Top Tips for Dealing with Tantrums. The Terrible Twos are Awesome.

Family Matters on 08.26.11
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Photo: Forest Runner/Creative Commons.

I took a walk with my daughter today. We ran, we laughed, and we filled her stroller up with rocks, acorns, pine cones and other treasures we found along the way. But just as we turned around to head back home, she started to get cranky.

"Come on Lilia," I cajoled, "let's head back home to see Mommy."

"No." came the reply. And she looked me right in the eyes to test how I would react.

I would have expected myself to be annoyed. It was hot, dusty and humid. I'd had a long day at work. And I was more than ready to sit down and eat some dinner. But rather than getting frustrated at my daughter's recalcitrance, I found myself amused. And fascinated.

While we have yet to witness an overdramatic tantrum episode of viral video proportions, Lilia has been displaying symptoms of :"the terrible twos" for about a month now. Of course I can't say that the tantrums are always welcome, but they are nevertheless a sign of her increasing independence. Having relied for the first two years on either what her body told her to do (poop, pee, or demand food because she was hungry), or on what we wished her to do - she is now realizing that she has options. And she sure as heck intends to take advantage of them.

My wife and I continue to lay down the rules when we need to - "it's time to eat/sleep/try to go potty"; "no, it's probably not a good idea to throw your toys at the cat"; "please put down that vase" etc. But we are also trying to balance our role as authority figures with those of guides or mentors, and we are trying to respect the fact that Lilia has a will of her own, and distinct likes, dislikes and wishes. With my daughter starting preschool tomorrow for the first time, the notion that we can maintain control over her actions feels less and less realistic anyway - instead we can seek to mold how she negotiates the tricky balance between her own wishes, and the wishes of those around her. Here are a few tips that I've found useful in handling the terrible twos:

Tips for Dealing with Toddler Tantrums and the Terrible Twos

1. Respect Your Child's Free Will. Sometimes.
Sure, there are times when you just need to lay down the law. But if your child asks, or even demands, something, it's worth first considering whether their request is reasonable. Maybe they are still hungry? Maybe an extra five minutes on the swing wouldnt hurt? Maybe they just don't want to read a book right now? Think how much it would suck to be dependent on the wishes of others for almost everything you want to do.The key is to pick your battles, and to know that giving in occasionally is compromise - not defeat.

2. Remind Them How to Ask Nicely
As an Englishman, I always found my culture's obsession with etiquette a little over the top. But "please" and "thank you" are indeed magic words. If you find yourself in a battle of wills with your little one, it can be the perfect time to interject a little lesson in manners. You'll find those toddler demands a whole lot less grating if they are followed by a cute little "pweeeze" and a smile.  

3. Give Them Choices. But Choose Their Choices.
A little trick I learned from a neighbor with a toddler is to identify the choices that don't matter to you - and to give your child those choices at every possible opportunity. "Do you want the peas or the carrots?", "Will you wear the pink or the striped undies?", "Which toys shall we put away next?" One of the key reasons why tantrums happen is that a child feels out of control. Allowing them a sense of self-determination - even on relatively trivial matters - can do wonders for their self confidence and decision making skills. It's the same kind of psychology that suggests we should not deny our children access to sweets, but rather present them as one choice among many.

4. Learn to Walk Away
As the viral tantrum video I referenced above shows, sometimes there is no reasoning with a tantrum-throwing toddler. Despite all my rhetoric about "respecting my child's free will", if I feel she is being unreasonable then I am not afraid to tell her so, and to walk away if necessary. I just try to pay attention to whether it is my child's demands and behavior that is unreasonable, or whether my mood is clouding my reaction. (Parents can be unreasonable too!)

5. Enjoy the Terrible Twos. Even the Tantrums.
As I argue above, tantrums are simply a part of a child's development, and the process of gaining independence from their parents. While they may be frustrating in the extreme, they are also an incredible expression of self-determination and critical thought. Your child is learning how to be their own person. And who can ask for more than that? Next time your child looks you straight in the eyes and declares "No!", try taking a step back as an objective observer for a moment - consider yourself an anthropologist - and realize what an incredible developmental stage you are witnessing. And then dive back into the fray...

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