David Coleman Column: How can I teach my son that his tantrums are not acceptable?
I REALLY hope you can help me to better manage my 20-month-old boy and myself. He is very clever and his understanding is very attuned; he comprehends everything.
However, he is big, sturdy and strong and when he gets into a tantrum he can use his strength.
I often find him hard to manage in trying to pick him up to console him or talk to/distract him. His tantrums usually take off when he doesn't get his own way or, lately, in the evening bringing him inside.
He will screech, lie on the floor and wail. I have tried ignoring and distracting and telling him off. He gets very upset and I get upset looking at him getting in a state.
How can I help him cope with not getting his way or understanding that this is not right nor acceptable? His older sister, aged five, is nothing like this.
I am getting very worried his tantrums will carry forward to school or even in older life.
IT IS, of course, possible that his tantrums will continue through his childhood and into his adult life unless he learns how to cope with the frustrations of life. We can see many examples of adults who still "throw their toys out of the pram" when things don't go their way.
The key to helping him is for you to respond to the disappointment and frustration that he feels when he can't have everything as he wants it. Your job is to teach him to recognise and soothe these strong feelings.
To do that, you have to name the feelings for him so that he learns what he is feeling.
It seems from what you say that you primarily try to ignore, distract or give out to him when he gets cross. While ignoring and distracting have their place in responding to tantrums, they need to be preceded by lots of empathy and understanding.
So, to see how to approach things, let's use the example of bringing him in after he has been playing outside.
The first thing you do is to give him a warning that outside playtime is coming to an end soon (he doesn't have a sense of time yet). Giving advance notice of any change or transition for small children is helpful as it gives them an opportunity to get their head around the impending end of the activity, before it actually happens. That way it is less of a sudden surprise for them. Then when the time comes to bring him in, you need to be firm and clear with him. So you'll say something like "now the playtime needs to finish and we have to go inside". It is quite likely that he'll protest and maybe cry.
This is the point at which you bring in lots of empathy and understanding.
So, as you pick him up to take him in, you say in a warm, soft tone of voice "ohh, you were having lots of fun outside and you seem very sad that it has to finish", or "isn't it disappointing that the playtime has to end? I think you'd love to stay out here but it is time for bed soon so we have to go in".
You may have to say several empathic statements, each of which tries to name the different feelings you think he may have.
Always sound enquiring about the feelings you guess he may have (since you can't know for sure).
He may still struggle in your arms and when you put him down inside he may throw himself to the floor anyway. However, in my experience, the intensity and duration of the tantrum is much less when we show ourselves to be understanding (and firm).
It is fine then to distract him or ignore him (while keeping an eye on him to be sure he doesn't hurt himself) until the tantrum passes. As soon as he seems calmer, give him lots of positive attention.
Having a tantrum isn't really a problem as it is simply a child showing us how upset or cross they feel. Once they know that we understand, because we have empathised with them, they generally don't need to keep showing us by continuing the tantrum.