Toddler Thursday: Anatomy of a Tantrum

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Categories Development, Discipline, Single Parenting, Toddler ThursdayTags

When my twin daughters were 3, I tried to capture in words the horror and glory of toddler tantrums at our house. I’ve reworked that post for How Do You Do It? for this week’s Toddler Thursday.

Anatomy of a Tantrum: What a tantrum really looks like and how to handle it

Full-Body Tantrum (J)

J’s tantrums started when she lost her temper, felt frustrated, or felt that she had been treated unjustly. They could happen anywhere: at home, in the car, at daycare, at the grocery store, at the theatre.

She usually started by sitting hard on the floor or lying on the floor. Early on, she’d throw herself backwards, but learned the hard way that our tile was too hard for that. She refused to get up or move. Her response to my physical attempts to set her upright was to arch her back and twist away.

Next, she started to whine, louder and louder, repeating whatever her complaint was. For a few months, she started prefaced all this by growling. She’d swat with her hand at whatever she could reach: me, the floor, the wall, her sister, her teacher. If she happened to have something in her hand, she’d throw it.

If I hadn’t talked her down by the time we’d reached the swatting stage, J would start to scream. The child was loud. Very, very loud. Finally, tears would pour down her face, she’d accept a hug, and beg for her blankie. She’d sniffle into her blankie and ultimately apologize.

Verbal Tantrum (M)

M’s tantrums usually stemmed from feeling misunderstood. Often, if I said no, she thought it was because I didn’t understand what she was asking for, and then things got ugly. I found it effective to avoid tantrums with M by stating my negative responses like so: “I understand that you want [some completely ridiculous thing] and I am telling you no.”

M tended to start crying first, then escalated to screaming if I couldn’t understand what she was saying through her tears, or thought I couldn’t. She stomped her foot on the ground. She wasn’t as likely to lie (collapse) on the floor as her sister, but she did resort to name-calling, “Mommyhead” being a favourite. She didn’t hit, but she did push at me if I tried to hug her. If I caught it early, distracting her with a snuggle and book worked well. After the snuggle we could discuss her unacceptable behaviour and its source.

M was much less likely to stay in time out during a tantrum than her sister, and it took her much longer (think hours rather than minutes) to calm down once she was fully engaged.

Terrible Twos or Terrible Threes?

Age two wasn’t so bad with my daughters. The threes, on the other hand, were quite horrific at times, although the rewards have been as great. As I’ve mentioned before, age three was, hands down, my least favourite age. My friend April has a theory about why the “terrible” stage increasingly waits until age three. It comes down to parenting styles. Her explanation is that our parents’ generation was less permissive to us at an early age, and less tuned into kids’ pre- and non-verbal communication. By age two, we were ready to explode because we felt misunderstood. Our generation of parents’ responsiveness to infants and toddlers causes our kids to put off acting out until later, when they really begin to realize how powerless they are.

Parental Survival

How did I handle these tantrums without another parent present to back me up, my now ex-husband so often deployed overseas? Obviously, I often didn’t.

I tried to use the same techniques I’ve taught the kids. I did (and do) a lot of deep breathing. I sometimes removed myself from the situation after I’d made sure the culprit is in a safe place. Sometimes, a glass of water and small piece of chocolate helped. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I sat in my room for 2-3 minutes until I felt ready to tackle it again.

My daughters and I often talk about the need to take a break when we start to feel overwhelmed, in order to avoid a tantrum, and all three of us practice this. M reads a book or draws, often putting completely hilarious signs on her door announcing her need for privacy. Jessica snuggles her blankie, and I lie down quietly on my bed, wash dishes or fold laundry, or take a shower.

M and J’s preschool teacher used similar techniques in the classroom. When a child started to “throw a fit”, they were removed from the situation and asked to sit away from the group until they had calmed down. Once they were calm, the teacher discussed whatever the conflict was with them, and made sure that the child understands why their behaviour was unacceptable.

In truly horrendous cases, the director or assistant director would be called in to remove the child from the classroom and had a serious discussion with them. Most tantrums were not reported to the parents, but a pattern of an unusual number of tantrums from any one child resulted in an informal conversation with the parent or a note home if the parents’ schedule and the teacher’s don’t coincide.

What do tantrums look like at your house? How do you handle them? How do you avoid them?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

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Sadia

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

One thought on “Toddler Thursday: Anatomy of a Tantrum”

  1. Hahahaha! That is *fabulous* thank you for sharing that! Glad to know I am not alone…we recently hit a phase with Zoe where *any* idea/suggestion/request directed at her is met with “DO”(sounds like no)!! And immediately followed(if not artfully redirected) by arching of the back, screaming(usually directly *in* whatever ear is closest) serious leg kicking and/or potential flailing of hands! I swear…I feel like I need a “tantrum survival kit”…it includes ear plugs, and directions that remind me to be prepared for those legs and feet(been kicked in a face a few times now!) and watching for pinching! Yeesh…I think time out for myself works better than time out for her!hahaha…although, she ends up in time out, too. For whatever that is worth! 😉

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