Q&A: 19-month-old with tantrums

Ann writes:

"My son, who is now 19 months, has entered the wonderful world of temper tantrums. We've figured out that a tantrum is morelikely when a meal is later than normal, so we're handling that. I've seen Harvey Karp's "Happiest Toddler on the Block" video, and I was trying that technique (basically, speak for your toddler, matching his/her level of emotional intensity: "You're frustrated! You don't want to whatever, you want to keep playing!" etc.). But here's my problem: frequently, I don't know why he's having a tantrum. I have no clue what set him off, so I can't "speak for him." Also, when I have known what he was upset about and then used the technique, he gets *madder* -- I think he thinks I'm yelling *at* him.

So, for now, it seems that Karp's method isn't working for us (I'm guessing it works better on older toddlers). Any advice on ending tantrums?"

Ah, ending tantrums. If only. While thinking about this question, I realized that I'd texted a mini-tantrum to my mother earlier in the day. So I'm 100% positive that there's no way to end tantrums completely, at least until your child is older than 36. (Although the tantrums are probably far less annoying when they happen by electronic communication than by screaming in your ears. So there's that to look forward to.)

I could give my opinion, but I kind of don't have one because I got my butt kicked by both of my kids in that stage. It's just really tough, and it falls into a huge gap in the literature. You can't really just redirect like you do with babies, but they're still too young for the Dr. Karp caveman method (decent summary here). I've got plenty for dealing with older kids, some of which is similar to Dr. Karp's stuff, but really nothing for this age.

Fortunately, however, we all have Sharon Silver. You may remember that I love her because she's got actual techniques for dealing with the toddler and preschool age, the notorious discipline gap age. (I also love that she hangs out here and kind of provides a little beacon of hope that we'll survive the tsunami years of parenting.) So I asked her to write something for Ann, and her answer kind of surprised me and made me wish I'd known about her and her website (www.proactiveparenting.net) back when my were that age.

Sharon answers:

"These days I see a lot of websites calling any kind of tantrum “a battle of wills”. A tantrum can definitely be perceived that way, but let me share a slightly different take on tantrums. A 19-month-old tantrum is very different than an older child’s tantrum. A 19-month-old tantrum is based in emotional overwhelm and frustration. An older child’s tantrum is based in getting what they want. An older child’s tantrum may cause them to get emotional and frustrated but it begins with I want what I want.

Let me share how a tantrum begins so you can give yourself a break and maybe make a shift in parental thinking. A 19-month-old is just now beginning to see himself as separate from you and that idea can be overwhelming at times. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how a 19-month-old finds himself in a tantrum.

He sees a toy he wants across the room, he heads in the direction of the toy and out of the corner of his eye he sees mom walk out of the room. He becomes confused and panicky, should I go for the toy or follow mom? He doesn’t know *how* to decide which direction he should go. He isn’t verbal enough to express his confusion; he wants mom and the toy. He’s overwhelmed with the choice and gets even more scared. Now he feels wet stuff (tears) leaking from his eyes, hears his heart beating loudly and has no clue what that sound is, so he collapses into a total meltdown. He has no idea how he got this upset and becomes more upset because he’s so upset. He’s caught in an emotional circle and has no idea how to get out.

Some children get angry with a parent and kick and scratch but most just fall into an emotional puddle and cry as if begging for help.

If you follow Dr. Karp's suggestions at this point and begin repeating his reaction back at him, I can see how frustrated that would make him. He probably feels as if no one who has a clue is helping him get out of the situation. I would be mad too!

At this point some parents yell at a child to “stop it now” but they can’t. They have no idea how they got in this mess and even less of an idea how to stop it now, so the tantrum continues.

This does not seem like a battle of wills to me. This seems like a true cry for help and I believe it should be treated as such. You need to be his soft place to land, you need to be empathetic and use calming sounds with few words. Do some humming as you hold and rock him, if he’ll let you. If not, just stay close. This allows him to latch on to the sound of your voice and relax a bit.

This will pass as he becomes more verbal. You’ll instinctively know when the tantrums begin leaning more toward an older child’s tantrum. He will become more aggressive and it will be more about I want what I want versus I’m so frustrated and scared that I can’t contain myself anymore.

Yes, tantrums can easily occur when a child is hungry, sounds like you figured that part out. I just wrote an article on tantrums and food; here’s what I suggested.

Parents of young children can create a container in the refrigerator that’s always filled with ready-to-go healthy foods, things like lunch meat, veggies and dip, fruit, yogurt, leftovers etc, since toddlers have no ability to wait. I also suggest you use the food from the container to feed a child this young the bulk of his meal before the family, just like you did when he was a baby. This allows you to have dinner at your regular time, creating less rushing for you and less tantrums for him. I know eating as a family is very important, but it’s not the eating of the food that’s so important, it’s the time spent together. Since your child has been partially fed from their special container, which kept the tantrum at bay, now invite him to finish dinner with the family or have him join you for desert. This way you get to have a calmer family meal with less tantruming.

No parent can truly know what a preverbal child is thinking or feeling. I hope this helps you give yourself a break."

Hooray for giving ourselves a break! Thanks, Sharon. Ann, I hope this helps with your little guy.