Sunday, September 5, 2010

What to do when your 2-year-old pitches a fit

Don't lose your cool. A tantrum isn't a pretty sight. In addition to kicking, screaming, or pounding the floor, your child's repertoire may include throwing things, hitting, and even holding her breath until she turns blue (don't worry; she'll eventually come up for air). When your child is swept up in a tantrum, she's unable to listen to reason, though she will respond — negatively — to your yelling or threatening. "The more I shouted at Brandon to stop, the wilder he would get," says one mother. What worked instead, she discovered, was to just sit down and be with him while he raged.

Stomping out of the room — tempting as that may be — can make your child feel abandoned. The storm of emotion she's feeling can be frightening to her, and she needs to know you're nearby. Rather than leave her thrashing on the floor, go to her. If she's not flailing too much, pick her up and hold her. Chances are she'll find your embrace comforting, and will calm down more quickly.

Remember that you're the adult. No matter how long the tantrum goes on, don't give in to unreasonable demands or negotiate with your screaming child. It's especially tempting in public to cave in as a way of ending the episode. Try not to worry about what others think — anyone who's a parent has been there before. By conceding, you'll only be teaching your child that pitching a fit is the way to get what she wants, and setting the stage for future behavior problems. What's more, a tantrum is frightening enough for your child without her feeling that you're not in control, either.

If your 2-year-old's outburst escalates to the point where she's hitting people or pets, throwing things, or screaming nonstop, pick her up and carry her to a safe place, such as her bedroom, where she can't harm herself. Tell her why she's there ("because you hit your sister"), and let her know that you'll stay with her until she calms down. If you're in a public place — a common breeding ground for tantrums — be prepared to leave with your child until she gets a grip.

"My daughter had an absolute fit at a restaurant because the plain spaghetti she ordered arrived with chopped parsley on it," another mother recalls. "Although I realized why she was upset, I wasn't about to let her disrupt everyone's dinner. I took her outside until she calmed down."

Talk it over afterward. When the storm subsides, hold your child close and talk about what happened. Acknowledge her frustration, and help her put her feelings into words, saying something like, "You were very angry because your food wasn't the way you wanted it," Kopp suggests. Let her see that once she expresses herself in words, she'll get better results. Say with a smile, "I'm sorry I didn't understand you. Now that you're not screaming, I can find out what you want."

Try to head off tantrum-triggering situations. Pay attention to what pushes your child's buttons and plan accordingly. If she falls apart when she's hungry, carry snacks with you. If she has trouble making a transition from one activity to the next, give her a gentle heads-up before a change. Alerting her to the fact that you're about to leave the playground or sit down to dinner ("We're going to eat when you and Daddy are done with your story") gives her a chance to adjust instead of react.

Your child is grappling with independence, so offer her choices when you can. No one likes being told what to do all the time. Saying, "Would you like corn or carrots?" rather than "Eat your corn!" will give her a sense of control. Monitor how often you're saying no, too. If you find you're rattling it off routinely, you're probably putting unnecessary stress on both of you. Ease up and choose your battles — after all, would it really wreck your schedule to spend an extra five minutes at the playground?

Watch for signs of overstress. Though daily tantrums are a perfectly normal part of the terrible twos, you do need to keep an eye out for possible problems brewing. Has there been upheaval in the family? An extremely busy or harried period? Tension between you and your partner? All of these can provoke tantrums. If after the age of 2 1/2 your child is still having major tantrums every day, talk to her pediatrician. If she's younger than 2 1/2 but has three or four tantrums a day and isn't cooperating with any routines, such as getting dressed or picking up toys, you also may want to seek help. The pediatrician can make sure that a physical or psychological condition isn't contributing to the problem, and suggest ways to deal with the outbursts.

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