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February 19, 2015

#TBT — 3-Year-Old Tantrums

John headshot Nov 2014This week’s #TBT was written by yours truly several years ago. We used to do a series of articles called “Ask the Expert” where we’d answer questions sent in from folks just like you. Maybe we’ll bring that back someday. In the meantime, read this and let’s hope Sara’s daughter grew out of the tantrum phase!

“At your presentation I learned that we need to give our kids options. I am trying to do it but my 3-year-old daughter is reacting not the way I want her to. Let me give you an example: she plays with her wooden toy and is hitting the living room table with it. I tell her to stop and explain to her that it damages the table. She keeps hitting the table. I tell her if she doesn’t stop that I will have to take the toy away. She keeps hitting the table. I ask her if she wants me to take the toy away. She answers with “YES”. Ok, I am taking it away; she screams and begins acting up even more. She throws everything from the table or even hits me. I really want to know what to do in this situation. What is the next step when giving options don’t work?” Sara

Options are one thing, Sara, but it sounds like you’ve got a good, old-fashioned temper tantrum on your hands. The good news is that temper tantrums usually occur between the ages of two and six. It sounds like your little one is right on schedule!

The bad news is that temper tantrums have been known to erupt at any time during childhood or adolescence, even adulthood! The underlying emotions, frustration, and anger are the same regardless of age.

The cause of her fits seems predictable enough: you are not allowing her to do whatever she likes. Really, the cause is that she has not yet developed the self-control necessary to deal with frustration. She has big emotions, and they overwhelm her.

Expressing emotion isn’t unhealthy. Children need to learn how to express their feelings constructively. Screeching, spitting, and swinging at Mom are not the best responses. The younger a child is when she learns this, the easier life will be.

Tantrums come in two varieties. There is the theatrical and then there is the destructive. Each calls for a different response from a parent.

Theatrical tantrums look awful, but they’re generally “full of sound and fury” and yet “signifying nothing.” There are no claw marks on the furniture. The dog’s tail is still attached. No harm; no foul.

The quickest way to end a theatrical tantrum is to cave in. Give her what she wants. Give her the toy back. Let her destroy your furniture. She’ll calm right down. The problem is that the next time she doesn’t get what she wants, she’ll throw down again.

The best way to end a theatrical tantrum is to exit stage right. As long as there is an audience, the show must go on. However, if you leave, turn your back, or just stare into space with a dead fish look on your face, watch how quickly the curtain comes down.

These are the two most important things for your daughter to see:

  1. The tantrum doesn’t succeed in causing mom to give in.
  2. Nobody except the child is visibly upset by this situation.

Destructive tantrums are another story. Ignoring a tantrum isn’t an option when someone or something is being assaulted.

You might physically restrain your child until she calms down. You might send her to her room. In our house we have a rule that goes like this, “If you get mean, you leave the scene.” My daughters know that they can rejoin civilization when they are calm.

Sometimes tantrums leave damage in their wake. When that happens, no matter how young your child is, she should still clean her shoe marks off the wall or pay to fix the broken chair through money she earns from small household chores. The guiding principle for cleanup is this: as much as possible for a three-year-old, she makes right what she did wrong.

There is a bright side to these tantrums. After an explosive performance, your budding thespian has expended so much energy that she’s probably too tired to misbehave for a good, long while. At least for the next few minutes, until she gets her second wind.

One thought on “#TBT — 3-Year-Old Tantrums

  1. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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