Dealing with tantrums

Q: Our 3-year-old is having tantrums that last more than 30 minutes. What is going on?

A: Imagine being too small to see what you’re looking for, dependent on others to offer you something to eat or drink and too uncoordinated to perform the skills you think you’re capable of. You have no choice in your wardrobe, daily agenda or food selection; you’re wearing urine- and stool-stained underpants and you feel voiceless when you try to alter your environment.

I’ve always wondered why toddlers don’t have more tantrums.

Tantrums are the normal result of a toddler trying to impact his or her surroundings and feeling frustrated when it’s not successful. 

Sometimes a series of unnoticed annoyances a toddler experiences through the day culminate with “the last straw” — a seemingly harmless event like a sandwich cut the “wrong way” — and results in a volcanic eruption of tears. 

It’s just like when a grown-up endures a series of irritating events at work and experiences the last straw on the drive home by being cut off by another driver. Toddlers and grown-ups want control over their lives and to be successful in their endeavors.

When you’re dealing with your 3-year-old in the middle of a tantrum, take a slow, deep breath and mentally channel your internal Zen. In addition to your toddler’s emotions, you have your own — frustration, helplessness, anger, impatience and embarrassment — with which to deal. 

If you don’t get your own emotions in check first, your child will use your emotions to fuel his or her tantrum like gasoline on a fire. 

If your toddler is potentially unsafe during the tantrum — near stairs, water or moving vehicles — move your child to a safer location. Otherwise, do your best not to engage in the tantrum; speak in a calm voice; walk around the tantrum scene and carry out the rest of your activities, seemingly uninterested in the tantrum, but remain watchful. 

Subtly offer distractions — like a toddler-appropriate book you’re reading, a snack you’re eating or a game or puzzle that might require your child’s assistance — to encourage your tearful toddler to focus on something else. 

Remember to praise your toddler for being done with the tantrum and thank him or her for joining you and your activity. Most importantly, try not to give in to the demands that started the tantrum. Rewarding the tantrum behavior by acquiescing to the demand just reinforces tantrums to continue. 

When you’re not in the middle of dealing with a tantrum, offer your toddler words of praise or high-fives for his or her small accomplishments throughout the day to ensure your child feels successful. 

Ensure your toddler is well rested. Offer him or her as much control as you’re able to allow at the moment: “Do you want your grapes in a cup or in a bowl?” “Do you want grapes or blueberries?” or “Do you want a snack now or later?” 

Increased control or autonomy can play a role in reducing tantrums.