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Toddler » Discipline and Guidance

Toddler Tantrums

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Dear Dr. Susan:

My wife and I have a 19 month old son. We have been having a problem with him screaming and throwing bad temper tantrums. When he doesn’t get what he wants he throws himself on the floor kicking and screaming as loud as he can and recently has started head butting the floor and other things in the house out of anger. We  have both set him on a chair for time out, sent him to his room, putting a small amount of soap in his mouth when he screams everything that we can possibly think of and nothing is working as a matter of fact it seems to be getting worse. If you have ANY information or tips for us it would greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.


Dear Laura:

Good for you to recognize you need a bit of guidance. Please recognize what 18-22 month olds can and can not do. They can not share toys; they can not be independent or left unsupervised. They are just learning language and words that can take the place of actions.  They are still all actions and few words. They use lots of screams, smiles, babbles and throwing themselves around because they are “newly” mobile and have a very inflated view of themselves – they want what they want, when they want it! They are not at all understanding of someone else’s feelings or demands. They are learning to make demands and they are trying to learn how to get what they want. Anything they think about, see, touch or feel falls into the category of getting what they want.

You can help your son by setting gentle but firm limits. No yelling at him, no time out, no punishment with soap. These behaviors only cause him to try harder to get your attention, and do not work with toddlers. Try lots of talking, sit him between your legs on the floor when he is throwing a fit and tell him to calm down, hold him, do not hit him. If you yell, he will yell. If you hit, he will hit. Toddlers are pure imitators and he will do what you do which prolongs the tantrum. Just talk or sing and help him get through the tantrum. If he gets madder, tell him you know how he feels, but you are not going to let him hit his head or thrash around, period. You must set limits for a toddler. Shrink his limits when he gets out of control. If he pitches a fit in the store, leave the store. If he tries to run off when you are walking to the car or bus, tell him he always holds a hand when he is out near cars or streets; if he says “no”, say to him, “say yes”. Ignore small crying episodes and ignore minor problems, by just substituting a different toy or game, or talking or signing a song.

Remember you are in charge, and have to arrange the way he spends his time. Keep very strictly to a schedule, and do not let him get over tired, or you will pay the price – toddlers fall apart and come back together 20 times a day.

Toddlers need to eat 4 times a day, and give them a lot of variety. Sit with him while he eats. Do not feed him. Encourage him, but do not “over talk” the whole feed-eat thing. Toddlers need to be in bed 12 hours a day – asleep. Toddlers 19 months old need a nap (2-3 hours) and if they are in childcare, they need to be in bed by 7-8 p.m. ALL toddlers, no excuses.

Toddlers need a lot of stimulation and should be read to every day, so they get used to words and ideas. Soon your son will be able to use words to keep himself under control. Then you can say, “Use your words” when gets upset, screams, or has a tempter fit.

It is a great age, but you need to have realistic expectations about what he can do, and what he needs help with. Teach him to “do it himself” when he can, and to ask for help when he can’t . Have fun. Thanks for writing.

Susan H. Turben, Ph.D.

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