What should we do when our toddler explodes in a fit so violent that it's just about impossible to calm her down? She has always been strong-willed and prone to tantrums, but just recently there have been occasions when she has become so frustrated that her behavior has spiraled completely out of control. At such times she wildly hits everything and everyone within reach, including herself. What do you suggest?
You can begin by asking some basic questions about the causes of her behavior. Generally, it's helpful to evaluate childish outbursts in terms of three different dimensions: the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.
First, there may be physical or medical reasons for your child's feelings of frustration and her subsequent meltdowns. Is there any particular time of day when she is more likely to fly into a tantrum? If so, it's possible that her behavior is connected with a significant drop in her blood sugar. When a child is hypoglycemic, she is often prone to become irritable and to act out in the manner you've described. We'd suggest that you consult with your pediatrician to determine whether or not your daughter's tantrums are rooted in some kind of chemical imbalance in the body.
If you've looked into this area without results, you'll want to give some serious attention to the second dimension of behavioral motivation – emotions. Very young children sometimes need help controlling their emotional reactions. Your job as a parent is to set definite boundaries for the expression of childish anger and frustration and to enforce those boundaries with clear and consistent consequences. Time outs are especially effective with toddlers. When your daughter begins to lose control, take her to a boring, neutral location – perhaps her bedroom or some other designated area where she can't hurt herself or do any damage to the furniture – and leave her alone for a predetermined period of time. We usually suggest one minute of time out for each year of a child's age – in other words, three minutes for a 3-year-old.
It's important to keep your response to her unacceptable behavior as calm, as unimpassioned, and as "mechanical" and "automatic" as possible. Don't shout and scream and wring your hands. Just remove her from the scene, take her to her room, and walk away. In his book Have A New Kid By Friday, Dr. Kevin Leman suggests that the most effective strategy for extinguishing tantrums is simply to ignore them. That's because in many instances – and particularly in the case of kids who are highly intelligent – the uncontrolled behavior can quickly become a means of manipulation. Whether you realize it or not, when you react with distress, you're actually rewarding your child for acting out. In effect, you're telling her that she's "in charge." You're letting her know that she has the power to overwhelm you and back you into a corner. It's natural to feel that way, but if you do, don't let on. Instead, make a conscious attempt to shift into your "nonchalant" mode.
The third dimension you need to keep in mind in dealing with your daughter's tantrums is the spiritual. Though most secular psychologists tend to ignore this part of the question, it represents a very real and very important aspect of human behavior. In almost every case, outward actions flow out of deep sources of inward need. In your child's case, it's possible that her anger is simply the tip of the iceberg. You might visualize it as the point of a pyramid that can be divided into three layers: rage at the top, fear in the middle, and at the bottom, underlying everything else, a hidden sense of shame. If you believe this to be the case, you will want to supplement any physical, psychological, or disciplinary measures you apply to the problem with a great deal of prayer. You can engage in spiritual warfare on your child's behalf by praying over her at night when she is asleep, asking the Lord to remove the fear and shame that may be behind her outbursts of anger
If you would like to discuss your child's tantrums with a member of our staff, call our Counseling department.
Toddler Throws Uncontrollable Tantrums: Dr. Gary Chapman tells how parents can effectively deal with a child's temper tantrum.