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A recent letter from about-to-be-new parents: “Our first baby is due next month and we are reading as much as we can about babies. I am confused about tantrums. Some people say to hold and soothe the child and others say to ignore the tantrum. Which is right?”
Well, just to add to your confusion both approaches are right, depending on the child’s age.
Temper tantrums are common in young children and for good reasons. Inevitable frustrations occur in every toddler’s life. The child has neither the verbal skills to explain what he or she is feeling, nor the emotional maturity to deal with strong feelings.
During the second year of life the child is busy developing autonomy and independence. These toddlers want to do everything by themselves and call all the shots. Enough of this boring life where Mom does everything for me! But the child lacks the skills needed to be independent and the wisdom to handle independence. When you don’t allow the child, for example, to play with the stereo you may see the child explode in frustration.
If you’re not the embarrassed parent, it’s fascinating to watch a toddler throw a tantrum. Typically such a child’s rage is diffuse and not well-coordinated. The child is obviously furious at a playmate who has taken away a toy or at Mommy who says it’s time to go to bed. But the child will slam the toy or self to the floor and kick out at the air. It requires more maturity for the toddler to strike out at the one causing the frustration!
My advice to parents about tantrums is age-dependent. The year-old child who is frantically out of control needs the external control you can provide by holding the child tightly and speaking softly until the child calms down. The tricky part is to provide external control without giving in to the child’s demands. Giving in teaches the young child to throw a fit every time it wants something it can’t have.
The treatment for the two and three year old tantrum-throwers is to ignore the tantrum. Walk away–after making sure the child is safe–in order to physically take your attention away from the child. You should say something like “I’ll be back when you get control of yourself.”
If the child is really violent you can use what I call the “attention-less hold”. This is the way to hold children to help them with control. Hold the child facing away from you, avoid getting kicked, and don’t talk. It’s OK to say, “I’ll talk to you after you calm down.” but don’t try to cajole the child into stopping. This is the child’s job.
What do you do when your two year old throws a tantrum in the cookie aisle of the market because you won’t buy any? Don’t give in. You can’t let your child kick and scream on the floor of a public place, so leave your cart right where it is and take the child out of the store until the fit is over. Use the “attention-less hold”.
The best treatment for tantrums is PREVENTION. Don’t let your child get overtired. 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.
I have found you can sometimes prevent tantrums even in a tired child by speaking softly and keeping the pace slow and easy.
It also helps to give the child the words to describe strong feelings like anger. “You feel angry because Baby Brother broke your toy. I know just how you feel. My brother broke my favorite doll and I was furious. But my mother helped me fix it. Let’s see if we can fix your truck.”
Usually by the time a child is three or so, 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 helping the child learn 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.
The very controlled household where no one ever seems angry is not the best place to raise a child. Every child has to learn that it’s OK for people to feel anger, or even rage. But that it’s not OK to act out this rage.
Parents get frustrated too. If you are a parent having trouble controlling your anger, take a “parental time-out”. Remove yourself from the situation, take a few deep breaths, do some relaxation exercises, and figure out how you are going to handle whatever sent you to the brink.
Like children, adults get frustrated when they are fatigued. The slogan I suggest busy parents memorize is, “Before you explode or drop, STOP!” Get in touch with your feelings so you recognize when you’re nearing the boiling point.
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