as things like doing things you know you aren’t supposed to do, if you know you won’t get caught or doing things only to avoid punishment, as opposed to just simply doing things because “it’s the right thing to do.”
The other important thing to remember when it comes to smacking is that just because you aren’t smacking your child, it doesn’t mean there should be a lack of discipline or consequences for behaviour and I think that is probably one of the difficulties some people have with moving away from “smacking” is… what is the alternative?
How does Oh Beehave! work?
The Oh Beehave! website features a library full of behaviour strategies.
All you need to do is type in a key word describing the behaviour you are looking for and a whole heap of strategies will come up.
The trick to using ohbeehave strategies is to just pick 1 strategy that suits you and your family and use that 1 strategy consistently. It takes time to see a change in behaviour, so pick 1 strategy and use it consistently for about a week to see results.
If you don’t see results after a week, try a different strategy.
For people who prefer an app, we have also recently released our app “Parenting Therapy” which features the 30 best strategies – the ones that parents most commonly ask for.
If parents feel that they have tried a few strategies from your site but need extra support what should they do?
We have just launched our in-home consulting service. So, if parents feel they need some extra help, we can come to visit them in their home, discuss the behaviour that is concerning them, work with them and their family to create an individualised plan with tools and strategies to meet their specific needs, and support them with phone calls and emails as they work to overcome their behaviour challenges.