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Temper, temper: Defusing the worst of the twos

It is a hard-fought title, but Monroe wins. At age two, he's clearly risen above the bar previously set quite high by his now-seven-year-old brother, Everett. Oh, I have seen bad temper tantrums. But never quite like this.

Twenty minutes ago, his dad and big brother drove off in great-great-uncle's car to help the in-laws move. He wanted to go with them, and the answer was a non-negotiable "no." In a few seconds he went from the happiest smiliest toddler in the back seat of a car (where he'd hopefully climbed to hang out with his most beloved big brother) to a screaming, kicking, destructive ball of mad. Before I could grab him, he tore up a couple of handfuls of clover (thankfully, easier to pull than the pumpkin and watermelon vines a few inches away). He screamed. He stomped on the strawberry plants. He looked at me. "NO, NO, NOOOOOO!" was all he could say.

I have a strategy now, which is mostly to talk calmly with him (not that he can hear anything I say over his screams) and, as gently as possible, hold his arms against his body so he can't hit me (he's hurt me plenty of times) or grab anything to throw in anger. It's hard to hold a screaming child for that long, and it's also hard to watch the stares of passers-by, so I brought him inside after five minutes. Distracting him doesn't work. Sometimes, I can get him to nurse away the mads: not this time. I brought him in and he wiggled away from me, to scream and kick for the next 15 minutes on the floor between the couch and the wall. I tried a favorite toy. I tried to offer him a pillow. No dice.

I went to my computer to wait it out, when the friend who helps with our yard came in. "I can't work with all this screaming!" he said. "Can I try?" "Good luck," I said resignedly. I'd tried everything I could imagine.

Monroe calmed down almost immediately, tearfully going outside to walk around the block with Matt. I guess it was just me to whom he was responding with such frantic anger. But... I won't always have another adult to intervene. Prevention is great, but today (and many times, I'm sure, in the future) I had no idea the temptation of a car would intersect with his big-brother-and-calming-influence leaving. When you're faced with unavoidable tantrum-stimulating situations, how do you disconnect the child from his anger? How do you cope? How do you get other children to stay out of the fray? (Truman always picks these times to decide he's "frustrated" with Monroe's proximity to the wall, or something.) And long-term strategies would be nice, too: how do you teach a two-year-old barely verbal child to calm himself when his anger carries him away?


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I just started using "1-2-3 Magic" with my two year old (I have a newborn at home and was desperate). It has been great and life is pleasant again in our household. My pediatrician recommended the book (she also has a two year old and an infant). Good luck!

Sarah: I never could of related to your story until my second boy was born. He is only 14 months and if he doesn't get his way (wants to play with my cell phone...won't give it to him) he will throw himself down on the floor and bang his head. He will also hit himself in the head. He has bruises on his forehead. I have never had to deal with this type of behavior before; I try to pick him up and rock him to calm him down but he dose the "back arch" and screams louder. I try to nurse him..not interested. So I do my best to put him in a safe place and offer a pillow for his head. I am scared that if he is already doing this and he is this young..what will he be like when he is 2??

I like the idea of someone else intervening. He only acts this way around me and I would love to have a neighbor come and intervene! I don't mind the crying/screaming so much as the fact that he is hurting himself.

It's nice to know that we are not alone! Also, because I have 2 boys...does this same thing happen with girls?? Just curious!

Have you heard of toddler-ese? It's a method found in "The Happiest Toddler on the Block". I'm just beginning to use it (my husband does not) I am getting better post-tantrum behaviour from my guy, who just turned 2. The gist is that when you try to reflect their emotion and give them the word for how they're feeling, they will ease up on the tantrum because they feel they're being understood. Pretty simple in theory, takes practice.

Maybe I'm alone, but when my 2 year old throws a tantrum I ignore it. I do make sure he's in a safe place and make sure he can't harm himself or anyone else. I have noticed that they don't last nearly as long if I ignore the tantrum. When he calms down I give him all the love and attention he needs.

in response to holly's question about whether girls do this - oh, yes. not all girls (just like not all boys), but mine was capable of frightening stuff between 18 months and 2.5. she's 3.5 now and life is much less dramatic.

For a different perspective, you may be interested in the book "Tears and Tantrums" by Aletha Solter. I found it very helpful in empathetically responding to my daughter's crying in her early months, and then anger/tantrumming later on (and now!) I appreciated the book immensely.

ugh, this stage is so so painful. Once when my child was 2 he wanted to use my laptop, I had a document on there, so I said no and closed it, he screamed so I walked away to ignore him. He then screamed so loud and hard,for so long he actually fainted. Yes, fainted, he 'bore down' on some nerve and fainted. I called 911 we went to the emergency room all to find out he just had a complete and total meltdown.It was clear we needed other strategies. And ignoring it was really not possible any longer as he could faint and really hurt himself falling on or off something. And watching your child faint sucks.
So, I did a lot of humorous distraction, I would make a funny face or a ridiculous pose or fall down which is hard, because there is a point to be made, but it isn't the time developmentally or otherwise. I also taught him to do sort of jumping jacks or running in place. I also gave him simple words to use "mad" "frustrated" and told him he could do jumping jacks, run in place or stomp. I also began meditating, doing deep breathing and counting and doing yoga in front of him. I would talk through times I was infuriated myself and tried to really model a really peaceful but honest response and recovery. I bought him a special pillow (dharma kids or ikea, whatever works)I got us a basket with little trinkets to sit quietly with, lavender, cheap crystals, shells, stones, dried flowers. I then bought some sage to burn (new seasons or whole foods) to ceremoniously end the fit/fight, which distracted him to no end.
This too will pass (and be replaced with new trauma) Whole foods and New Seasons also has wine and chocolate.

I tell her to go sit on her bed and cry it out tell her doggy about it. I tell her I understand you would like to cook in the kitchen, but you didn't listen when I said don't eat out of the garbage can and you didn't listen when I said not to put the raw chicken in your mouth. So now you can't be in the kitchen. She actually just runs to her bed and throws herself down and screams for awhile. Then she gets her stuffed dog and whines at it for awhile then she comes out kinda snuffle and I pick her up and talk to her about what happened and that now she can play with something else. All kids are different though.

Thank-you so much to everyone who has posted here...I know we all go through these things with our kids, but it's SO reassuring to read what other's are dealing with, and how they deal with it!
Our daughter is two, and each time it happens I am amazed at how quickly she can turn from complete happiness to complete madness, and then right back again.
I have had to have a talk with my own self about how I was dealing with her tantrums; I was allowing my frustration to consume me. Now I ignore the tantrums to an extent, and just speak to her calmly until things are better. When she calms down, I ask her if she's okay, and tell her that I love her.
And then *I let it go*.
I think that's the hardest part...as easy as it seems to be for her to go from meltdown to contentment, it's harder for me, as an adult, to switch gears so quickly. But I'm working on it!

My son is just 16 months and is usually a very happy guy but occasionally will have a complete meltdown (I have a bad feeling these will get much worse as he creeps toward 2). If distraction or hugs don't work, I just make sure he's in a place he can't hurt himself, usually his crib (cuz he'll do the head banging also) and leave him alone to deal with it. Figure like when big people are mad, he just needs a moment to himself. He usually a) regains himself after a few minutes or b) cries himself to sleep. Then he's a happier babe.

Ugh - been there, bought the T-shirt! My daughter is an only child for this very reason (I'm not kidding - it was hellish so I deeply sympathize)! She spazzed out for solid hour and a half long tantrums when she was two. After trying multiple approaches, the only thing that seemed to work was to make sure she was safe and just completely and utterly ignore her (I shoulda won an Oscar for my acting ability). So much easier to accomplish at home so I actually didn't socialize much with her at this point. I was truly afraid that someone would think that I was abusing her the way she carried on - screaming like a banshee! She's 5 now and wonderful and those awful days are just a memory. This too shall pass...

I don't know if this helps, but our son's tantrums started at 15 months, and just got more and more spectacular (clocked one at 45 minutes, over getting in the bathtub). At age 3.5, we were told he probably had some symptoms of Autism. We looked into alternative treatments and found various diet options - so we started with a simple elimination diet. Within 2 days, the tantrums stopped completely... until he ate a tofu dog. Turned out he's got leaky gut and soy is a major behavior trigger. We're further down the path of ASD recovery now, on a more restricted diet dealing with yeast imbalance, etc... but sometimes, just checking their food intake for a few days is a quick way to see if there's something environmental involved. Good luck to everyone who's reading this, and I hope any mama who sees them dealing in public will be supportive to offset the judgmental crap that gets dumped on you!

We're in the middle of the dramatic meltdown tantrums now as well and lately feeling like the worst of it might be coming to an end. I'm thinking that it's probably a combination of personality (this guy is a stubborn little ox!) and the fact that he is our 2nd--he's been watching and learning about drama for his entire 2 year life from his big brother! But they seem worse with this guy than with our older one--he wants to do all the big kid things and for obvious reasons that's just not always possible, and he is not easily distracted. My primary strategy is also to just ignore, but his last longer, are much louder, and in the middle of a long busy day, they can feel much harder to endure. I also feel that the dynamic of 2 kids vs 1 has also changed the scene with this one--I am not always able to respond to them exactly when they want me to, and their energy feeds off of one another--for better or worse. He just turned 2 a few weeks ago, but his vocabulary has exploded in the last several weeks, and my husband and I are feeling like he's a bit happier now that he can fully express himself. Now that he "has words" we're doing a lot more talking with him about using his words and he seems to be understanding a bit more. The latest irritation for me is the whining...ugh, the whining!

Hello Mama,

I am a Parent Coach and a Certified Professional Nanny. I among other things I specialize in the toddler years, and I’ve been there!

Once I heard a Mama make a comparison about tantrums that I felt was brilliant. During a tantrum, your child is drunk on emotions, like an alcoholic is drunk on alcohol. You cannot reason with the individual, so it’s best not to try. I also believe strongly, children, especially young children who live in a constant state of emotions, feed off our emotions and reactions as much, if not more than they feed off their own. This being the case, your toddler probably felt stressed themselves, then felt your stress and couldn’t handle it.

During these drag out tantrums, there are several ways to handle the. First, shower your child with love. When your child is crying, their emotions are past their ability to control. If they feel the calm and love from you, they’ll calm easier. By placing your child in your lap and talking calmly or quietly singing, your child will feel more secure and hopefully regain control.

However, since you tried that and it didn’t work, next I try what I call the Outdoor Treatment. While it can be embarrassing at first, taking crying children outside away from their normal environment, (i.e. their house), for a walk around the block can really help calm the child down. I’ve found that an over emotional child will quickly find their calm by the distractions of the neighborhood.

If these “treatments” don’t work, your child may be telling you they need alone time. Most parents/caregivers do this by the traditional “time-out” meaning isolation for 1 minute per age. I do not use this technique. I believe we need to teach children everyone looses their temper, but there are appropriate ways of handling this, which is giving yourself a “time-out”. I use self-imposed time-outs by isolating the child until they decide they are back in control, then we talk about the incident. This really works well. There is nothing better than watching a child state “I need a minute” and walk away when the situation is beyond their control.

I hope these ideas help. If you have questions, or want more information about my experiences and Parent Coaching services, please feel free to contact me.

Good Luck!


Rebecca Magby
Everything Baby, LLC

Here's what's always worked for my very verbal (now 3 yr old) daughter -- name the feeling.

"You feel really frustrated that we can't go outside right now!" or "You're angry. You're angry because mama won't let you ride in the car with your brother." or "You're upset. It's hard to turn off your favorite show!"

As soon as she knows that a) there's a name for what she's feeling, and b) I understand that she's feeling something intense and unpleasant, she starts to wind down.

Now she will actually say, "This is hard for me! I'm so frustrated!"

Good luck. It's a tough patch.

2yr-olds live stressful lives and sometimes a good stress-relieving cry/scream/tantrum is just what they need. Ever feel better/calmer after a cry? I don't try to stop my kids' tantrums. I hold (or sit near if that is all that's possible) quietly and try to be a stable support for their expression of emotion and stress (and I don't let them do anything dangerous). Sometimes I might have to carrying a child kicking and screaming to the car or into the house first but so be it. I tell them it's okay to cry and to let it all out. I quietly put words to how they seem to be feeling if they can't say it (you're really mad about having to stay home, you wanted to go, too, it's hard to be the littlest one...). I let it go as long as it needs to and when I first started this tactic, which I read about in a book I no longer remember, that could be up to an hour). I just committed to sitting as long as I needed to, following them if they moved but keeping a little distance if they needed it, always quietly and assuring them it was okay to cry and to feel the emotions and let them out. After using this technique, my kids started having more regular breakdowns that were shorter and less extreme -- from once or twice a day to every few days to once a week and it always seems to be a great stress reliever.

My daughter will be in 1st grade next month and she often has a screaming fit on the way home from school but only 1-2 minutes then she recovers and I think it is just the stress of the school day and the comfort she feels once she is with me and can let it all hang out. She'll comment after it's over about how she was really angry and yelling but is over it now.

My 2.5yr-old son has tantrums about every 2-3 days but they are usually short and when they are over he says "I'm not crying anymore. I'm not yelling anymore. I'm happy now." And I respond with "Sometimes it's good to cry and yell and then we feel better. Sometimes we can just talk about it and we feel better." Trying to lay the groundwork for a more verbal future :)

It's important to help them express their emotions and to know that emotions are okay and temporary and that you are there for them no matter what.

I've got a head-banger. When she gets upset she often goes down on hands and knees and bashes her forehead into the hardwood floor. She does this a few times until she hurts and really starts to cry. Also, she pulls her hair out. She does this when I tell her NO about something (almost always playing with power sockets; there aren't really many things I have to be strict about). She looks at me, gets a really defiant expression on her face and with both hands, grabs the hair at her temples and pulls out handfuls. Of course, the first few times this happened (started around 15 months maybe), I totally freaked. So much hair (she has long, but obviously not a lot of hair)! After that I totally ignored it and immediately went for major distraction. Now she rarely does the hair pulling and I thinks she might be mellowing on the head bashing (she is 19 months). Her tantrums are getting more complex though now and it's almost impossible to distract and calm her once she starts something.

Just wanted to comment to the person who was freaked about the head bashing--not alone. I've never heard of any other babies doing the hair pulling though.. most mom's I've mentioned it to seem utterly shocked when I tell them.

I've been trying out giving my 21 month old choices such as, you can wear your jacket or put it in the stroller. That way he has control over his own situation, he learns to make decisions and deal with the consequences, and at the same time I am not forcing something on him and keeping the situation within a framework I can deal with. I am hoping that in the furture this will help diffuse tantrums when something serious arises and I do have to tell him what to do. I also have to add that it has gotten him to eat his vegetables!!

Yes, girls have big tantrums too! :-)
My favorite saying (repeated to me often by an early childhood educator friend) is: Everyone has a right to feel angry when they don't get what they want. I repeat it to myself: EVERYONE has a right to FEEL ANGRY when they don't get what they want.
I think holding a child's arms down might escalate the problem...I agree with other posters about making sure the child is in a safe place and just letting her be mad. I am also in the "repeating the feeling" camp, though it feels unhelpful at times: "You are so frustrated right now! Wow. You are really frustrated." I know this is laying groundwork for future verbal communication. ! But having a tantrum is not a crime or something to "get over" quickly--it's real emotion they have to learn to walk through (how many adults do we know who have never learned to deal with emotions and instead turn to alcohol, food, overshopping, etc.?!) All moms of toddlers deserve hugs.

Yes! Girls have tantrums, too.
We taught our now 3.5 yo daughter that she can scream into a pillow when she's frustrated - it's a tactic that has worked for about a year now. It doesn't always diffuse the tantrums, but it can help stop the escalation before a tantrum arises. (It diffuses our tension, too, as it's quite amusing to see a little person go off unprompted to shriek into a pillow!)

Here's my 2 cents for those situations...

I suggest creating a tantrum ROUTINE...

Those emotions are SO overwhelming to him AND to you!! Figure out what you neeed to do to calm yourself or keep calm. Maybe tell him -- while he's taking one of those stuttering breaths -- "I need to calm down too. I'll be in my room if you need me." Then leave him there (as long as he's safe) and go and take some deep breaths!

This models appropriate behavior for him, AND although he may not be paying great attention, he knows you are no ignoring him.

2) RELOCATE him if necessary, with all the calm you can muster!
I might say:
"I see you are so frustrated and need to cry. But it's too noisy for the living room. Let's go to your room."
If he's not listening, he'll at least know your not ignoring him, which can be reassuring when he's truly 'stuck' in this crummy tantrum, not knowing how to make himself feel better....

If he's a thrower of toys, "I see your frustrated, but throwing things is dangerous. Let's go to your room (or wherever you find best)."

Do your best to remain CALM. You'll feel better about your ability to work through this by doing so!

Take him to his room (or wherever you choose). You may have to carry him - kicking and screaming - until this tantrum ROUTINE becomes established.

If he throws toys across his room or bangs his head, you may have to do what you're doing (holding him), saying as calmly as you can, "Throwing things/banging your head is dangerous. I can't let you throw toys/bang your head" until he is calm enough that when you release him he doesn't repeat it. You may even have to repeat that until he realizes you really are not going to let him throw things/bang his head.

3) REASSURE & SEPARATE with all the calm you can muster!
Say "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug?" If it's safe, give him a hug. Say, "I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together (or whatever he likes) when you're all done crying."
(For my niece, hugs eventually became the finish point -- it reset her emotional balance & she recognized that once she gave in to the hug, she would indeed feel better and it would be over.)

Pop your head in every 5-8 minutes to repeat the "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug? I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together (or whatever he likes) when you're all done crying."

Having a ROUTINE for tantrums (just like bedtime, mealtime, etc) will help you and him. He will learn the pattern and he will be able to work through the tantrums faster. As you know, a routine can take several attempts to stick. As one writer wrote, her daughter now runs to her room and throws herself onto her bed till she's feeling better!

And I wouldn't worry about "rewarding" him with a hug or doing a favorite activity together for what seems like misbehavior. Kids feel terrible when stuck in a tantrum too. Time together afterwards gives you a chance to reconnect on a 'good' level and address the tantrum: "Wow, that was a tough one wasn't it?!! .... I'm so happy you're all done crying because we still have time to brush the dog!"

Okay, so that was like -- 89 cents instead of 2 cents. But hopefully it will resonate with you or another mom of a 2yr old!

Best wishes to you.

My now 3 year old daughter started holding her breath and passing out when she was around 18 months old. It wasn't so much that she would willfully hold her breath, but she got so mad that she took in a quick breath and couldn't get breathing again unless I intervened or she passed out. Many times if I wasn't nearby, she would go down with blue lips and convulsing slightly. Our pediatrician somewhat reassured us that this behavior was normal in something like 5% of the population. He warned us that if we freaked out or put too much energy in to the behavior, we would only be encouraging her. So I calmly held her until she began breathing, tried to give words to whatever made her react, and moved on. She had the worst tantrums/anger when she was on the verge of mastering a new skill like getting her shoes on or opening the door or talking.

Now that she's older and can communicate clearly, she rarely gets that mad, however we've worked a great deal on breathing. When either kid is overly upset, I sit and model breathing in my nose and out my mouth. Seems to work well though they're still both highly emotional kids.

I just have to say that I was in New Seasons the other day and my son threw his very first public tantrum (just having a hard day tantrum). It wasn't embarrassing that he threw the tantrum but that everyone had to turn around and stare at us. What's that all about?

beth, i had to laugh because we've had a few doozies in public and i've had the same thought about the staring. i think it's like rubbernecking at a car crash. it's awful to see but you can't look away, and i suspect most people have compassion (though they stand there slack-jawed), and more than anything they're probably thinking "i'm so glad that's not me!"

anyway, when i find myself unable to look away from some screaming kid in public, that's usually what's going on for me.

my son is about 15 months old - he is so curious and wants to explore everything, especially when outside that it can lead to short, loud tantrums. I usually don't mind, i know he is in a huge developmental stage and just can't understand why its dangerous to run into the street or why he can't climb every stair case we pass or try to open every door we see. it definitely has made going out a whole different ball game. i usually try to sit outside if we go somewhere so that his angry screams won't echo inside when we tell him no, he can't have a knife or whatever dangerous and interesting object he wants. In general, i try and focus on what he's going through and how hard it is for him to not be able to both express his feelings and to understand why somethings are dangerous and others aren't. it helps me to think about his developmental stage. So far his fits are very short, usually a quick reaction and then he moves on to something else, which i am glad about.
i feel the same sort of embarrassment when he goes down in public though - but i try to think that most people understand and that the people who don't won't unless they have children or work with children, so they don't concern me - their opinions are not valid in this situation.

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