Family Life: How can I put a stop to my daughter's violent tantrums?
Please can you help with my daughter's behaviour.
She's three-and-a-half, with a younger sibling of 16 months. Her behaviour has recently escalated to a point that is deeply upsetting and I'm often in tears at the end of the day. When a situation arises that is not agreeable to her she can get very violent and lashes out physically at my husband or I. When she is subsequently punished (put up to her room to calm down) she goes into complete meltdown and is inconsolable. Social situations are a nightmare for us as she will not sit in restaurants and wants to go home after five minutes. I have given in to her in the past when she was younger (for a quiet life) but now that we have another child, I'd like us to be able to eat out as a family. If we try to keep her in the restaurant the result is her throwing herself on the floor and screaming the place down, much to my mortification and upset. Are we doing something wrong as parents? I feel our family life is a battlefield and I would appreciate your guidance on this.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers are notorious for throwing their weight around and trying to get everyone around them to dance to their tune. In this respect your daughter sounds very normal!
From about the age of two years onwards children begin the first stages of individuation. Individuation is the process by which children come to see themselves as separate individuals.
Typically this is first evidenced by toddlers simply saying "no" regularly and often. This is often why we experience two-year-olds as very challenging, earning this period the moniker of 'the terrible twos'.
But beginning individuation is a very important stage for children. They need to become separate. They also need to learn, however, that they are not the centre of the universe and that, in fact, they have to accede to the demands of others. They need to learn that we are the ones in charge and that we make the decisions.
In your situation, your daughter may not yet have gotten this message clearly enough. When you gave in to her demands earlier 'for a quiet life' she may have taken the message that she is the one with power. This can cause problems, much like those you describe.
Your job (with your husband) is to disabuse her of the belief that she is in charge and that you will eventually give in to her if she complains hard enough.
This means that you now consistently have to show her that you mean business by what you say and that you follow through on promised rewards and threatened consequences.
Her current strategies to try to keep you and your husband in check are to throw major tantrums and to lash out physically. In the face of such tirades it can be difficult to hold your resolve and to stay calm in dealing with her.
Your approach now needs to be one of empathy (to show her that you understand that she is frustrated or upset by your decisions) paired with determination and firmness.
So when you give her a decision you can say something like, "I can see that you don't want your friends to go but it is dinner time and they have to go home."
If she continues to get upset (as she probably will) it is important that you don't allow her to hit you. Step clear of her and give her a very firm verbal message that hitting is not allowed. If needs be, hold her hands gently if you can't get away.
Then, tell her that when she is calm you will continue to talk to her or try to solve the problem.
Until she is calm, stay close by but don't interact with her; give her the space alone that she needs. Even if she appears to become hysterical it is okay to let her have her tantrum.
Don't try to reason with her when she is in the height of her distress. Stay aware of how she is doing and as soon as she seems calmer, then you can approach her and again be empathetic but keep the limit you have set. If this kind of interaction is repeated regularly she will learn that you are not going to give in and so she will learn to challenge you less.
Be warned, however, that usually when you try a new approach your child's behaviour gets worse before it gets better as she will try more extreme measures to get her own way for a while.
The key is to stay calm, stay adult and stay warm with your child. When a tantrum is over you need to forgive and forget and move on rather than holding a grudge against her.
With patience and resolve the battlefield should diminish and an entente cordiale should emerge!
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence