Boulder parent consulting

Temper tantrums can be a parent’s nightmare as well as an essential learning opportunity for toddlers.

Erik Erikson wrote about the different developmental stages that we go through in life.  He said that for children 1 1/2 to 3 years of age, they are in the “Autonomy versus Shame or Doubt” stage.

So, each child is learning about autonomy or “I can do it myself” or “I am an individual” during this stage.  Unfortunately, with that autonomy also comes a lack of communication.  Few two years olds can discuss exactly what they want to do with a situation.

So the caregiver has two things that they need to do with young children to help with temper tantrums;

1) Interpret what the child is trying to accomplish and

2) Give the child some autonomy through choices.

If neither of those things happen, the child falls into the other part of the stage that Erikson set forth which is shame or doubt.  The child is trying to assert themselves as a capable individual, and if they fail, not only do they feel frustration, but there are residual effects of “I’m not good enough” and “I can’t do it”.

This is why temper tantrums are so important.  Helping children at this stage can literally help children through the rest of the childhood stage, into teenager stage and  then long into adulthood.

Let’s look at the first concept:

1) Interpret what the child is trying to accomplish

With toddlers at this age, communication doesn’t come easily.  Pair that with their desire to do everything themselves and you have a recipe for disaster  temper tantrums.  So you can ask them what they are trying to do, and see if you can get any response that is interpretable, or you can use some clues to try and figure it out for yourself.  Is your child trying to pack up their favorite toy to bring it with them and they can’t unzip a zipper?  Is your child trying to wash their hands by themselves and they are trying to get closer to the sink?   When your young toddler is doing something very strange (that you may not want them to do) first try to interpret what the child is trying to accomplish.

2) Give the child some autonomy through choices

Children at this age can do so so much.  But they can’t do everything.  That’s where the importance of choices comes into play.

For example, it is time to leave to go (to the doctor, to childcare, to grandma’s house) and your child starts to get fussy.  They will be more willing participants if they are actual participants.  If you tell them what they are going to do, they lose their sense of autonomy that is so important to them at this age.  So you can start by giving them a choice where everyone wins.  Tell them that it’s time to go and then:

*”Do you want to wear your red shoes or your black shoes?”

*”Do you want to put on your jacket by yourself or do you want me to help you?”

*”Do you want to bring your book with your or your teddy bear?”

With all of these choices, the child is able to become an individual, they are able to have control over a part of their life.  But none of these choices is “Do you want to go or stay home?” because that is when parents lose control and temper tantrums can surface again.

Unfortunately, so many temper tantrums happen in public.  Children have an innate sense of the power they hold.  But the good thing is that, once children get some control over their lives, they will have less of a need to fight for it.  But when you do experience the public temper tantrum, the best thing is to leave the space.  Everyone will be able to problem solve more easily when there isn’t an audience.

Then once you are away from the public eye (usually outside) you can go back to square one; decipher what the child is trying to accomplish and then help the child to find a solution.

Keeping these two points in mind (interpret what they are trying to accomplish, and giving them choices) will help your toddler with the dreaded temper tantrums.

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