Laurel Thomas of Metairie gives an exasperated groan as she explains how she handled two tantrums simultaneously today, from her four-year-old daughter, Caroline, and her five-year-old-son, Christian.
“I can’t even remember what they were about,” she says. “But I’m sure he was tired.” Experienced at diffusing meltdowns, she says she quickly found something else for Christian to do. For Caroline, Laurel stopped what she was doing to snuggle with her for a while. “She still needs that to calm her.”
Welcome to the wonderful world of tantrums, meltdowns and fits—all perfectly normal parts of child development, but often quite taxing to parents’ nerves.
“Tantrums are a mode of expression, and not a defiant behavior,” says Jenni Evans, a child development and discipline instructor at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. “A child will go where his temperament takes him, so a child with a high temperament will have a tantrum, and a child with a low temperament will become clingy.” As reassurance to those of us with children who have terrific tantrums, she adds, “Those who cry the loudest also laugh the loudest.” It’s also not unusual to have a child who’s never had a tantrum, she says. Some children just have very even-keeled temperaments.
Tantrums are most common in children ages one and a half to four. While a normal part of child development, some can be avoided. Jenni stresses that a child who is tired or hungry is more likely to lose control; so too is a bored or overstimulated child. Everyday frustrations also will exacerbate the situation, like being told “no” or having difficulties with clothing or fastening shoes.
Erica Shepard is a fourth grade teacher from Marrero and the mom of three boys, Patrick, five, and three-and-a-half-year-old twins Evan and Bryce. She says her younger sons tend to have tantrums or meltdowns when their needs are not met immediately or they don’t get what they want. Thus far, she’s been a bit luckier than Laurel.
“Knock on wood, they never throw a tantrum or have a meltdown at the same time,” says Erica. “They usually take turns.”
defusing the tantrum
When one of Erica’s sons has a tantrum, she first removes him from the environment and then tries to discuss with him “the appropriate behavior” she would like him to exhibit. If that doesn’t work, she says she’ll put him in a time-out chair for three minutes. She usually has to sit with him for the duration.
Anayansi Konrad, managing editor of Nolatina (a new blog for Latino women in New Orleans; we link to it from nolababy.com) has a five-year-old son, Klein, who can throw a tantrum with the best of them.
“He started practicing for the Latino Soap Opera Divo of the Century Award as soon as he could spin and throw himself on the floor,” she says. A veteran of classes and seminars offered by the Parenting Center and WeeWonders, Anayansi says the most valuable lessons she learned were redirection and distraction, feeding and sleeping on time, and now that he is older, to let him know that it’s okay to feel frustration.
What Laurel, Erica and Anayansi have done to address tantrums is right for their situations. And that, says Jenni, is ideal. “One of the most common problems I see with parents is the one-size-fits-all solution,” she says. “What parents need to do is meet the needs of their child.”
Sometimes, there’s just no avoiding a tantrum, or bringing about a swift and easy end to one.
When Susan Lisovich’s three-year-old grandson, Elijah, has a meltdown, he often becomes unmanageable. “He’ll scream at the top of his lungs in a grocery store, pound on doors with his fists, or throw things,” says Susan, who moved to Baton Rouge from Pittsburgh with her daughter last November. “Putting him in his room doesn’t work since he just follows us back out.”
Susan and her daughter have tried many solutions, and settled on not paying attention to him during his tantrums, other than to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. When they’re away from home, they take him to the car and strap him into his seat and let him cry it out.
“It hasn’t lessened the tantrums any, but we’re a lot calmer with the procedure,” Susan says.
Staying calm in the midst of their meltdowns is important.
“As much as a tantrum can bring us to the edge of our nerves,” says the Parenting Center’s Jenni, “as long as we can maintain our cool, we can use it as a teachable moment.” When the child calms down—and they all do, eventually—she says it’s an ideal time to discuss more appropriate ways for them to deal with their feelings. And then move on, and put the tantrum behind you.
The tantrums and fits may subside by age four or five, but they can be replaced by arguments, moodiness and, yes, more meltdowns.
“The older they get, the harder it is [for parents] to remain sane,” says Jenni, who has two daughters, ages 14 and 16. “It’s really important to model calmness while they’re hysterical. It just gets harder and harder.”
Leslie Penkunas is the editor of
nola baby & family and writes this article from way too much firsthand experience.