One recent morning, I watched in complete horror as my toddler had a shrieking fit in the grocery store because I wouldn't let her push the cart (her driving skills are worse than those of a texting teen). At first, I tried to look nonchalant, deluding myself with "If I pretend I don't notice, maybe no one else will." But when my child continued to flail like a human helicopter, we were forced to proceed from Aisle 4 straight to the car. That night, as I wrestled on her pajamas and she did her trademark Toddler Back Arch, I knew another meltdown was imminent. Both of us were in bed by 8 p.m.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I was eager (okay, desperate) to unravel the mysteries of toddler tantrums. Why do kids have them? Can you stop one? What's the worst way to react to a meltdown? Experts offer their best advice so there will be fewer tears -- for both of you.
The 5 Stages of a Tantrum
Anger behaviors, such as screaming and throwing things, typically spike in the beginning of the tantrum, says Michael Potegal, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, and James A. Green, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Connecticut. They fitted toddlers with a special one-piece that had a built-in microphone and recorded more than 100 tantrums. The loudest outbursts were the equivalent of the incessant horns of rush-hour traffic.
2. Anger and Sadness
A long-held theory about tantrums is that they have two distinct stages: anger, followed by sadness. But when Drs. Green and Potegal analyzed videos of meltdowns, they found that anger and sadness (which is manifested by crying, whining, and whimpering) actually overlap in time. We tend to only notice anger's fireworks, explains Dr. Potegal. "You don't always see that in fact the crying and whining start at the beginning, go all the way through to the end, and don't change all that much."
3. Anger Levels Drop
If you still see signs of anger, don't try to soothe your child yet. Her fury has to subside first; anger suppresses her ability to be comforted. "When kids are mad and an adult picks them up, they arch their back," says Dr. Potegal. "The anger drives them, so they reject comfort." (It's the same don't-touch-me reaction as when a spouse tries for a post-fight hug when his partner is still fuming.)
4. Wanting a Cuddle
Once the tsunami has fully passed, kids are ready to accept your help. "They feel bad when they're so out of control, and they're needy afterwards," says Claudia M. Gold, M.D., director of the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, in Massachusetts. Offer a hug and a kiss and a simple "Well, that was really not much fun." This acknowledges that it happened and it was upsetting, but now it's over. The words themselves don't matter as much as your reassuring presence, says Dr. Gold.
5. Moving On
Kids switch gears and change emotions much more quickly than adults do. So if you find you're still twitching an hour later while your tot is happily playing with blocks, don't worry: That's perfectly normal. "It comes under the heading of 'lability," or being adaptable," says Dr. Potegal.
Tactics That Never Work
"A 2-year-old often doesn't have the cognitive resources and the language to express what he's feeling," says Dr. Green. So firing questions at a child when he's in mid-freak-out (like "Why did you do that to your sister?" or "What do you want?") may just prolong that rage and overload his system even further.
Don't bother explaining to a hysterically crying kid that she can't peel the banana because Mommy already peeled it. "In the middle of a tantrum, the child is functioning in the limbic centers of the brain, which are run by emotion," explains Dr. Gold. "The higher cortical centers that are responsible for reasoning are not working properly, so trying to rationalize with a child while she's having a tantrum is completely impossible."
Toddlers crave a reaction from their parents, even a bad one. Take away the payoff. Silently count to ten, take deep breaths, and remind yourself that you're the grown-up. Losing your cool can have long-term effects: Researchers at Oregon State University found that parents who anger easily and overreact are more likely to have toddlers who do the same.
If you tell your screeching child that you're going to turn off the TV, switch it off. If you warn him that he'll get a time-out the next time he yells at you, follow through -- quietly, quickly, and without emotion. Consistency is key: If your kid knows what is coming when he has a fit, he is less likely to do it.
Children are feeling helpless when they're having a tantrum, so ignoring them is like abandoning them in their moment of weakness, says Dr. Gold. In a calm voice, say, "Go ahead, I'm going to sit here with you until you're done." The idea is to contain your child's anger, not make it go away.