July 02, 2015

Q: My 17 month old doesn't like to be restrained (ie: in a car seat, highchair, shopping cart, stroller or anything restrictive). He will screams like a banshee, arches his back and thrashes his arms and legs while throwing anything within reach. We have tried giving him a toy, singing a song, distracting him with food or sippy cup...etc. Saying no and ignoring it doesn't work either. He will continue to scream until we pick him up. Often, the tantrum continues when he is unrestrained.

A: It is really common for this issue to come up right around that 18 month point. It is at that age that we see the immersion of will. Your child is now at an age where he knows what he wants and doesn’t want but he does not yet have the complex of vocabulary to be able to talk through it effectively. There are a few things you can do to help the situation.

  • Narrate his experience. This shows him you hear and respect his feelings but at the same time you are holding the boundary (he still has to wear the seatbelt). By reflecting his feelings, you also teach him empathy, which helps in the development of emotional intelligence.
  • Offer him two acceptable choices (“do you want to put the straps on yourself or do you want me to do it?”, “Do you want to climb into the chair or do you want me to put you in?”). This gives the power back to your child while still setting the limit. Now there is less reason for him to resist.
  • Allow for significant transition time (“five more minutes until we have to get into the car”) by giving a child friendly countdown. Sometimes the meltdown is not about the actual restraint but about the child having a hard time leaving the previous activity.
  • Make sure he has a stable schedule and is getting enough sleep. When kids don’t have a predictable schedule and get enough rest, they have fewer resources left to come with challenging moments.
  • Offer his him his favorite comfort object. If being restrained is anxiety provoking for him, having a soothing object, like a lovey can help him through that difficult transition.

Understand, there are times where you have to maintain a boundary, like a safety restraint, despite all the kicking and screaming and all you can do is give him the words to help him understand all the big feelings he is having. The good news is that they usually grow out of this stage relatively quickly.

Answered by Dr. Jenn Berman


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