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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ask Dr. Laura: Tantrums in 13 Month Old

Dear Dr. Laura,

My little boy is just 13 months, but the tantrums have already started. I know that its normal behavior for this age. But I'm concerned with how to handle it at this point. 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.

He generally is a very easy little boy. He is easily distractable, very patient and easy temperament. But the little tantrums are starting to happen more frequently and I'd like to know that best way to handle them right now as we are in the beginning stages of this.


Dear Ashley,

I hear how torn you are in wanting to do what's right for your son. My professional advice is that if your intuition says that comforting him would limit the tantrum, then by all means do go ahead and comfort him.

You're right that you don't want to give into whatever spurred the tantrum, or he will think that is the way to get what he wants in the future. But comforting him when he is upset is fine. He 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.

That said, you'll be glad to know that some tantrums are avoidable and that it is best to avoid tantrums if you can, just because they are scary to your child.

Since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums. And since toddlers who are tired and hungry don't have the inner resources to handle frustration, the less often your toddler feels overwhelmed and powerless, the less often he'll tantrum.

Here's how to tame tantrums before they start:

1. Sidestep power struggles. Let him save face. You don't have to prove you're right. Your son is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.

2. Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead.
Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation -- whatever it takes -- prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no -- to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand. Don't drag a hungry or tired little guy to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.

3. He's a little young to really understand
, but begin reminding him when a tantrum is brewing that if he has a tantrum you aren't allowed to even consider his request.Unless they are really at the end of their rope, this message usually helps toddlers pull it together enough for you to address the situation that is making him crazy. Often this means we have to change our plans to avoid over-taxing a little one who is at the end of his rope (i.e., “I guess we can’t do a big shop today. We’ll just get the milk and bread and go home. And here’s a cheese stick to eat while we wait in line.”

4. Make sure that your son gets enough “cozy time” with you
so that he doesn’t have to tantrum to get it. Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum. If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect before you try to shop for dinner.

5. Try to handle tantrums so they don’t escalate.
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.

I want to close with a hypothesis, and you'll have to let me know if this rings true for you.

13 months is actually a little early for tantrums, and a little one who follows you around screaming and hanging on you may not really be tantrumming, but fighting with you. (Tantrumming kids usually just throw themselves on the floor and scream and cry and hit.) Babies who begin fighting with their parents at 13 months are often reacting to power struggles with a parent who fears that giving in to the baby's wishes will "spoil" him. I don't know if that is the case in your house, but if so, I want to reassure you that 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, 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.

How you navigate those moments 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 kneejerk fashion, because you two have an ongoing power struggle 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 my website for more ideas on this at YourParentingSolutions.com/Toddlers

Does that mean you just have to give in to everything he wants? Of course not. It does mean you will have to be very creative as a parent now. One way to do this is Parenting Aikido, which is to grant his need for independence but still meet 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. Trust your own instincts and enjoy your little boy!

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the Dear Abby of Parenting for the 21st century. A clinical psychologist trained at Columbia University in NewYork, she is the founding editor of the popular parenting website YourParentingSolutions.com.

The Good Dr. Laura is also a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader who assists parents in transforming their relationships with their children (from babies to teens). In addition to Hip Slope Mama, she serves as Parenting Expert for ParentingBookmark.com, Storknet.com, Wellness.com and Pregnancy.org, on which she hosts a regular online chat for moms. Her work appears regularly on a dozen parenting websites and in print.

Dr. Markham has held many challenging jobs but thinks raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her husband, 12 year old daughter, and 16 year old son. If you have any parenting questions for the Good Dr. Laura please send them to HipSlopeMama@gmail.com.