Monday, February 21, 2011

The mysteries about toddler tantrums

Tristan may appear like an angel to many but he's like any other toddler. When he was just an infant, tantrums from him were inconceivable to us. Everyone always told us how well behaved he was and we believed it too. The only time he would scream and get seriously mad was when he was super tired. Now, he can get mad at any time. Beware!

Tristan throws tantrums a couple times a day but they will only last a few minutes or less. The bad tantrums, which last 10 minutes or more happen once every couple of days or so. The frequency increases when he is under the weather or when he is lacking sleep. For instance, on days where he naps only 30 minutes, as opposed to 1 hour, he will likely lose his temper over the smallest and silliest things. Silly to us but a huge deal to him! When we are aware of this, we become extra careful in how we deal with him. If he doesn't eat all of his food, we're not going to insist as much. We have been pretty lucky in that Tristan has had most of his tantrums at home. He typically behaves well in the presence of other people and we stay home a lot too. So far, there has only been two embarrassing incidents of tantrums in public (knock on wood!). Here are some examples of situations that have resulted in tantrums:
  • The procedure every morning is for Tristan to sit on the potty, while I clean his face, undress him and put on his shirt. One morning, he didn't want me to take off his pajamas. He wanted to keep them on and said he still wanted to sleep, but I knew he didn't. I took them off anyway and put on his shirt.
  • The other day we were walking along the highway. There was a grass area that was on an upward incline and Tristan wanted to walk up. We allowed him to do it once but after that we said it was too dangerous and we had to go home. He refused to leave and kept trying to climb up. We had to carry him off. When he refused to walk with us, we gave him the option of walking or riding in the stroller. He was still in tantrum mode so we just put him in the stroller and walked away.
  • Tristan was eating his orange for dessert. When I saw that he was throwing some on the floor, I yelled and asked if he was done. He said yes so I took it away. Then he said no and that he still wanted it so I gave it back to him. He proceeded to throw it on the floor. I then picked up the orange and carried it off. He cried, screamed, and refused to get off the highchair for 10 minutes.
Toddler tantrums are a mystery because as adults, we don't do that. We think logically and our brains are fully developed to allow us to control our tempers. It turns out that the part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotion and controlling social behavior, the prefrontal cortex, PFC, is the last part of the brain to develop. The PFC starts to mature around the age of 4.

How do Jean-Louis and I deal with tantrums? We have learned to ignore the bad ones most of the time. If Tristan starts to get upset, we first try to talk with him and sometimes that distracts him. If that doesn't work and he is still fixated on what upsetted him, we leave him. A couple minutes later, we ask him if he is done being mad. Often, he says yes and then it's over. If he doesn't respond, we wait until he is more quiet before looking or talking to him again. We're also very firm with him. We don't want him to know that he can get his way just by throwing a fit. At the same time, we have to be careful when to allow him to make a decision and when we need to make a decision. Enforcing discipline also triggers tantrums. It's definitely not easy.

For the most part, Jean-Louis and I deal with tantrums in much the same way. He tends to be less patient than me so he likes to count to three and if the action still hasn't taken place, he will do it himself. For instance, Tristan like to press the button to start the coffee machine. If after counting to three and Tristan still hasn't come to press it, Jean-Louis will do it himself. Lately, I have been counting to three as well. I don't do this all the time though. What we do do all the time is carry out what we tell Tristan. If we make him a deal or if we say no to something, we don't change our minds. Everyone has their own way of handling tantrums and we could probably do better but so far it has been manageable. "Kids from about 18 months to 4 years are simply hardwired to misbehave." It's unavoidable, perfectly normal, and nothing we are doing wrong. Knowing this, I can't wait until Tristan is 5 :)


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