Dr. Howard Gollup is a board-certified pediatrician with Aurora Advanced Healthcare in Germantown. He cares for children from birth through adolescence. Though he cannot respond to individual medical questions, he welcomes your feedback and suggestions for future topics.
Tantrums occur when there is loss of emotional control and subsequent “melt-down”. They typically begin around a year of age. At their essence, they are a very normal, natural reaction a toddler falls into when frustrated. Parents can help prevent this normal and natural reaction from becoming a learned pattern of behavior, and help facilitate more desirable and adaptive skills instead.
Toddlers have a distinct view of the world that they have learned by observing how things seem to work, and how their actions impact responses of others. They have a self-centered view of their universe—everything revolves around them, and everything belongs to them. They still have limited ability to delay gratification if they want something. They live in the moment. They study cause-and-effect: Mom or dad goes to the refrigerator—milk appears. The phone rings, someone picks it up and says “hello”. Still being served and having needs attended to, life is good, orderly, and predictable.
In my last entry, I discussed why tantrums occur naturally, but how our response can influence whether they will become a learned behavior or not. It is important to help our children develop useful problem-solving skills, patience, and self-control. Providing positive reinforcement for desired behavior will help accomplish this. Here are some illustrations of how this might work in “real life”.
Imagine a toddler who is just starting to say a few words. He is still not clear or consistent. He approaches his mother and asks for a glass of water by pointing the faucet and saying something unclear, but with a pleasant, melodic tone. His mother knows what he wants. She reaches for his “sipper cup”, and fills it with water. The child waits eagerly but patiently. But, instead of his mother giving it to him, she sees this as an opportunity to try to get him to say some words. She holds the glass in front of him and insists “say ‘water”. Unfortunately, he doesn't know how to, but his mother repeats “say ‘water”. The child, now becoming frustrated, begins to cry, yet his mother continues to demand he say the word. The child completely loses control, falling into a tantrum. His mother, now feeling guilty and wanting the tantrum to stop (after all, her son just wanted a simple glass of water) hands it to him, saying “OK, here”.