Believe it or not, L was already arching his back in protest by the time he was three months old. One of his first forms of communication with us was a grunt of protest. He’d ball up his firsts and puff out air. People refused to believe me when I would tell stories of my angry little baby, but it was true. His mind was working, he knew what he wanted or didn’t want, but he couldn’t figure out how to get us to cooperate. We always knew that, though he seemed relatively non-emotive to most people, there’d be no avoiding the dreaded tantrums.
An important thing to remember is that ages are sort of arbitrary. Behaviors that we typically assign to toddlers can start before (see gif above), well after, or never. Toddlerhood in and itself isn’t just about age; age ain’t nothing but a number. So, since we’ve had time to deal with this (almost a year), we’ve amassed a tool box of options for how to respond when he’s tantruming and I want to share them with you. This certainly isn’t meant to be advice so much as a way of giving you more things to add to your own toolbox. Let’s support each other.
Okay, so here’s the gist of things before I tell you the actual tools, tricks of the trade so to speak. Firstly, spoiler alert, none of them involve punishment. Perhaps when he’s older, there might be a punitive response for his tantrums, but not now. There’s no point. I will say, however, that for a minute there, he was in a phase of throwing himself to the ground in the middle of a tantrum. That we had to stop. We live in LA, and honestly, I can’t think of a more disgusting place to be than the literal streets of LA, other than maybe the streets of New York. So, if he started doing it while he was holding one of our hands, we didn’t let him fall to the floor. Believe it or not, you may notice that most tantrums in public start when you’re holding your toddler’s hand. That’s because we rarely let them run wild like that in public and what usually precipitates a tantrum is not getting their way, which, as you can imagine, involves getting their hand and leading them elsewhere. At home, we didn’t care and he perfected the art of going to the carpet before slowly, dramatically falling to the floor. But, he quickly learned not to do it outside. I will say though that it only lasted about a month or two and he hasn’t really been throwing himself to the floor lately.
Also, as a general rule, I find that it’s best to randomly cycle through these, similar to a random schedule of reinforcement for you psychology nerds. Finally, one of the most important things to remember: Never ever give in. Never! Do not negotiate with terrorists. Even if the reason they’re having a tantrum isn’t even that serious to you or you were planning to do anyway (e.g., they’re crying because they wanted to eat and that’s literally happening right now), it’s important that it is not in the middle of the tantrum when they get whatever it is that precipitated the tantrum. So, in this example, wait for them to calm down before you give them the food. If you decide to just give in, you’ll be reinforcing the behavior and by that, I mean, they’ll likely keep doing it since it works. So, again, don’t give in.
Okay, so here’s what we do.
Honestly, the best way to deal with a tantrum is to try to prevent one, if you can. This isn’t to say that you should give your child whatever they want, but there are other preventative methods. It’s important to remember that they can understand a lot more than they can communicate themselves. So, I started explaining things to him before it happened. “L, we’re going to go change your diaper,” or “L. I’m going to put my shoes on and then we’re going outside,” or “We can’t go in there because I don’t have the key.” Sometimes it works….sometimes it doesn’t, but on the off chance that it does work, I try every time.
2. Literally Just Sit On The Floor And Wait
This works for a few reasons. Firstly, because you’re not trying to stop the tantrum, there’s no epic battle going on. You have a chance to relax and be calm. You’re not saying anything, you’re not doing anything, just letting the them know you’re there. It also helps that you’re suddenly at eye level with the child. One day, L was so mad that I went into his room and he started having a fit. Yes, he had closed the door and was pissed that I had the nerve to walk in….he was 15 months old. I just sat in the middle of his room, crossed my legs, and waited. He stomped, screamed, and then eventually came and sat on my lap and I read him a book. This of course wouldn’t work all that well if you’re at the grocery store, so you know, pick and choose things for when the moment is right.
3. Just Keep Swimming
The title for this one has special meaning for me, because I mostly have to use this tactic when L isn’t ready to be done swimming, but it’s time to go, so we tell him we’re going and we walk. He tries so hard to stay behind, but the reality is that we just end up calmly walking back to the apartment with a crying kid trailing behind us. So, basically, just keep going about what you’re doing and hope your kid really doesn’t want to get left behind while they throw a fit and truly believes you will leave them.
4. Take A Deep Breath
I’m not going to lie, I love this one. It sounds like some new-age LA hipster shit, but you know what, sometimes it works. When L was about 16 months old, I was listening to an NPR story about deep breathing one day, and they were saying that before age 5 and half, we know how to properly breath: horizontally. That age seemed suspiciously specific and I didn’t follow up on anything about it, but it did spark an idea for me. I decided to try to get him to take a deep breath when he was upset, if anything, just to get him to stop crying long enough to try to break the impasse. So, I squat down and softly say, “hey, can you take a deep breath with me?” and we both do it. He tilts his head back for some reason, but the point is that we both take a deep breath, which is helpful in managing your own emotions when your kid is losing their shit for no real reason.
This one’s tricky because your efforts to distract might actually just end up making more noise than anything, so you’ll need to test some things out to know what will actually distract your child. When L was much younger, it would seem like he was crying only because he’d been crying. I think we’ve probably all seen this on a kid at some point before, you know, where it’s clear that the passion for their crying is gone and they’re just keeping up the pretense of it…haha.. Okay, but in all seriousness, he was stuck. So, I would just gently blow in his face. If you’ve spent any time around a baby, you know a gentle blow to the face is utterly shocking to them, so if he indeed was only stuck in a cycle of crying, that would usually be enough to end it. Cool baby wipes also helped for this. Alas, he got older and those things didn’t work anymore. So, I started asking him to say “bye-bye.” Yep, to absolutely nobody. We’d be outside and he wouldn’t be ready to leave the fountain, so I’d go “say bye-bye!” right when he was about to launch into his fit and he’d stop, wave, and follow behind me. I also get him to say words he knows how to say or sign. It’s not-funny-but-funny when he’s crying but then pauses long enough also saying something in his cute little sad-from-crying voice.
6. Sing And/or Dance
I’m sure you’ve got this one in your toolkit already, but boy does “Wheels on the Bus” or “Baby Shark” work wonders when he’s not trying to do something. He doesn’t want to get his hair combed? Baby Shark. He doesn’t want to get his teeth brushed? Wheels on the Bus. He’s crying because he insists on bringing his tiny lawn chair into the kitchen where it just keeps slipping from up under him? “If You’re Happy And You Know It.”
7. Send Them On a Mission
Where’s your ball? Go find Frankie Beats. Close the refrigerator. These are indeed distractive techniques, but they require something both mental and physical of the child, which takes up more working memory and hopefully, HOPEFULLY, means they have to drop the tantrum. Of note, you’re not yelling these at them. LoL! You want it to sound fun, like a game, like, Ohhhh…it’s going to be SO much fun if you go get that block over there for me!!
8. Calmly Ask Them To Stop
I know this sounds wild and inconceivable, but what can I say, sometimes it works to just be blunt. I will say that I mostly use it when I’m holding him or when he’s on the changing table or some place where he can’t really be having a full-blown tantrum. So essentially, he’s just upset and crying about something. I’ll literally just calmly say something like “L, you need to stop crying so we can go get your milk,” or “L, can you stop crying so we can go outside,” several times in a row of course.
9. Remember They’re Fleeting
There’s probably nothing more finicky in the entire world than a toddler’s emotions. They’re like little tiny bombs waiting to go off. That said, the downs don’t tend to last very long. They have short attention spans and, just like when my wife is dealing with me, they often forget what’s even upsetting them. It only seems like they’re screaming forever because it’s the middle of CVS, but it’s really not that long. I bet if you timed one, the longest would probably only be a few minutes tops. Your best option is to just wait it out.
These Pictures Were Taken Literally Less Than 2 minutes Apart