Tantrums were originally named for Tantros, Greek god of toddlers. Just kidding. Tantrums are attention-getting and gratification-demanding tactics for frustrated, poorly verbal little kids. (Regrettably, older children or adults sometimes throw them, too, probably for some of the same reasons. This discussion is just about the toddlers.)

Parents are often frustrated by professionals' glib advice: "Just ignore him." This seems easy to say and hard to do. It's good advice as far as it goes, but I tell my parents something more. "Ignoring the tantrum" is a lot more involved than just walking away. Your response to your child's tantrum will determine how many and how awful they are in the future, so how you respond is important. Teaching a child to stop tantrum behavior involves what I call "active ignoring." You will be ignoring the behavior but not ignoring your child.

Think of why the child throws the tantrum. He or she wants attention to one degree or another and mainly wants to get his or her way. It's nothing personal - it's just business.

Now, suppose you were walking along the street on the right sidewalk. You see a friend walking on the opposite sidewalk. You really need to talk to her. You call out to her, "Hey, Judy!" She ignores you. So you yell louder, "Judy! Judy!" No response. Louder still (and now you're waving and jumping up and down - you REALLY need to talk to her): "Judy! Judy! Over here!!!" No luck. She ignores you - you finally give up.

Notice: 1) First you increase your attention-getting behavior, increase it some more, then eventually give up when it doesn't work... the key point is that your attention-getting behavior increases before it "extinguishes." So when your child starts the tantrum and you turn and walk away without saying a word, your child's increased screaming or head banging or foot kicking is evidence that ignoring him is working. You are getting to him. He must increase the behavior before he can extinguish.

2) Next, listen actively to what the child is doing. The moment that he stops crying (to see what you'll do, probably), go right to him and pleasantly offer to do something with him - read a story, give him a cookie, let him help you - whatever - even if it's just to talk pleasantly with him. (Don't try to bribe him retroactively - just try to carry on normally as if nothing had happened. Don't spank, scold or even mention the tantrum. Your toddler hasn't the foggiest what you're talking about, anyway. Remember - no lectures or rehash, either.)

3) If he starts the tantrum again - which he probably will at first - walk away, again without saying anything. Return when he settles down. Do this again and again and again if necessary. Be as cheerful and patient as you can. Soon, your toddler will learn that if he'll just shut up and be civil, Mommy will play with him. As time goes on, the tantrums will fade away.

4) If you're in a public place, let him pitch the tantrum. There are only two types of people watching you: those with children, and those who have no children of their own. The first will understand what's going on and sympathize with you. You shouldn't give a hoot what the others think - what would they know? Take him out to the car to finish the fit if need be, and reflect that at least until you get him through this latest tantrum phase, avoidance of public venues for fit-pitching competition would be wise.

5) Now, what about the child who bangs his head on the floor, or bites himself, or some other dramatic seemingly self-harming behavior. Fine - let him. In twenty years in pediatrics I have neither seen, heard of or even read a case report of a child who seriously injured himself with this sort of behavior. As soon as it really hurts, the child will stop. (This is why we say being a parent is not for the faint of heart.) If you ignore the child at all other times, but respond with cajoling, pleading, "reasoning" or otherwise giving in to these acts of phony self-injury, guess what? You get lots more of them! You will teach your child that if you REALLY want attention around here, just bang your head on the floor... which is obviously not what we want to teach. We want to teach that naughty behavior gets ignored, and quiet behavior gets our attention.

6) Studiously ignore those who tell you to spank young toddlers to stop tantrums. Take it from the last four zillion sets of parents who've tried it - it doesn't work.

See also breathholding.

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