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Meltdown at the Park

“Hey, Mom, what do I do when Joshua has a meltdown in the park because we have to go home?”

“He was screaming and crying and made himself so rigid I could hardly pick him up and strap him in the stroller. What is the best way to handle this? ”

Obviously my son never addresses me as Dr. Heins but I get many questions asking me how to deal with an 18-month-old’s tantrum.

Am I surprised that my adorable grandson has tantrums? Not at all.

Why are tantrums so common in young humans? Young and old alike we all experience frustrations daily. But we learn how to control ourselves. An 18-month-old feels as awful as we do when confronted with one of life’s frustrations but the child does not have either the verbal skills to explain what he or she is feeling or the emotional maturity to deal with strong feelings.

Plus the second year of life is when the child is developing independence and autonomy. Joshua wants to do things by himself including deciding when to leave the park. Alas, he lacks the skills needed to be independent and the wisdom to handle independence. Hence he explodes when his Daddy says it’s time to leave the park.

Parents need to do three things when confronted with a toddler tantrum. 1) Ignore the tantrum. 2) Do not give in. 3) Stay calm.

At home you can merely walk away–after making sure the child is safe. In a public place like the park or a store pick up and remove the child from the scene. The tricky part is, no matter how upset or embarrassed you are by the tantrum, act calm and speak softly. The louder your child screams, the lower the volume of your voice should get. And make your voice soothing. “Hush little guy, calm down, we’ll be home soon.”

The tantrumming child is out of control but also has an audience…you. A tantrum sure gets your attention as well as the attention of everybody else around. The more upset you get the more the tantrum succeeds. Sometimes the only option you have is to pick up the child using what I call the “attention-less hold.” Hold the child facing away from you, avoid getting kicked, and don’t talk. It’s OK to say soothingly, “I know you’re upset.” or “I’ll talk to you after you calm down.” but try not to say too much. Talking provides attention and attention can feed a tantrum or, even worse, can promote future tantrums. The child may think, Wow! When I cry and throw myself on the ground, Daddy does what I want! Bad message for your child to get.

The best treatment for tantrums? Prevention. Don’t let your child get overtired, hungry or thirsty. Strollers must always be provisioned with water and a snack. Avoid situations likely to frustrate the child like shopping. Prevent frustration by giving the child all possible choices, and also by giving the child advance warning of what you are about to do, like leave the playground. One mother recently told me she uses the “one more thing” strategy. “We have to leave the park soon. You have time to do one more thing and then we leave.”

In my experience you can sometimes prevent a tantrum even in a tired child by speaking softly and keeping the pace slow and easy. Also try a quiet distraction ploy. “Joshua, let’s get in the stroller now and we will have time to go watch the ducks on the way home.”
Will the tantrum come back? Probably because a frustration your child cannot yet handle is likely to come back. Usually by the time a child is three, tantrums are a thing of the past. You can delay this maturation by giving in or paying attention to the tantrum, or you can speed it up by encouraging the child to verbalize anger.

Be a good role model. Don’t have tantrums yourself. However, let the child know that you, like all grown-ups, get angry. Let the child see your healthy ways of handling anger. Every child has to learn that it’s OK for people to feel anger but it’s not OK to act out your anger either physically or verbally. No swearing. One father I knew swore a lot until he heard his sweet little daughter use some of his unprintable utterences. From then on when he hit his thumb with a hammer he yelled, “Thumb tacks!”