Toddler Tuesday: Tantrum Tips

I have to say that overall, I'm not much of an advice-follower in general. In fact, if someone pushes a book or movie recommendation too far, I often won't want to read it just because of that. Sad, but true. So when Lucy was coming around, I read a lot of parenting books and took a little bit of advice and spit out a lot. It's just my style.

But one piece of information stuck with me, even though I read it when Lucy was itty-bitty and it has to do with tantrums. Since I know many of the mommy readers are just approaching the tantrum stage and I have never heard this anywhere else (although perhaps it is just one of those things more experienced moms have just figured out?), I thought I would pass it along. It comes from the Science of Parenting which I highly recommend if you are looking for a "guy parenting book." In fact, Craig liked it so much, he even wrote about it here. In fact, he mentions the basic concept but at the time, I didn't realize how helpful that information would be.

Basically, it talks about two types of tantrums. The "Little Nero" tantrum is the one that is commonly thought of when you say "tantrum" - especially by those childless people who see your toddler in the store and give you dirty looks because you obviously can't control your child and if they had a child, they would be able to do much better :-) They happen because your child wants something and is trying his/her best to get it, even if the means are socially unacceptable. 

These need discipline. I won't even attempt to tell you how to discipline your child because 1) I don't know your kid and 2) I don't have enough experience. Maybe when my kids are all grown up and God-fearing productive members of society, I will have enough confidence to tell you but I wouldn't wait around for that day. I think the book says to ignore them but we don't. We take a more lay down the law/walk softly carry a big stick/that's not gonna happen so just try again missy approach which you can interpret however you want. We had a lot of these around 18 months but they have decreased dramatically since then. Every few months Lucy decided to try again so we have a rough week or so but we just don't let them work so they are going away.

The second type of tantrum is what the book calls a distress tantrum or what I refer to as the "It's too much" tantrum.This is when life is just more than your toddler can handle. They are little people , with big emotions and not very many skills to cope with them and frankly, that is just not a good combination.

And according to the book, and my experience has been similar, discipline doesn't do anything but make things worse in this case. This is more of a hug, snuggle/nurse, remove from the situation type of tantrum. Sometimes a nap or snack helps too. Actually, for a lot of these, Lucy just has to scream it out for a few minutes. She'll normally have to take a breather a few minutes in when I can step in and offer comfort and she will accept whereas if I try to do anything earlier than that, she just gets worse.

Of course, the problem lies in telling the difference. According to the book, the key is whether or not your child can tell you what they want while in the tantrum. Simple, yes, but not always easy to remember to do. It is so very easy for me as a parent to assume it is Little Nero tantrum because I know what triggered the tantrum, even if it has gone beyond that. Often times whatever started the "Too much" tantrum was really just a trigger and even if she gets what she originally wanted (not that I would normally recommend that but sometimes it happens) she is still so overwhelmed it does matter. She can't communicate what she wants, she doesn't even know what she wants, she just knows she is upset and I'm the mommy so I'm supposed to do something to help her. 

Example: While in DC, we took a shuttle to the Metro which meant Lucy had to ride on my lap for a little while. She didn't want to and started yelling to get put down.When I said she could get down when we got there, she completely fell apart - screaming, kicking, etc. It was bad. At first, I assumed when we got there and got out of the car, she would be fine since that was what she initially wanted, right? Wrong, that was just the trigger. When we got there, she proceeded to kick until we put her down on the ground and while I could tell she was just overwhelmed, sadly, there wasn't much I could do in the circumstances. She ended up trying to crawl into a corner and hide but there really isn't anyplace to hide in a metro station. Finally, when she started to calm a bit, I told her that we needed go get on the train now but when we sat down, we could have milk-milk. She looked up, took a big breath and said "oh-tay." It took a couple minute of her taking deep breaths on my lap before she was back to her old self but she was fine the rest of the night although Craig and I were a bit drained. I'd put it in the top three tantrum category (and yes, I can tell you exactly what all three of those were and they all involved stressful, busy, unfamiliar situations - airport, metro station and boat cruise).

The best thing about this information isn't that it gives you some magic tantrum stopping trick. It doesn't - as should be obvious by the situation above. The best part is that it helps me as a mom be confident in my actions. We run a pretty tight ship around here, we have clear boundaries on what is and is not tolerated in this house and we have high expectations of Lucy. They aren't unreasonable as evidenced by the fact that she lives up to them most of the time, but they are high. Perhaps because I don't always do thing the mainstream "Christian" way (as in we don't keep our marriage bed kid-free if by "marriage bed" you mean the queen sized mattress that sits in our bedroom and we let our babies "demand" to be fed even though according to some that will create a selfish child, etc), but I think I'm sensitive to the idea that we/she is/are undisciplined but sometimes punishment isn't what is needed and it is nice to be able to remind myself that I didn't decide not to take a specific action because I'm being lazy or irresponsible but because I'm doing what is best for my kid whether that looks good to others or not. In the metro, some people were giving us looks and probably thinking "shouldn't you be doing something?" but honestly, there were just as many people (mostly moms) who gave us knowing smiles.

Of course, I know lots of parenting "experts" who would say I am wrong and that all tantrums stem from a sinful selfish heart and need to be dealt with by corrective discipline. And I may have agreed with them before Lucy. But having seen her tantrums, I can't say that is the case anymore.

And really, we do "discipline" these types of "too much" tantrums, if by discipline you mean train or teach. We just don't do it in the heat of the moment. We are working with Lucy on understanding what emotions we are feeling and how to express them in ways that are okay. For her, books help a lot. She also roles plays a lot with her dolls which I can guide sometimes if we are having a certain issue. And we are helping her gain self-control in all areas of her life - sitting still in church may not seem like it has a lot to do with tantrums, but I think it actually does. There are times now when she is starting to get upset and I ask her how we can work together to stop her frustration and she'll ask me for a hug or milk-milk or even a book. Progress!


  1. Zuzu has only had a few little Nero tantrums, but recently she's having "too much" tantrums daily. We're still working on communicating about emotions, but I'm hoping as she learns to talk more, it'll get easier.

    You mentioned books help. Are there any specific titles you'd recommend?

  2. I don't think MacKenzie adequately detailed what it was like standing in the middle of the walkway to the metro station next to a bawling child laying on the filthy floor with numerous people passing us by.

  3. @humbleadoration - I don't have any emotion specific books really but just anytime they come up in the story, I stop and talk about it. Some of the ones I can think of right now are:

    Mo Williams'Pigeon books and elephant and piggie books often have frustrated/sad/angry moments.

    Angelina's baby sister is one we use a lot but I wouldn't really recommend it as I edit a few sentences - like when she says she hates her baby sister and while she changes her mind at the end, I just don't like bringing up the concept of "hating" a sibling.

    We just checked out Everyone needs a friend by Dubravka Kolanovic which is cute and shows how you don't want to respond to your frustrations. Even Madeline could bring up some good talking points.

    To be honest, Lucy seems to get more out of bad examples than good ones.

    @Craig. I'm still trying to block it out of my mind - but I'm sure any mom of a toddler could imagine it pretty well herself.