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The best way to handle a toddler temper tantrum

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A psychologist advises what to do the next time your little one throws a fit.

Biting, screaming, hitting, and flailing on the floor … These behaviors are a headache for parents, especially if they are inexperienced. Parents need to understand how to respond in a loving, reasonable way without letting themselves be manipulated by a child’s crying or tantrum.

Although each child is unique and unrepeatable, there is also a consistent need for healthy, reasonable limits, and for the parents to be the ones to set those limits. Young children look for attention and affection, so the goal is to find a healthy balance between giving them the attention they need while still upholding the limits that give them a sense of security in the parents’ authority.

Willful behavior

Willful behavior is a means by which a child seeks to get something he wants without a justified reason. When a child is being willful, he is focused on getting his way at all costs.

Eliminating or reducing willful behaviors would be easier if they didn’t come hand-in-hand with screaming or tantrums.

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If there were no tantrums, parents could probably just ignore a child’s willful behavior. But the crying and pouting sometime cause desperate parents to cave … which teaches the child that tantrums work. And then there are more tantrums, and the parents can end up cornered by an endless series of unreasonable demands.

How to stop being manipulated by children

Don’t let the situation get out of hand. If parents respond properly to the child’s willful behavior, the tantrums will be less frequent and will tend to disappear. Be patient, because it will not happen after the first correction. If tantrums have been the preferred tactic for a while, it will take some time to teach children that those tactics don’t work anymore.

One effective way to reduce willful tantrums is simply to ignore them and not yield. We need to be consistent, because if sometimes we ignore a tantrum and other times we give in, we will just reinforce the same patterns. The child will realize he can get what he wants if he just keeps insisting.

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If the child makes improvements, we need to acknowledge them by saying something like, “Oh good, you’re over your tantrum” or “I’m glad to see you’ve calmed down.” Another strategy that gives good results is to shift their attention to another topic when they start insisting on something they want.

The key is to break the learned association between throwing tantrums and getting their way.

Some practical advice for facing willfulness

  • Set clear, reasonable limits.
  • Be firm, but without using physical punishment.
  • Show security in your decision not to yield to whatever the child is demanding.
  • Both parents must agree and not contradict each other.
  • Give the child time to get over the tantrum when he does not get what he wants. In this way, the child will learn as he grows.

Educating children is an art and requires a lot of patience and understanding. That’s only possible when we have true love (not easy love) for our children. Seeing them crying for something they want may be painful for us as parents, but remember: it’s just a short phase that will soon pass.

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Children might not like limits in the moment, but in the long run they need them to develop a healthy, balanced psychology. There are times when telling a child “no” is the biggest act of love we can give them.

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