The Terrible One's: Tantrums

QUESTION

Dear Dr. Laura,
My son is 11 months old. When things don't happen the way he wants them to he throws a fit. He will hit you, throw things and flat out scream for hours if you don't do what he wants. It's hard to know what he wants because he can't talk.

I know he can't talk to express. I just want to know what I can do to make things better, and make him happy. Please help me, I don't know what to do.

Concerned Mother

ANSWER

It is not unusual for babies at around a year old to begin to act this way. I want to reassure you that this is actually a very positive development: the beginning of your child's asserting himself as a separate person.

As babies become less distractable, and more assertive, they try to assert some control over their environment, just as we all do. He can't talk yet, but he can certainly communicate, by physically resisting situations he doesn't like. This self-assertion is in fact a healthy, developmentally appropriate stage -- but not easy for parents. In fact, it usually comes as quite a shock -- where did your sweet, compliant baby go?!

The second year is the worst stage of this self-assertion, because toddlers don't yet have the neurological development to reason or control their emotions, as they will begin to by the time they're three or four. But for the rest of your son's childhood, he will be developing his own sense of agency, which means becoming a person in his own right. While you will need to guide him, and set appropriate limits and expectations, you can also expect him to have his own ideas. If he has "big feelings" -- and it certainly sounds like he does -- you can expect him to let you know in no uncertain terms when he disagrees with you.

Think of it this way. This is his first expression of his own "agency" in the world -- the ability to express what he wants and try to get it. You want him to feel like he can have an impact on the world -- that's how optimism, competence and confidence develop. More important, when he sees that you care about satisfying his wishes, that's how he knows that he's loved. (If your husband told you that he loved you but always told you no about what you wanted, would you feel loved?)

So when babies express their wishes and you meet them, great. When they express their wishes and you can't meet them for safety or other important reasons, then they at least need to feel you have heard them and have a good reason for not helping them get what they think they need.

How you navigate those moments of disagreement will determine how close you will ultimately be with your son. It will also determine whether he becomes "contrary" -- in other words, will he feel a need to resist your authority in a knee-jerk fashion, because you two have an ongoing power struggle of you trying to enforce your rules against his desires, and that's the only way he can assert his own person-hood?

The more control little ones have over their own lives, the less they need to be defiant. So you may find that he will "tantrum" less if you let him make as many choices and have as much say as possible in his life (food, clothes, toys, etc.) Please check out the Toddlers section of my website for more ideas on managing babies as they move into the Toddler phase (which your son is already doing!): http://ahaparenting.com/ages-stages/toddlers

Does that mean you just have to give in to everything he wants? Of course not. It does mean you will have to be very creative as a parent now. One way to do this is Parenting Aikido, which is to grant his need for independence but still meet your need as the parent to keep things safe. For instance, give him the power to choose between two choices that are both ok with you. "We have to get in the car now. Do you want to climb in yourself?" (you may have to assist) "Or do you want me to put you in?"

It also means that you will have to offer him empathy when you can't do what he wants: "You wish you could have a cookie. But the rule is no cookies before dinner. Come be with mom and snuggle and let's have some milk." He may still tantrum, but he'll eventually learn that he can't always have what he wants, but he can have something better: a mom who takes his desires seriously and tries to make him happy.

I know that many experts advocate ignoring tantrums, but that advice is outdated and at this age it is a really bad idea. Your son is trying to communicate something he can't communicate any other way. He is not "throwing fits" to get your attention. He is throwing fits because he is 11 months old and feels so passionately about everything, and simply doesn't have the capacity to control himself yet. Research shows that when we ignore tantrums, kids tantrum more. When we "give in" to tantrums by giving the child what he is tantrumming for, they tantrum more. But when we respond to the unhappiness our child is expressing by offering him comfort and understanding,they tantrum less. So please don't worry that comforting him will make his tantrumming worse.

That said, you'll be glad to know that some tantrums are avoidable and that it is best to avoid tantrums if you can, just because they are scary to your child.

Since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, little ones who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums. And since babies who are tired and hungry don't have the inner resources to handle frustration, the less often your son feels overwhelmed and powerless, the less often he'll tantrum.

Here's how to tame tantrums before they start:

1. Sidestep power struggles. Let him save face. You don't have to prove you're right. Your son is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.

2. Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead. Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation -- whatever it takes -- prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no -- to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand. Don't drag a hungry or tired little guy to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.

3. He's a little young to understand, but he understands more than he can say, so begin reminding him when a tantrum is brewing that if he has a tantrum you aren't allowed to even consider his request. This won't necessarily work until he gets a little older, but it usually helps toddlers pull it together enough for you to address the situation that is making him crazy. Often this means we have to change our plans to avoid over-taxing a little one who is at the end of his rope (i.e., “I guess we can’t do a big shop today. We’ll just get the milk and bread and go home. And here’s a cheese stick to eat while we wait in line.”)

4. Make sure that your son gets enough “cozy time” with you so that he doesn’t have to tantrum to get it. Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum. If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect before you try to shop for dinner.

5. Try to handle tantrums so they don’t escalate. If he does launch into a tantrum despite your best preventive efforts, remember not to sever the connection. Stay nearby, even if he won't let you touch him. He needs to know you're there, and still love him. Be calm and reassuring. Don’t try to reason with him, but research has shown that simply acknowledging his feelings can shorten the tantrum dramatically, as in "You are so mad. You are showing me how much you wanted that candy." (Don't try explain at that point why he can't have the candy before dinner, and certainly don't give him the candy, just acknowledge and empathize with his feelings.)

If he tries to hit you, either move away, or hold him without hurting him so that he can't hit you. You can say "You are so mad at me. You feel really sad that you can't have that." Eventually, he will get past the anger to the sad feelings underneath and just cry in your arms. Remember that it isn't a bad thing for him to cry. Little people have so many frustrations. Sometimes, like the rest of us, they just need to cry.

Think about what you feel like when you're swept with exhaustion, rage and hopelessness. If you do lose it, you want someone else there holding things together, reassuring you, acknowledging your feelings, and helping you get yourself under control. Your son needs to know that you love him no matter what feelings he has, and that as soon as he's ready, you'll help him recollect himself. Afterwards, make up. Take some “cozy time” together, so he is reassured that you still love him.

And don't worry. This too shall pass!

--Dr. Laura

Laura Markham

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.

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Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth." In private practice, and as a speaker and presenter at parenting workshops and seminars, she enjoys connecting face-to-face with parents to help them transform their relationships with their children, regardless of age.

She is the author of an upcoming Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, which will have editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great.

Dr. Markham received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in New York. She's held many challenging jobs, including running publishing companies with 100 employees, serving on corporate boards and coaching business leaders, as well as counseling families and children. Bottom line, she says, "Raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world." Dr. Markham lives in New York, with her husband, 14-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son.