Q&A: Controlling Toddler Meltdowns?

Sarah writes:

"I discovered a few days ago that if I yell, sternly, ENOUGH!!!, when my18-month old starts spiraling into a tantrum, he stops, stunned by my loud and stern voice, and returns to a calm state.  On the weekend, he was about to meltdown in his stroller, and I yelled ENOUGH and it stopped him dead in his tracks, I have to admit I was quite pleased. Today he started to melt down because I wanted him to stop playing with something that was dangerous and so I yelled ENOUGH again, and again, it worked.  But today instead of being pleased I started to wonder if I was scaring him into submission, or "training" him like one might train a dog.  I have no idea how to deal with tantrums.  I have read your posts and I understand that it's ok to comfort an 18-month old through the tantrum without giving into their "want".  But if I can stop it before it becomes full-blown, isn't that preferable?  Or, am I using old tactics that we've learned since are harmful to a child's self-esteem? 

This is part of a broader issue, which is that I just want my boy to be happy, and I know my husband feels I am on the verge of spoiling him by rarely saying no to him.  Do (good) parents yell at toddlers, as I've started to do to halt bad behaviour, or is that a total no-go?  I feel at a total loss."

I'm going to say that this is not a good thing. On the one hand, it is kind of just a distraction method, right? You've shocked him into being quiet. But really what's happening is that you're yelling at him to get him to stop yelling.

I absolutely appreciate the urge that made you yell ENOUGH! in the first place. And I think we've all been there with the kneejerk, instinct-level reactions (your preschooler smacks you and you reflexively smack him back, your elementary schooler calls you a name and you respond with "it takes one to know one!", etc.) because none of us are perfect and it's just human nature to react when you feel attacked, even by a little kid. However, the goal is that you make discipline policies that are well-thought-out and are going to help your kid (and yourself, too) learn mastery of themselves and increase connection with you.

So, as a policy, yelling is a no-go, because it's just punitive (and is experienced as violence, for sure). It's not teaching anyone anything good--it's teaching your kid to be afraid of you and it's teaching you that brute force is the way to run the situation with your child. And in the long-term it's not helping you guys individually or as a pair.

Honestly, I'm really starting to feel like toddler tantrums are just another developmental blip for us to ride out, like the 4-month sleep regression or that stage when they only want to eat things they can feed themselves. I think tantruming, on a kid-by-kid basis, is "normal" behavior and no matter what we do it's going to pass. And maybe for some kids there's something simple you can do to get them to stop having tantrums or to get them through that stage faster, but not for all. Which means that you try some stuff, but not with the goal of finding The Cure, just with the goal of helping you all deal with it in a way that honors all of you as people.

The bigger thing I think you need to look at is how you and your husband are approaching discipline. At all ages, but especially at this age, it's about setting boundaries, not about getting kids to obey. (I really hate that word obey.) When kids obey, they're doing it because they fear punishment, not because they're making the choice themselves. I think we can all (or most of us) agree that the goal is to raise adults who have an internal sense of right and wrong and the power to make good decisions for themselves and others.

This young toddler age isn't about having them make good choices, because their ability to actually choose and then carry out an action is limited, and when they get an urge it's super-hard for them not to do it. But it is about getting them used to boundaries, and that they aren't going to be allowed to do certain things (like hurting a pet, running into the street, sticking forks in electrical outlets, etc.), that they are going to have to do certain other things (like brushing their teeth, having their diapers changed, etc.). Another aspect of boundaries is learning that they will be loved, that no one is going to hit them or yell at them (which is why kids who are abused have problems with boundaries later), that their opinion matters, that they're part of a community.

So it sounds like your husband sees setting boundaries as "saying no to him," while saying no sounds too punitive to you. So maybe sit down together and talk about setting boundaries and how you want to do that. Three great references to get your head around the concepts of setting boundaries are Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child, Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting, and Faber and Mazlish's How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. (If you can only get one, get the Ginott.)

For practical, minute-by-minute tips on boundaries and dealing with tantrums at this young toddler and preschooler age, I don't know anyone else better than Sharon Silver. I'm hoping she'll drop in and comment on this post. (OK, I just clicked over to her site to find the URL to link, and started laughing because her current headline is "Stop Reacting - Start Responding - We'll Show You How. Do you find yourself yelling at your toddler or preschooler because you're frustrated and you don't know what else to do?" Ha! So yeah, let's hope she drops in.)