Two Year Olds Who Rule The World, Part 2: the pros and cons of tantrums

A much loved two year old friend of mine – let’s call her Princess – was having one of her frequent “moments”. One of her favourite tricks is what I call “the fire siren”: you know, where the wail starts, and the pitch -and the volume – goes up and up and up. Here was Princess, winding up to a marvellous tantrum over something inconsequential. A large part of the “problem” here is that most people really don’t like to say no to Princess, because of the reaction that they know will follow. Therefore, her normal reaction when faced with “no” is to have a tantrum. (Here’s a perfect example of learning through repetition: P has a tantrum, people give her what she wants.)

I, however, have no such problem… I’ve known Princess for her entire life, and she knows that I set boundaries. (Consistent and Persistent, folks.) When I say no to my Princess, she knows two things: (1) I mean it, and (2) I will explain why I’m saying no, in as simple a way as possible.

So.. here we were, with the fire siren winding up. I looked as bored as possible, told her to come and find me when she was done, and walked away. She lost her target audience: and guess what, she stopped in her tracks. The other adults who were present at the time were gobsmacked. I guess it’s one of those cases where you can explain the theory to people as many times as you like, but seeing an example speaks a thousand words. 🙂

See, when Princess wants something, she has a tantrum to get it. What she’s learning here is that she *has* to have a tantrum to get (a) what she wants and (b)attention. What she’s *not* learning is how to deal with disappointment. When primary carers say no to the little things, toddlers learn to deal with their disappointment in a safe environment. Some tantrums are inevitable; they’re part of normal two year old development. But when we give in to every little thing, a bunch of stuff happens. The child learns that his tantrum gets him anything he desires: whether it’s the best idea or not. He gets the notion, through repetition, that he must have a tantrum to get what he wants. And he learns, also through repetition, that a tantrum will get everybody’s attention.

This is how many families end up in a cycle of behaviour that is miserable for everyone concerned. If you look at how you react to your toddler, you may well find that you have the means to break this cycle by reacting in a different way. Remember that the Prince, or the Princess, expects you to react in the accustomed fashion. And remember, too , that the ferocity of many tantrums actually frighten the daylights out of the little one. Often a quiet cuddle, along with the voice of reason, helps enormously. “When you’re ready to listen I can tell you why” works well. And like most of the tweaks that I recommend to parents in how they act -and react – with their kids, after a couple of times, it *works*.
…to be continued…

Two Year Olds Who Rule The World…

This topic has come up a couple of times this week, so I thought it’d make a good first post for this intermittent blog of mine.

I’m often asked how to deal with a toddler who “rules the roost”. I hear stories about two year olds who absolutely “won’t” this, or simply “have to” that. It sounds, to the casual observer, like the two year old is the one making all the decisions. There are a couple of points one should always remember when dealing with a child who is two years of age. First and foremost, and most importantly: he’s only two. Little people are not capable of making rational decisions based on factors like safety, or time, or what the weather is going to be like today. Secondly, two year olds love to – and need to – have some sense of control over their world. So: the trick is, temper his need for control with some parental common sense: limit his choices.

A few years ago I knew a mother who, when out in the real world, was a highly qualified professional. But here she was, on a chilly and very wet Melbourne winter day, accompanied by her toddler: who was wearing hot pink thongs on her very cold, very wet feet. “She -won’t- wear anything else!” lamented her mother. “I don’t know what to do!” She felt completely defeated by this loud and determined small person whose insistence on wearing thongs in winter had Mum at the end of her tether. She handled corporate decisions every day, but here she was with her daughter in thongs. Mum had given in to Little One’s demands, knowing it was not a great idea, but at a loss to know what else to do. The tantrum had worked.

My suggestion was that she go home and put all of Little One’s shoes in a box – except for her runners and her gumboots – and hide them where Little One could not find them. This way Little One could choose for herself between appropriate shoes for the weather. The next day Little One arrived in her gumboots, looking very pleased with herself: as did Mum.

Offer several appropriate choices for your child to choose from. If you offer (A) the red top and (B) the pink top but they insist on wanting (C) the blue top, calmly tell them (C) is not available and that if they don’t choose, you will have to choose for them. Most children will quickly choose for themselves at this point. If not, make the choice and follow through. Next time you offer them the choice and remind them of this incident, they will choose for themselves.

The third point to keep in mind when dealing with two year olds is the impressive arsenal of weapons they have, and are not afraid to use: the tears, the screaming, the whining, the kicking and scratching, the full on tantrum, the make-myself-throw-up, etc etc etc. Two year olds don’t have the moral compass that older children and adults have: they’re not ashamed to scream in your face and belt you hard to get their way. They’re not averse to a bit of hair pulling or food throwing, either. Keeping in mind the fact that “this wee beastie screaming and kicking on your kitchen floor is behaving quite normally” does help. Keeping in mind that (most of the time) they’re not going to do themselves any harm by chucking a tantrum also helps. (It goes without saying that you remove a writhing, screeching toddler from rolling near the fireplace, for instance…)

By standing your ground and calmly following through on the red-or-pink-top, you are setting a boundary. Little ones love knowing where the boundaries are: because kids who know where the boundaries are are more secure. Children build security by being able to predict their circumstances. This is where consistency and persistence come in. If you are consistent in your habit of making a cup of tea every morning when you first get up, your child will expect that circumstance, and derive security from the familiarity of it. Likewise, if you are consistent in your habit of offering three choices of weather-appropriate shirts to wear and not allowing others, your child will happily choose from those offered: because he knows what to expect from you, and what is expected of him.

To be continued…