"My 18-month-old daughter seems to have picked up the habit of temper tantrums from a neighboring 3-year-old," writes a mother from Northern Virginia.
"This child throws absolutely awful fits to get what she wants -- and gets away with them. Her mother says she would rather give in than listen.
"My daughter has never done this until recently. Is this just a phase or has the 3-year-old really given my daughter some bad habits?
"I have tried to work with her to dissipate this problem, but nothing seems to work. Can you offer any suggestions?"
A. Somewhere between mid-One and Three a child can feel so tired or ignored or at a loss for words that she explodes.
It's true that one child sometimes can have a bad effect on another, especially when that child is twice as old, but did she giver her the habit? It's not likely.
Your daughter may have thrown a tantrum once, or twice, or even three times because she saw it worked for her buddy, but most children walk down that road on their own, just to see where it will lead. They don't keep on trucking, though, unless they get away with it.
To a child, getting away with a tantrum means getting attention -- of any kind -- and while a lollypop on your lap is preferred, even a fit of your own will do.
And attention, of any kind, is just what she shouldn't get. No child ever improves by getting a reward for bad behavior.
In this situation, you take care of the symptom first, and then tackle the problem.
To break the habit you have to realize that you can't react the same way any more. If you take your daughter marketing with you, be prepared to quit if she starts to yell. Just say nothing, take out any treats from the cart and rush through check-out. It's either that or leave the cart where it is -- and switch supermarkets. Certainly a spanking does no good, for this is one more kind of attention.
The same thing applies if you take your child visiting. Tell your friends (and your child) that you're breaking the tantrum ploy and that if she explodes, you will have to leave -- and do it. In both cases, the tantrum should provoke no conversation from you -- no explosions, no recriminations, just, "That's it, kiddo."
Once home, treat her as you would if she had had that scene alone in your own kitchen: Give her a kiss and say, "Poor baby. You must be very, very tired. We'll talk when you've had a rest." And put her to bed -- no bottle, of course, no cookie, no treat, no naptime ritual. Just her magic scrag (we're not altogether heartless) and go about your business. If she can get out of her crib, close the door and put a sock over the knob so she can't open it.
When the crying has stopped for a good five minutes, go to her with kisses, whisper sweet somethings and try to help her talk with words, not shrieks. If she starts yelling again, tell her that you can't hear for all the noise. Say this in such a soft voice that she can't tell what you're saying unless she stops wailing -- a technique that has quelled many a curious child. If it doesn't work with yours, leave the room again, for she must learn that while it is all right to get angry, it is not all right to lose control.
You're still only taking care of the symptom, however. For the problem, give her more attention, but only when she's in a good mood. This is when she should get more snuggles, extra story times, more small adventures, and particularly the chance to make as many small decisions for herself as she can: which dress to wear to a party, which toy to take on a walk.
If your child is like most other mid-Ones, she also needs more help to expand her vocabulary, so she can express herself better: more protein and raw fruit rather than sweets, and more outdoor exercise, even in cold weather.
A final suggestion: Play school. To have a special place to go for a couple of hours twice a week is thrilling at this age. Here each mother takes a duty turn at her own house, supervising four children of more or less the same size (they topple easily now). Since tantrums don't get much response in this set, there are many fewer of them.
And like the tantrums of the neighboring Three, these won't lead your daughter astray either. The child who is expected to take some responsibility for herself -- as early as 18 months -- will be the responsible adult.