By the time a child is 15 months old, temper tantrums have usually made their unwelcome appearance.
Although parents’ behavior or requests may well trigger them, tantrums come from the child’s inner turmoil. It’s the toddler’s basic struggle to master the intensity of his own feelings. Only he can resolve the indecision that’s behind them — although he can learn to settle himself by modeling on his parents’ unruffled response to the tantrums.
When distressed parents report the first tantrum to me, I reassure them that a feisty child is bound to have these episodes. After the child has learned to handle this struggle, he’ll be stronger and more secure.
I remind parents of some steps to take:
1. Remember your options, all directed at leaving the resolution up to the child.
2. Hold him quietly or carry him to a spot where he can work it out himself.
3. If you’re in a safe place, walk out of sight momentarily. When he can’t see you, the tantrum will lose force. Then quickly return to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help you more. I’m still here, and I love you, but this tantrum is your job.”
Giving the child the space to resolve his turmoil is not the same as deserting him. Do it in a way that lets him know you wish you could help. But you and he know that your efforts to help will just prolong the tantrum. Firm limits will reassure him that he won’t be dangerously out of control.
Many years ago, I spent a week in Oregon with some quintuplets. One of them had a rip-roaring tantrum. The other four crowded around to try to stop it. Their efforts made him more violent. One tried to hold his arms, another lay down beside him to croon to him and soothe him. Another yelled at him. The fourth threw cold water on him. Nothing worked, so they all gave up.
As soon as they did, he stopped crying. He got up quickly and started to play with them, as if nothing had happened.
This experience vividly showed me that tantrums reflect inner turmoil that only the child can master. Support, but not interference, is the only help. After the tantrum is over, parents can find ways to convey that they understand how important this struggle is for him, and how hard it is to handle such strong feelings.
Later in the second year, you can try timeouts — for calming down, not as punishment. Firmly hold the child briefly and then put him in his crib or room. Thus you can break the buildup of teasing behavior before the toddler loses control.
When the child has regained control, parents should make clear that a certain behavior made them act, and then they can offer plenty of hugs.
Tantrums are especially inconvenient and embarrassing to parents when they happen in public. Everyone gathers around, looking at the parents as if they were certified child abusers.
In such a situation, parents might turn to the onlookers and suggest that they handle him themselves: “Anybody want to help?” They’ll melt away quickly after that.
Parents sometimes ask why the toddlers have tantrums in public places. For one thing, they’re overloaded by the excitement. They realize that their parents’ attention is diverted from them, and they want it back.
Also, they know they can fluster their parents. Parental consternation and attempts to smooth over a tantrum are likely to prolong it.
Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: