DEAR DOCTOR K:
My toddler has frequent temper tantrums, and it’s impossible to calm him down once he gets going. I’d rather learn ways to head off his tantrums in the first place.
Though it may be hard to believe, tantrums can actually serve a purpose. My pediatrician colleagues here at Harvard Medical School tell me that tantrums are your child’s way of letting you know that you’re not meeting his basic needs for sleep, food, reassurance, independence, calm and safety. Provide these things, and he’s less likely to fall on the floor wailing.
Here are some tips our pediatricians say should help:
- Avoid hunger pangs. Low blood sugar can make kids cranky. Bring healthy snacks with you to avoid a meltdown. Good options include raisins, cheese and apple slices — presuming your child is old enough for such solids.
- Make sure your child is well-rested. Most children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night. Don’t bring a sleep-deprived 2-year-old to the grocery store and then expect him to behave perfectly. (In fact, if you see me at the grocery store and I’ve been sleep-deprived, don’t expect me to behave perfectly, either!)
- Avoid overstimulation. Whether it’s a visit with relatives, a birthday party or another event, a young child can process only so much excitement. The initial laughter and enthusiasm can quickly give way to tears and aggressive behavior. If you see signs that your child is beginning to get overexcited — such as hyperactivity and silliness — remove him from the setting for a few minutes to calm him down.
- Keep your child active. Energetic children may need physical outlets to help avoid emotional meltdowns. If you have a high-energy child, be sure he or she gets plenty of active time.
- Be consistent and have a schedule. Children love predictability — even predictably bad news like it’s time to go to bed.
- Be in control. You are in charge, not your 2-year-old. But if he’s craving independence, give him a sense of control by offering some limited choices. For example, if he’s refusing to eat vegetables, give him a choice between broccoli and green beans. Little doses of power like that will fulfill his need for independence without turning him into a tyrant or teaching him that his opinion doesn’t matter.
- Give reassurance, attention and love. If the only way to get your attention is by wailing, your child will quickly learn that trick. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not advising that you ignore your crying child. Rather, at every opportunity, show the child your attention and love — to head off the tantrum from starting. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
A great new short, inexpensive e-book has a wealth of good information about this subject: “Taming Your Child’s Temper Tantrums” by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Victoria Rogers McEvoy and Karen Weintraub. You can find it on Amazon.com.