Advice: Preventing Tantrums From Taking Over Your Life

boy with sling

Tantrums are often the only way toddlers have of expressing themselves, so try to understand how frustrating this must be for your child (and how frightening a tantrum can feel) – and try to prevent them with a mixture of wily anticipation, pre-emption and distraction!

We’re going abroad this summer for the first time since my two-year-old son was born. Over the last few weeks, he has started to regularly throw tantrums at dinner time, so I’m worried about how he will behave in restaurants, especially in a different setting. What would you advise we do to stop it affecting our holiday?

Try to isolate whatever it is that is making your two-year-old have these tantrums. Have meal times become a battle and is he trying to avoid the fights by not sitting down? Or is it that he prefers to be permanently ‘on the go’ and resents sitting still? Or is he enjoying the sense of ‘power’ he has over you by not sitting down? Once you’ve worked this out, try implementing a system of rewards for good behaviour, which accommodate his strong views. So to avoid a fight, serve only his favourite foods for a while and make sure that sitting down quietly brings its own rewards – whether it’s your constant attention for ten minutes, a game you invent which makes eating fun, or his favourite pudding. Then gradually re-introduce a more balanced diet while keeping the atmosphere light-hearted. If it’s the sitting down that bothers him, make sure he’s had plenty of exercise before every meal and is starving hungry. Invent energetic rewards like a special game of ‘rough-and-tumble’ or a ride on his tricycle – as long as he sits still long enough to eat a reasonable meal. And if it’s all about power, serve buffets of finger foods for a while so he can control what he eats. When on holiday, don’t expect him to sit patiently at the table waiting to be served. Keep him entertained, hungry and exercising until his meal arrives and take a stock of small toys so that every mealtime he has something novel to entertain him while the rest of you eat.

My 20-month-old daughter has started to have a tantrum when we try to bathe her. She refuses to let me, or my husband, take her clothes off, and then she runs around the house screaming. Once in the bath, she’s fine, but causes such a scene beforehand. How can we get her to co-operate?

At the moment, it sounds like your daughter has you where she wants you. She’s having a whole load of fun running round screaming and escaping from you – no wonder she acts up every night! Probably the best course of action is to try to latch on to her game and make undressing just as much fun. Turn this into a much-loved game when bath time is not even on the horizon. Start every morning making a game of choosing her clothes and putting them on. You could involve a favourite teddy or doll, allow her to choose the clothes, and dress both her toy and herself. She may end up with a mismatching wardrobe, with odd socks or pants on her head – but you’ll probably have a load of laughs, she’ll enjoy entertaining you and you’ll be taking the ‘sting’ out of the whole routine. As she gets used to enjoying this, you can gradually reverse the process and help her enjoy undressing at night too. This may sound a rather involved way of overcoming your problem but she’ll gradually learn a new way of getting your attention and you’ll reap the benefits.

My son, who is 16 months old, has started throwing tantrums whenever other children visit. He refuses to let them play with his toys and often starts hitting out. How can I prevent this from happening?

It’s only natural for small children to be possessive of their own toys – your son is too young to understand that it’s possible to lend a toy, let it out of sight even, and yet still get it back. But you can help him learn this by continuing to invite friends round and ensuring that he gets a chance to play with their toys – and hand them back – as well as having to lend out his own. It’s a tough lesson to learn, and he is still very young, so don’t be too hard on him if he takes time to change. I’m sure your friends and their children will all understand that this is just a phase he’s going through and with their help and understanding he’ll grow out of it. It’s always tempting to think it’s only our child who is having tantrums, but in fact, all your friends will have had similar experiences with their own toddlers. It’s just that some prefer to ‘act out’ privately and others do it in front of friends and family!

Dilys Morgan is a writer, counsellor and agony aunt. As a counsellor, she has worked extensively with children as well as the broader family. As a result of this experience, she feels she has gained valuable insights into what makes families tick. She has a particular interest in working with the distressed children of separating parents, and young people with eating disorders. As an agony aunt, she has helped countless people with family problems, relationship difficulties, and child-rearing dilemmas. She also runs the website for Grandparents, Grandparents Now. For individual advice you can contact Dilys direct at:
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