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Should You Ignore Tantrums?

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Question

My little boy is just 13 months, but the tantrums have already started. I know that it's normal behavior for this age. But I don't want it to get worse over time because I'm doing the wrong thing.

I do the ignoring trick. It works for the smaller things, but when he's really upset it doesn't work. I think it seems to make him more upset. I'll leave the room and he'll follow me around screaming and crying and hanging on me. I am so torn, because he's still little and at that point, I feel like he just needs some comfort and he'll be okay. But then I have this internal dialogue telling me that by comforting him I am sending the message that its okay to throw these fits, and that's how he gets my attention.

Answer

I hear how torn you are in wanting to do what's right for your son. I know that experts often advise parents to ignore tantrums. That advice is outdated. 

Tantrums are a clear indication that at that moment, the child can't regulate himself. We now know that kids develop the ability to self-regulate from their interactions with the parent, which we call co-regulation. In other words, the child picks up from our limbic system whether the situation really is an emergency. If we stay calm and reassuring, we restore the child's sense of safety, and he can calm down. As you say, "He just needs some comfort and he'll be okay."

Of course, if you promptly hand your child what he is tantrumming for every time he tantrums, then he will certainly learn that tantrums are a good way to get what he wants. But there is a big difference between "giving in" to the tantrum by giving the child everything he wants, and helping your child restore his sense of equilibrium by offering him safety and compassion. 

Ignoring an upset child actually decreases his sense of safety, so it makes it harder for the child to calm down.  I have not seen any conclusive research on this, but hundreds of parents have told me that when they respond to the unhappiness their child is expressing by offering him comfort and understanding, the child tantrums less often over time. And it makes sense, given what we now know from brain research about how kids learn self-regulation.

So let's start from the premise that your son is not "throwing fits" to get your attention. He is throwing fits because he is 13 months old and feels so passionately about everything, and simply doesn't have the capacity to control himself yet.

Sometimes kids just need to cry, to show you all their upset feelings. I call that a meltdown. But sometimes tantrums are a response when children don't feel understood. If you can avoid those tantrums by offering your child empathy and understanding, that will help him feel connected and cared about, and will avoid some tantrums. 

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.)

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.

Finally, it is not unusual for babies at age 13 - 15 months to begin to act this way. The resistance we begin to see at about 13 months is actually a very positive development: the beginning of our child's asserting himself as a separate person.

As babies become less distractible, and more assertive, they try to assert some control over their environment, just as we all do. He can't talk yet, really, 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 for parents, 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.

There's a myth that if we set a limit and our kids are upset because they didn't get what they wanted, we should ignore their unhappiness. In fact, kids always do better if we acknowledge their feelings. That doesn't mean we don't set limits, or that we agree with our kids' feelings. But limits without empathy is authoritarian child-raising, and just makes for angry, rebellious kids. If we can set limits and empathize with our kids' unhappiness about those limits, our kids will internalize the limits in a healthy way, and will be much more cooperative.

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 personhood?

The more control toddlers -- and your son is one, now -- 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 this website for more ideas on managing toddlers.

Does that mean you just have to give in to everything he wants? Of course not. You'll find yourself setting lots of limits. But if you can set them with empathy, at least he will feel understood, so he's less likely to resist your limits.

This mean you'll have to be very creative as a parent now. Think of it as Parenting Aikido, granting his need for independence but still meeting 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?"

13 months really is the beginning of a new stage, but it can be a wonderful one. Please don't worry that comforting him will make his tantrumming worse. It will help him feel understood, so he tantrums less. And if he cries, that's okay too, as long as you stay with him and help him feel safe. Trust your own instincts and enjoy your little boy!


For more on tantrums:

Taming Toddler Tantrums

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