It’s your worst nightmare.
You’re standing there, paralyzed, in the middle of the grocery store, all eyes on you as your two-year-old shrieks in an octave high enough to shatter glass. Except it’s all too real.
Welcome to the “terrible twos.” Or for some lucky parents, the terrible ones, twos, threes and fours. “Yes, the terrible twos can start as early as one and last until the age of four,” admitted Dr. Lisa Leggio, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia and mom to two teenage boys.
With a wry laugh, she remembers her own days of managing tantrums at the grocery store. “Speaking from experience, parents need to be consistent and specific when dealing with tantrums,” she said. “And sometimes you either have to have a thick skin and be embarrassed—or don’t go.”
Why Tantrums Now?
Tantrums tend to throw back their ugly heads just as you feel you’ve (mostly) gotten a handle on sleep and eating issues. But for those parents who think they can avoid tantrums? Good luck. “Tantrums are a normal part of development,” said Leggio. “It would be very unusual for a child not to have tantrums at all.”
Starting around age 1, children are both more mobile and more independent. When they aren’t able to do what they want—or when you stop them because they could get hurt—cue the screaming fit. “But it could be anything,” said Leggio. “They may want you to buy something, or they didn’t get the food they wanted. Maybe you picked the wrong color shirt, or they wanted to brush their teeth and they didn’t want you to brush their teeth.
“A lot of it is related to communication—they’re at an age where they can’t speak fully and may not be able to fully articulate what they want. If their parents aren’t quite understanding, that’s when they can get frustrated.”
Dialing It Down
“The good news is that even if you can’t completely stop tantrums from happening, you can lessen their frequency and duration,” said Leggio. Here are her top seven anti-tantrum tactics:
- Start by ensuring children are getting enough sleep—and enough at mealtimes. Children tend to transition to one nap by around 15 months of age, but they should still be getting about 12 total hours of sleep daily, including that nap. We all know kids fight naps, but do your best to schedule in that time—or at least quiet time where they are reading books, coloring or listening to music. Sticking to a consistent schedule of three meals and two snacks will also help stave off any “hangry” fits.
- Have realistic expectations. You know your toddler’s limits. So limit yourself. Plan to spend 45 minutes at the grocery store or out to lunch—and bring along a small toy or two. Or, point out distractions. Shopping can be a fun game for both of you if you’re naming colors or pointing out all the fruits and vegetables your child knows.
- Give your child limited choices. Remember what we said about children wanting to be independent? By giving limited choices, you can make both your lives a lot easier. For example, instead of struggling about what clothes to wear in the morning, give your child the option of two outfits. Or if fussing starts because your child wanted to brush his or her own teeth, say, “You can brush, but then I have to brush after you.”
- When they tantrum, stay strong. Even if you do all of the above, children are bound to still have a tantrum at some point.
- If it happens at home, stay calm, ignore it as much as possible and praise them when they pull themselves out of it. For example, say, “I know you were upset when mommy said you couldn’t have a cookie right now, but you did a good job calming down. You’re a big girl (or boy) and I’m so proud of you.” And above all else, don’t give in: That only teaches children that tantrums will get them what they want.
- If the tantrum happens in public, sometimes the only thing to do is to leave the shopping cart in the aisle or drop enough money to cover the lunch bill, and just exit the premises, screaming baby and all. Insider tip: If you’re going through a stage where your child tantrums every single time you go grocery shopping, for example, and you’re embarrassed, try shopping in a totally different neighborhood so you don’t run into any friends or neighbors!
- If your child does tend to tantrum when you go out, explain your expectations before you head out and make it clear if your child fusses, he or she will go into time out. (Time out should typically be reserved for bad behavior like hitting or biting, but it can be an effective tool for tantrums if you warn your child ahead of time.) If fussing begins, give a reminder. If the fit continues, immediately take your child outside and do a time out then and there (as a reminder, the rule is no more than one minute per year of age, with no talking and no eye contact).
- Watch for head-banging or breathholding. During tantrums, children will sometimes bang their heads on the floor or seem to hold their breath. Try not to worry. As long as children are developmentally normal, they will not seriously hurt themselves by banging their head on the floor (they figure out quickly that it hurts!). Children also aren’t truly holding their breath during tantrums—it’s a result of crying out so that they aren’t taking breaths in. It can be scary, and children may even pass out for a couple of seconds, but they should seem fine immediately afterward.
- When they behave well, heap on the praise. If children have a successful trip to the store or to the restaurant, praise them and do something extra special, like a visit to the park or an extra story at bedtime. Make sure to acknowledge how proud you are that they are a big boy or big girl and did so well.
If you think about it, in some ways, tantrums are a good thing (yes, really!). Mainly, they show that your baby is growing up. And with your help, your child can learn safe and acceptable ways to explore, and what’s OK—and not OK—to do.
From newborns to adolescents, kids come first at Children’s Hospital of Georgia. To find out more visit augustahealth.org/chog or call 706-721-KIDS (5437) to make an appointment for your child today.