The Bonus Baby was a terrific two year old at the time.
It was a hot day and we had walked to the shop. I had promised we would buy a box of icypoles. In a moment of maternal correctness, I offered a choice - "paddlepops or coloured icypoles?", I asked. He said "I wanna look." So I lifted him up to look into the freezer.
"I want the big box."
"No, those or these."
"The big ones."
"Sorry, not the big ones."
Then, he started to yell. "THE BIG ONES."
I held him tightly and said, "choose these or those, or no icypoles." No luck. As I put him down on the floor again, he lost it.
A big bloke bowled passed us, glanced at my noisy red-faced tot and advised loudly, "why don't you just smack his arse?"
Equally loudly, I huffed, "why don't you go back to your cave?"
I then scooped up the bonus baby, and made a hasty retreat. We took time out together with a hug and a chat about the puppy tied to the pole outside, then we went into the fruit-shop next door and bought a big slice of watermelon.
The realisation that even "big kids" can have tantrums helps to put toddler tantrums into perspective.
In fact, the same triggers can set off both toddlers and adults: frustration (I too was looking forward to an icypole, now I had to miss out); a lack of control over our environment (I didn't get to do my shopping efficiently as I had planned); and anger (not to mention a little embarrassment) at irrelevant interference by an ignorant stranger.
Of course, adults have had much more practice at coping with frustration and delaying gratification than toddlers. We also generally have greater control over our environment and our verbal skills are certainly better developed - perhaps that's why I only lost my temper with a few angry words and did not kick or spit at the big bloke.
Paediatrician William Sears, explains, "two basic feelings prompt most temper tantrums. A child has an intense curiosity and a desire to perform an act, but very often the desire is greater than the capability. This leads to intense frustration. Second, newly found power and the desire for "bigness" propel him toward a certain act, when suddenly someone he loves, descends upon him with a "No." Acceptance of an outside force, contrary to his own will is a conflict he cannot handle without a fight. He wants to be big, but reality tells him how small he is.
Dr. Sears says, "because (the toddler) is angry but doesn't yet have the language to express his anger, he does so in actions and because he can't handle emotions with reason, he chooses to cope with inner emotions by a display of outward emotions - a tantrum!!
When to say no
Although tantrums are a normal fact of toddler life, they can be minimised by setting sensible limits - for yourself as well as your child.
* Say "No" to frustration beyond your toddler's tolerance limits:
Challenges are necessary for children to develop, but try to step in before a challenge becomes a frustration by offering help. Guide gently, but don't take over. For instance, gently turn the puzzle piece so he can put it in by himself. When you sense your tot is reaching the brink, create a diversion towards a calming, soothing activity - a different place, a toy, a hug, a story, a song or perhaps a snack.
*Say "No" to overwhelming situations:
Look for common tantrum triggers. Do they seem to happen mostly when your tot is tired? hungry? rushed? Are there situations he finds difficult to handle such as playgroup or shopping? Keeping a tantrum diary might help you understand triggers.
Try to think ahead and limit overwhelming situations. For instance, plan short shopping trips when he isn't tired, take nutritious snacks whenever you go out and don't wait for difficult behaviour before you offer food.
*Say "No" to junk food.
Some foods can adversely affect children's behaviour. Sweets can trigger blood sugar variations, caffeine in 'coke' drinks can hype kids up for hours - so they are literally unable to sit still, let alone fall asleep, and additive or chemicals - even in foods that are normally considered healthy can affect some sensitive tots. Again a tantrum diary might shed light on tantrum triggers.
*Say "No" to misunderstandings:
Try to tune in and listen carefully to what your little one is trying to tell you. Encourage toddlers to express frustration or anger verbally. If their language skills are limited, help out. Say "you look angry that your block tower crashed." Or, "I get angry too, when I can't have what I want."
*Say "No" to too many rules:
Don't sweat the small things. Rules like seatbelts and holding hands near roads are not negotiable, but a balance between health and safety and a happy day can benefit family relationships (and sanity), so childproof your home and keep rules for really important things.
*Say "No" to too many choices:
Opportunities to make decisions help a toddler feel in control but too many choices can confuse and overwhelm him. Instead of open-ended choices - "what do you want to wear?" ask "would you like to wear your blue shirt or the red one?"
*Say "No" and mean it:
It's far better to say "yes" initially than to change your mind after your child has exploded. (Remember "maybe" means yes to a child). Rewarding genuinely uncontrollable tantrums can encourage tots to use (semi)deliberate tantrums to get what they want.
*Say "No" to embarrassment:
It can be difficult to consider your child's feelings when he performs a tantrum in public but whatever you do, don't yell back, don't smack and don't resort to giving in because you feel embarrassed. And please, don't walk away from an out of control tot in places like shopping centres. It is scary enough to be out of control without also feeling abandoned. The best thing you can do here is scoop up your child and leave.
*Say "Yes" to comfort:
Because you know your child best, you'll know whether he's better letting off steam by himself (with you nearby) or whether he needs to be held quietly. If you find walking away works for your child, return when he settles, hug him and say "I'm still here and I love you." Giving reassurance is not giving in. Just as adults need comfort when they feel upset or overwhelmed, toddlers need to know they are loved, even when their behaviour isn't lovable.
All rights reserved © 2000 by Pinky McKay. Used With Permission of the author.
Author Pinky McKay is a Melbourne, Australia, based writer and editor specialising in health, education and family issues. She is the author of 100 Ways to Calm the Crying (Lothian Books 2002) and Parenting by Heart (Lothian Publishing 2000). Visit Ms. McKay's website Pinky-MyChild.com.