In other words, please give me all the tantrum advice you’ve got.
October 10, 2011

Goodness help me, we have entered the Phase of Endless Frustrated Tantruming Over Seemingly Nothing.  Yesterday my child exploded into an incontrollable heap of blubbering tears because I wiped a crumb off her face.


Last week, I rushed Charlotte outside to show her a squirrel and I accidentally positioned her shoulder directly beneath a crow in the process of relieving his bowels.  And I would have readily accepted that incident as worthy of a tantrum, but the crow poop didn’t phase the kid.  She looked at it and said OH NO!  CROW!  NO POOPING ON CHARLOTTE! and then she got busy watching that squirrel rip into its pine cone.

But the crumb – OH! THE! CRUMB! – the crumb kick-started an hour-long frustration spree.  It started with crying and then it devolved and there I was lobbing guesses around like a new parent staring at their ticking time-bomb of an infant.  Are you hurt?  Hungry?  Thirsty?  Tired?  Too hot?  Too cold?  Do you need a hug?  Do you need Momma to leave you alone?  Are your shoes too tight?  Do you have a blister?  Did a bug bite you?  Would you like to use the toilet?  Did you fart?

No?  None of the above?  THIS IS REALLY ABOUT A CRUMB?!  Were you saving it for Thanksgiving or something, because I have to tell you, this is sort of ridiculous.

Two or three times a week this happens.  Two or three times a week some tiny insignificant nothing turns into a monster of a something.

Over and over again, Donald reminds me that Charlotte is simply transitioning.  Her whole life, she’s learned that when she cries her needs are met.  She cried, I gave her milk.  She cried, I changed her diaper.  She cried, I rocked her to sleep.  And now that she can verbally communicate, we immediately assume that she can use words to communicate those needs - but we forget that she’s still learning how to use those words and that physical communication is still a safe default for her.

I know in my heart that he’s right, but every time this happens I worry that I’m overlooking something obvious or that I’m failing Charlotte somehow.  After a tantrum, I feel like a comic book character, like if you took a picture of me you’d see red stars floating above my head and twigs in my hair and several large clouds of dust all about.

I keep remembering with a laugh that when Charlotte was an infant, naptime was my enemy.  I wanted her to wake up!  Because I was bored!  And I missed her!  She almost always slept on my chest, but I wanted to interact with her, to admire her eyes and hear her coo and show her the world.  Now, sometimes it’s all I can do to stay alive until 12:30.  When she conks out, I collapse onto the couch and think you know?  It’s a miracle that parents aren’t all alcoholics.

I mean, really.  It’s a miracle.

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*** As well, this week I’m making a huge push to get on top of the e-mails that piled up over the last couple months.  Thank you everyone for your patience.

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  1. By on October 10, 2011

    I was shocked the first time I did this and it actually worked, but sometimes when nothing is helping, I ask my Charlotte if she needs to sit in her room until she has calmed down AND SHE SAYS YES.

    Sometimes she doesn’t want to go in her room, but when I put her there, she stays put until she has calmed herself down and then she comes out and acts just like nothing happened, or sometimes she comes out and wants a hug and then acts just like nothing happened.

    We don’t have to do this often, but every time we do I am still amazed that it works. I’m even more amazed when I ask her if she needs to go in her room and she says she does.

  2. By on October 10, 2011

    When James starts fussing over something insignificant I normally try to reason with him (like tell him we need to leave the park because Daddy is making dinner and it’s ready), or I try to divert his attention to something else that I think might excite him. It’s worked so far.

    One thing I have in the back of my pocket that I learned while touring a Montessori is the “focus circle”. The guide explained to us that when a child gets fussy or irrationally agitated the teacher asks him/her to hold a tray of items and walk around a large circle on the ground. The effort it takes not to drop anything gets their mind off whatever was bothering them and focuses their attention on the task at hand. It’s a variation of “time-out” (a bit like Jessica above) without making the child feel like they’re being punished (also like Jessica above).

    I was telling my Mom the other day that we are against time-outs because it doesn’t teach the child to stop their behaviour and it makes them feel like they’ve done something wrong. I said I get cranky sometimes too when I’m tired and hungry, and my husband doesn’t make me sit in a corner somewhere… LOL

  3. By on October 10, 2011

    <<I get cranky sometimes too when I’m tired and hungry, and my husband doesn’t make >>

    Sometimes I WISH I could go sit in a corner somewhere!

  4. By on October 10, 2011

    As long as it’s your choice then that’s ok… :)

  5. By bethany on October 10, 2011

    way too funny!! thanks for the laugh this morning. & of course as a parent of a 2.5 year old; I am laughing with you, not at you!

  6. By Jeneva on October 10, 2011

    Ah… the tantrums. Each child is so different and you two have the bottom line correct. Soon I’m sure you will figure out what works best for her. It could be ignoring, it could be distracting. Most of the time they just have to get it all out of their system so whatever you have to do to cope, do it. My son chooses to go to his room to calm down, my daughter is required to as she screams and gets disrespectful. They aren’t time outs, just time to calm down. If they aren’t in need of that, I just ignore it. If it’s something I did to cause it because I forgot that it would set them off (very similar to the crumb fiasco.. they always want to clean crumbs off by themselves) then I hold and rock them apologizing.

  7. By on October 10, 2011

    My 2 year old REFUSES to nap! I used to use nap time as my time to re-energize and calm my building frustrations. But now nooooo My 2 year old tells me “no nap mommy aiden wants to learn” HAH! Who could refuse that?!?!?!?!? When did they get so smart??

  8. By Sarah@Crazy Love Gamble-Style on October 10, 2011

    When Ava was little this happened a lot.  I would always tell her “Come on Ava, pull it together!“ and praise her when that actually worked, which was surprisingly often.

    When option A didn’t work we very calmly scoop her up and set her in her room, tell her “I love you, when you are happy again you can come out of your room.“ then shut the door and walk away.  This has worked GREAT for Ava (still does) she will come out when she is ready, sometimes within a minute and sometimes in 5 minutes, whenever she does come back she runs up to me, says she is sorry & gives me a hug and then goes on like nothing happened. 

    Good luck!  3 is worse if that makes you feel any better, lol.

    Now I sarcasticly say “you should throw a fit.“  Ava will start laughing through her tears and say “no, you don’t like it when I throw fits!!“

  9. By Alicia S. on October 10, 2011

    Jessica and MC—those are my go-to tactics! I gotta tell you, I feel kind of like the veteran of the tantrum phase, which we are finally phasing out of with our first, and just getting into with our second.

    I ask Matthew if he wants to go to his room to “get himself together” when he starts falling apart over every little thing. Like Jessica, I TOTALLY stumbled upon this on accident, and was shocked that he actually obliged. He goes in willingly, and he is allowed to come out whenever he wants. He has the control, and for whatever reason - and I couldn’t tell you what that is - he actually stays in there, and doesn’t come out until he’s calm enough to.

    I love it for two reasons: mainly because I didn’t like the idea of punishing him just for being emotional—but also because I did want to reinforce the idea that not everyone else within earshot wants to listen to his screaming, and that I don’t expect them to have to. (PLUS, giant bonus: sometimes he accidentally falls asleep!)

    Like MC, I also try to give him something easy to do just to get him focused on something else… but this only works if there really is a reason for his being frustrated (like a crumb he didn’t want wiped away or because he can’t get his blocks to stack the way he wants). If he’s just in a no-to-everything mood, this is just one more thing for him to say ‘no’ to. If this is the case, I’ll tell him to come help me pour a cup of juice. He usually always calms down after a few sips of juice, it gives us a chance to walk away from the situation and talk about it, AND it’s an offer he can’t refuse!

    The biggest help to me has been a very short, five or six sentence board book about anger that a friend gave to us. I started reading it to Matthew at the end of his fits, during our hug-it-out time, and because it’s so easy to memorize, he’s started to actually remember the tactics in the MIDST of a fit. One time recently, he started crying, and then he sucked it up out of nowhere and said, “my book is kind of right Mommy, sometimes you just gotta cry-it-out a little when nothing else works.”

  10. By Christy / Thrifty Vintage Kitten on October 10, 2011

    HAHA! Isn’t that the truth! Good thing they are so flippin’ cute!

  11. By on October 10, 2011

    Alicia: What is the name of the book?

  12. By on October 10, 2011

    Having a very small child-psych background, I was going to basically say what you said donald reminds you of. When I talked to other parent-friends about tantrums, I try to remind them that at this age, kids are only in the beginning of effectively communicating to us, but in the same breath are also in the beginning of knowing exactly what they want (they set up blocks and toys exactly how they want them, find routine in some of the most simple things, want to wipe the crumbs off their own face, want to help with chores and tasks - or just altogether do them on their own!). When we step on their toes, even though they’re trying to be ‘big girls and boys’, they can’t help but revert back to communicating the most simple way they know how - with all out screaming and stomping and fit-throwing.

    When they were infants, what they wanted, they got. A new diaper? sure. milk? sure. a nap? sure. Now, their wants are expanding and it’s up to us as parents to figure out what those wants are and set up a line that they may or may not agree with. I pride myself in being an extremely patient person and feel that above all, that one trait is what has successfully gotten me through the first two years of motherhood - especially during some sort of tantrum.

    We have, a number of times, used a time out, but usually that’s proven to be ineffective. For tantrums, I’ve found that getting down on his level, talking in a quiet voice (that will encourage him to speak quietly) and tell him that if he can’t tell me what he wants, he needs to show me (point, use gestures, smoke signals, whatever). I try to remind him that I can’t understand what he wants when he’s crying and he needs to explain to mommy what it is that he wants/needs/is being bothered by. We don’t get too many tantrums over our way, but I will say that this usually works for us.

  13. By on October 10, 2011

    We use either time-outs or time-ins (with both kids, ages 2 and 5.5). Time outs if they are throwing a fit because of a rule the don’t like (sharing, no screaming/hitting/throwing toys, etc). A time-in is quiet time with a parent until they calm down if they’re upset about something other than behavior (a crumb, a disappointment, or an emotional injury to their pride).

    Time outs have worked wonderfully for us with both kids - sometimes they need a few minutes alone to understand that certain behaviors aren’t allowed. We talk about it, ask the child to apologize if they’ve hurt another person, then hug it out.

  14. By on October 10, 2011

    I’m a preschool teacher. My students give tantrums when I try to help them but they want to do things themselves. If they get upset I simply ask them whats wrong and remind them to use their words. At our school we tend to ignore tantrums totally and when they begin using words we interact with them.

  15. By Kim on October 10, 2011

    I’ve had really good luck with the book “No Cry Discipline Solutions”.  It has a lot of suggestions on how to get your child to do what you want in a fun way. 

    And yes, tantrums are hard…really hard.  Sometimes I think you just have to find the humor if you can, because it usually is pretty funny if you look at it the right way.

  16. By Alicia S. on October 11, 2011

    The book is called I Feel Angry by Marcia Leonard. “Use your words,” is also golden to me. It’s surprising how often just reminding them of that can solve the whole issue… Even if it’s difficult for them to do, they start concentrating on what to say, and it buys you some time to cool down and help them figure it out.

    It also helps to talk quietly, sometimes I even whisper, so that he has to calm down a little just to hear what I’m saying. Even if he otherwise doesn’t give a crap what I’m saying, curiosity will get the best of him.

    I wonder if anyone has advice on what to do when you’re out of the house. This is the only issue I’ve never found a works-every-time solution for, and it’s usually when our meltdowns happen. My son is at an age where he can communicate easily and effectively, but him being bored is a killer. I put A LOT of effort into entertaining him, but other than that, we usually just have to deal with it until it’s blown over, or we’ve left the store/office/whatever. Any advice there?

  17. By gretchen from lifenut on October 11, 2011

    Advice for Alicia S. ~ Best advice: If he’s having a meltdown in a public place like a store or restaurant, leave. It sucks, it can be inconvenient, it can be embarrassing. But I promise, he’ll hate it even more than you. It might take a few times, but in the future all you’ll have to say is, “Let’s leave…“ and he’ll pull it together. He will see you mean business if you follow through. I have a 2.5 year old son and 13 month old son right now, so I get what tough little nuts they can be. I’ve also survived having 6 other toddlers.

    Try it with more casual appointments/errands first so that you won’t be tempted to cave. It’s not a good teaching time when it’s 5pm on a weeknight and you are shopping for dinner foods. Everyone wants to have a tantrum then.

  18. By Andrea on October 11, 2011

    My daughter Scarlett turns two in December and she definitely is taking a jump into the terrible twos a little early.  After trying everything to calm her down I realized that looking her in the eyes, telling her to take deep breaths and use her words to explain what is wrong, and then holding her close works best.  Making her explain to me instead of just going crazy seems to divert her attention from the tears.

  19. By on October 11, 2011

    Gretchen - my son is a relatively GREAT kid when it comes to being in public (or just being, in general). There was only once that he threw a fit that was uncontrollable in public (aka, I couldn’t get him back to ‘normal’ in less than a minutes or two). We were at a restaurant at a mall near us and he just threw an absolute tantrum over nothing. Luckily I hadn’t ordered anything but a glass of water yet, so I politely excused myself and left the restaurant.

    Like you said, he was horribly upset that we left. But he actually calmed down after a minute or two. We ran a few errands in the mall (the whole reason we were there to begin with!), came back about 20 minutes later and he was a gem for the meal.

  20. By tara pollard pakosta on October 11, 2011

    my 11 year old still throws some good tantrums, not to be naughty, but just because she has meltdowns. it’s not easy being a parent. and it sure doesn’t get any easier the older they get!
    hang in there momma!!!!
    you are smart to rest when she does!

  21. By on October 11, 2011

    I really have no advice to give, other than, I am SO GLAD I READ THIS TODAY. My daughter is going to be 2 on the 18th, and this past week has been full of days with incidents exactly like the one you described above. I, too, feel like a bumbling idiot trying to come up with ANY feasible reason she could be crying over what I perceive as “nothing” and resorting to the “20 Questions” solution. Even my asking her questions seems to add fuel to the fire lately. *sigh* I’m glad I’m not alone in this….

    The only thing that comforts me is knowing that with toddlers, EVERYTHING is a phase. Soon, this too shall pass. Hopefully VERY soon.

  22. By Cynthia Krajcarski on October 11, 2011

    I don’t know… This may sound harsh, but there isn’t any room for any sort of irrational tantrum in this house. I know my daughter extremely well, so I know when she’s crying for the sake of crying—And I will have none of that attitude in this house. When she’s crying for the sake of crying, I tell her that everything is fine and that she can come and talk to me when she’s ready to talk, then I go about my business.

    When she’s sobbing for a reason I usually remove her from the situation that is making her sob, which usually means going to her room, counting with her and telling her that we love her (or that no one is going to hurt her, basically reassure her about whatever she’s crying about) and when she is ready to come back downstairs, she is more than welcome. It takes a few minutes, but she always comes back downstairs cool and collected and EXTREMELY confident in herself.

  23. By on October 11, 2011

    I’m always dazzled when my daughter suddenly stops crying, as if nothing has happened - that surprises me more than the tears !

    I always say “use your words” too, as now at two she talks like any 5 year old, and it mostly works, but sometimes she just looks at me and cries more. 

    Whispering in her ear is a good one too…. about anything, it distracts her I guess. She often starts whispering back and all is calm again.

    As my husband says, they are just learning to regulate their emotions so even if they can talk, they might not understand why exactly they are upset either…

    Just another one of the TRICKY joys of parenthood !

  24. By Alicia S. on October 12, 2011

    Thanks Gretchen and Alicia, I will definitely try that. I’m big on not “threatening” unless I can absolutely follow through, so I’ve THOUGHT about doing this, but never actually took the lunge. If it works, the inconvenience will pay off. I do often take him outside for a breath of fresh air, which usually calms him down enough to talk, but it hasn’t worked in turning the behavior around. Maybe the extra step will… I’m loading myself up on ammo now for round two with Scarlett! lol

    Lately (as we’re transitioning out of nap-taking: he needs one, but has a hard time falling asleep—so he ends up lying awake in bed for an hour, and then becoming an emotional wreck by 5:00) Matthew’s been getting so emotional about nothing, that he literally tells me he doesn’t know why he’s crying. And I mean, these are hard sobs, too… not just noise. The first time I heard that was a killer. I’m usually tougher, like Cynthia, but hearing that made me absolute putty. :-( lol

  25. By Debora Pearson on October 12, 2011

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m the author of Leo’s Tree and also a part-time children’s librarian here in Toronto. I always follow your posts with much interest.

    I blog on behalf of the public library where I work under the name “Not Quite Miss Rumphius” and I thought you and your readers might be interested in a recent post that I wrote. It’s called “Attention Shoppers: Awkward Parenting Moment in Aisle Three” and you can find it here:

    Happy reading and thanks again for the interesting blog,

    Debora Pearson

  26. By Mary @ Parenthood on October 12, 2011

    Alicia: You could try changing naptime - we’ve found with our daughter (also transitioning; also needs one) that if we miss her “sleep window” she simply cannot get to sleep. Of course the window has shifted quite a lot in the last couple of months, but right now the best time to get her to sleep is about 11:30. Super inconvenient for us as it interferes with lunch but we decided we’d make it work and it helps avoid the so-tired-I’m-crying that otherwise happened.

    It doesn’t happen often, but if our daughter is completely melting down we also find it helpful to remember that she’s still learning to regulate her emotions. We usually tell her that if she is being too noisy then Mom and Dad need to go to the other room because the noise hurts our head and ears (true!), and she can come find us when she’s calmed herself down. I always tell her that I love her and if we’ve gone somewhere else (eg her room) it’s not because it’s a punishment but because she needs somewhere more comfortable to help her calm down.

    I love Gretchen’s advice but I’d qualify it with remembering that not all kids can “pull it together” all the time.  I feel remembering this is important because my daughter doesn’t seem to have complete control over her emotions yet. For instance, if we were in a grocery store and told her we have to leave because she’s screaming, she is very likely to clap her hand over her mouth while yelling “I’m being quiet”.  It’s as if she is doing everything she can to quiet herself and fighting a battle with herself. (For the record, neither I nor my husband have ever put our hands over her mouth to try to quiet her - that’s something she started doing by herself.) Even though she is trying _really_ hard to stop screaming, emotions aren’t governed by an on/off switch. So while we still need to remove ourselves from the situation I also want her to know that this doesn’t mean that she has “failed”.

    I also pray with her (this is really helpful for us - I should do this more regularly!), but only if she agrees first. Usually she is sobbing out prayer requests - heartbreaking but sometimes gets to the actual issue.





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