infants & toddlers
Toddlers, Tantrums & Tactics

Anyone who has ever been in the company of a toddler knows both how charming and how challenging they can be. It is during this period of development that children first exhibit behaviors which test both the patience and creativity of their parents.

It is more or less inevitable that toddlers will present their parents with challenging behaviors. Toddlers move rapidly toward greater autonomy, both physical and social. They are in the process of mastering locomotion (walking, running, climbing), control of objects (picking up, throwing, dropping), communication (talking, screaming, crying), and social interaction (with parents, siblings, peers). They are simultaneously very small and relatively powerless, yet suffused with the belief that they are entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want it.

Much of toddler behavior can be understood in this light. On some level they understand that they cannot accomplish everything they want without parental help, yet they want it all right now. In order to get what they want they often resort to manipulative behaviors, attempting to maneuver the parent both to give the object of desire and also to allow complete freedom of action.

In addition, they continue to be primarily motivated by the basic currency of infantile behavior - receiving parental attention. From birth, children demand and thrive on an almost limitless supply of attention. Even while toddlers are trying to strike out on their own, they are demanding undivided attention from their parents.

As adults, we tend to be both annoyed and puzzled by the resulting behaviors. It is amazing how effectively toddlers discover our emotional buttons and how enthusiastically they lean on them. If we limit or refuse them anything, they suddenly unleash their ultimate weapon - The Tantrum.

The tantrum is the definitive expression of the conflicts and motivations of toddlers. It represents:
  1. The level of frustration toddlers feel at being unable to dominate their world as they believe they should;
  2. An attempt to manipulate the parent into doing what their toddler wants and;
  3. An attempt to gain attention through behaviors the toddler senses the parent cannot ignore. I have, over many years as a parent, teacher, and a pediatrician, developed the following guiding principles to help cope with and survive the toddler years:

1. HIDE YOUR BUTTONS. Try to give your toddler as few clues as possible as to which behaviors particularly drive you crazy.

2. BABY PROOF YOUR ENVIRONMENT. Set up the environment to maximize the passive controls on the toddler's behavior (for example, cabinet locks, gates, other physical controls which do not require your active real-time intervention). This allows you to minimize the negative interactions required to keep the toddler and your belongings safe.

3. THE FEWER WORDS THE BETTER. Long explanations used in correcting behavior are lost on toddlers. If anything, the extra time and attention may act to reward the very behavior you're trying to correct.

4. MINIMIZE YELLING. Toddlers will become immune to yelling and it makes you feel out of control.

5. PICK YOUR BATTLES CAREFULLY, AND WIN THEM. It makes no sense to try to correct every little detail of a toddler's behavior. Your toddler has more energy to commit to his behavior than you do. If you do decide a particular behavior is unacceptable, then stick to your guns. If you give in, the message to the toddler is that he can get what he wants with extra persistence.

6. TO DEAL WITH TANTRUMS, PROTECT AND BACK OFF. When the inevitable tantrum occurs, make sure your toddler isn't in a place where he can get hurt, and then back off and let him get over it by himself if possible. Don't reward the tantrum with attention, and don't give in to the demand which prompted it. Your toddler needs to develop a skill we all need - bringing his emotions under control by himself.

7. REMEMBER: IT DOESN'T LAST FOREVER. The toddler years do eventually come to an end. Of course, then you have future delights of parenthood facing you, such as the teenage years - but that's for another time....

1-2-3 Magic, Thomas Phelan, 2nd Rev Edition (1996). Clinical psychologist Phelan's simple, effective child management program enables parents to discipline their children, ages 2-12, by using a system of counting and time-outs.

Raymond Seligson, MD is a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Branford and a father of a teenage son.


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