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Carolyn Hax: Agitated parent wants to ‘outthink’ toddler’s tantrums

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My toddler throws occasional tantrums, like I assume many of them do. I don’t like that my instinctual response is often to find something or someone to blame: if only we hadn’t left the house, or (worse) if only my husband hadn’t said or done whatever innocuous thing he said or did right before the tantrum. Usually these thoughts stay in my head. Sometimes they don’t.

Logically, I know kids this age throw tantrums, and I can’t really prevent them. In the moment, I want to find a reason, and I want to believe I can outthink the next one. I want to be more levelheaded and patient. Anything I can do to train myself?

— How to Be More Zen?

How to Be More Zen?: Like “many of them”? You’re funny.

Anyway. It’s incredible how logical we can be about tantrums in theory, and how quickly that logic can be burned to ashes one minute into a tantrum. They just push all our buttons at once.

But you’re not going to “outthink” them all unless you can read your toddler’s mind, because tantrums are generally misunderstandings that toddlers don’t have the skills to clear up the usual way.

A couple of training options:

1. Try a good book or program. Harvey Karp has been the go-to for a lot of readers over the years, and I used some of his techniques with my kids.

2. Repeat the mantra: “Stay calm, keep child safe.” Adopt these as your only jobs. The rest will sort itself out. No one will care what caused the tantrum or where it happened or who witnessed it within five minutes after it passes.

3. Know that tantrums are speech for people who don’t have the communication skills to say what they want to say. So, while you’re working to remain calm, ask yourself, “What is my toddler saying to me?” Answering that will not only help solve the problem of the moment, but also take the edge off, if not preempt the next one. (Not 100 percent, but better than zero.)

4. File all of this away for adolescence, when children’s emotional ranges once again grow faster than their communication skills do.

Re: Tantrums: Blaming the husband for the toddler’s tantrums seems like an unhealthy relationship dynamic that ought to be addressed more directly.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Agreed that it’s unhealthy — but the letter-writer knows that, takes responsibility for it and is working on it, which checks the boxes for me.

I don’t think there’s enough information to say it’s their particular relationship dynamic that’s unhealthy; blaming the husband could just be a factor of his being there to be blamed.

Re: Zen: Last weekend, I was playing Legos with my 3-year-old grandnephew, who set a guy down and said, “This is where he goes to have meltdowns on the couch.”

“Do you have meltdowns on the couch?”

“Yeah,” he answered matter-of-factly, even happily. Now I want to have meltdowns on the couch. Don’t they sound wonderful?

— Grand

Grand: My afternoon plans have just taken shape.

Please send the little man my thanks.