It seems like my son has been advocating for himself since the minute he was born. If he wanted to feed, he wanted to feed now!
As a toddler, if he wanted my attention he’d climb up on my lap and turn my face away from whoever I was talking to.
If he did not want to go to preschool – and that was often – he would stall from the minute he woke up.
And on those days?
He would not eat breakfast.
He would not stop playing.
He would not get dressed.
He would not put on a coat or carry a bag.
He would not leave the house.
And he would not, no, he definitely would not, climb the stairs up to pre-school.
You can guess where all of this ended? A raging tantrum or meltdown.
And all the while I heard my dad’s voice in my mind: “Just make him do it.”
Oh Dad, how I tried.
I was doing all the things to stop tantrums—but nothing worked
When I looked online I read that a good strategy to stop tantrums was to ignore them. As in walk the other way. Maybe it works for some kids. But not mine. In fact, ignoring his protests and defiant “No's” seemed to fire up his fury.
So, I tried to ignore them other ways. I tried to stop tantrums from happening at all. First I tried to go with his flow, thinking that would make everything rosy.
If he wanted toast instead of oatmeal, I made it. If he wanted to leave without a jacket, sure. If he wanted to stuff his bag with 3000 legos, two fat, heavy books, his dinosaur stuffy and his favorite pen (which I would have to lug around for him), go for it. I just wanted things to run smoothly – even if I was fuming inside.
But it would take an age to do anything. I got annoyed and lectured, while he covered his ears, or yelled.
If that didn’t work, I tried fake threats. I'd say things like, “I’ll have to call your teacher and you can tell her why you don’t want to come.”
Naturally he soon found out I was bluffing!
After setting limit after limit on whatever I wanted to be done and seeing it ignored, I became a champion barterer. I exchanged cookies for goodwill. I exchanged no showers for a smooth bedtime. I exchanged more time for eventually leaving without any big upsets.
Seriously, “Just one more minute and then we have to leave,” became a regular mantra.
After that, I resorted to yelling and timeouts.
But honestly? Nothing worked.
“I burned with embarrassment…”
My son's frequent response was to lay on the floor shouting, crying, and refusing to move. His tantrums seemed epic. There felt no way to stop them.
We regularly got to the point where all I felt I could do was peel his rigid back off the floor, scoop him up into my arms and carry him howling to where we needed to go.
I burned with embarrassment. I walked with my head down trying to avoid all the judgy looks I imagined going on around me.
The only upside, it seemed to me, was that I developed some seriously sculpted arms, because after not too long I found myself carrying my big, strong, rambunctious three-year-old everywhere.
But it was clear.
Although my arms were strong, my resolve was weak.
He ruled the roost while I felt I had zero control over anything. It soon seemed like the whole family was skipping to his beat.
Any parenting expert would tell you that this was not a good place to be. A 3-year-old cannot handle that kind of power. And my heart grew heavy when I thought of all the years of parenting still to come. I imagined him as a 15-year-old, lying beneath his covers, refusing to get up and go to school while I stood by powerless.
I knew I needed to change things, but how? It felt like I'd tried all the parenting tips and tricks ever dreamed up.
I had no real clue how to make a meaningful change that would actually work.
Until I discovered a whole new way to respond to his behavior.
Why doing these things won't stop tantrums
By toddlerhood most kids are experimenting with boundaries. It comes with a natural desire to exert independence. And testing boundaries is good, as children begin to learn what happens as a result. Seen this way, testing limits is quite a grand experiment in cause and effect.
But, it can be frustrating, especially in toddlerhood, when some children test boundaries thick and fast.
And yet, saying no all the time can make us parents feel like the fun-sponges of childhood. Who wants to be a fun-sponge?!!
We may also second-guess our decisions. Would an extra cookie really hurt? What’s five more minutes anyway?
Most of us also felt the wrath of an angry adult when we were kids. It hurt. It felt unfair. Like we didn’t get a say. As adults we vowed to respond to our kids in a kinder way. But how does that work if they won’t listen?
The hidden costs when parents avoid tantrums
The thing is, by saying yes, I was trying to avoid upset. I was trying to keep things happy and jolly for both of us.
But this was dancing on eggshells.
By saying yes like I did, or by giving so many choices, by trying to placate or even barter, I was teaching my son that if he negotiated enough, my “no,” would become a “yes.”
It could happen fast, or it could happen later. But soon he knew. If he cried, screamed, got angry or cried I'd try everything I could to fix things – until I lost it.
As Hand in Hand’s founder Patty Wipfler explains in her post, When Your Kids Will Do Anything To Get Attention, the child becomes the centre of things. The squeaky wheel who “uses the threat of a disappointment, a fight, a whine, a descent into desperation, or an explosion that, on some days, can be triggered by any tiny thing.”
It sets you up for regular daily battles. It’s exhausting.
And although I felt like I could stop tantrums by giving in, I soon saw that the tantrum didn't disappear. Instead, we'd battle over a million other little things until one of us got angry, screamed and cried.
Which is why learning that tantrums are a good thing was a monumental mindshift.
Tantrums are good for your child. Here’s why…
In an effort to keep things less explosive, I'd been running from tantrums. An effort that returned dismal results. Hand in Hand Parenting advises welcoming them.
Crying and tantruming are a natural way for kids to offload emotions and feelings. As natural as their desire to test limits.
Life can feel a tough and daunting place for children, just as it can for us. Toddlers face many frustrations and fears – from eating, to dressing, to friendships, to play and new experiences. All of that fear and frustration can mount up in a child's body. It can be too much to process. Overwhelming. Challenging behavior is a first signal that your child may have feelings bothering them. After this, it shows up in crying, upset, tantrums and meltdowns.
Crying releases the child of these tensions.
When a cry finishes naturally, what follows is often a period of calm because the fear and frustration has been released.
In fact, listening to your child when they let out their anger, tears and frustration can be helpful in many ways. It can:
- Help validate a child’s feelings: When we can listen to a tantrum, we show our children that all feelings are valid. Sadness is just as valid as happiness, anger is just as valid as joy. (This felt pretty radical to me, because I grew up in a family where these emotions were not welcome).
- Help a child regulate their emotions: Welcoming tantrums gives kids good opportunities to learn how to self-regulate, to notice how situations or circumstances cause them to feel things, how that feels in their bodies, and to work through the uncomfortable feelings.
- Build a strong connection between you and your child: Getting comfortable with tantrums shows your child that you are there for them through thick and thin.
- Demonstrate empathy and acceptance: When we can treat kids and all their feelings with empathy and acceptance, they will grow up to do the same for themselves and those around them. I think we’d all agree that the world could use more folks who know how to handle emotions.
- Build resilience: When you stay close and calm with a tantruming child, you hold the trust that they will work through the emotion and come out feeling brighter and freer. They learn that they control their feelings, not the other way around. When feelings scare them, they can fight the fear and do things anyway.
Thing was, because I had tried to stop tantrums, this process was halted.
By the time I had placated, bribed and bargained, I was in no shape mentally to listen to a big cry. Very often, I was also out of time. By scooping my child up and carting him around, I forced him to do what was necessary, but did not recognise or respond to the frustration and genuine upset behind the behavior.
“How can listening stop tantrums?” I asked myself…
So how do you actually pull off this tantrum-welcoming, trust-and-resilience-building feat?
You’ll know days when tantrums are brewing.
These are days when everything seems a bit more difficult for your child. When they find it hard to focus on a task. They can’t play. They often refuse to do what you ask.
To test the waters, it can be helpful to say yes once to when they refuse or get grumpy. (Just once is fine!).
Say your child refuses to wear the shirt you picked out. They want a different one.
Try saying yes just that one time.
If your child puts on the new shirt and moves on happily, all good.
If your child puts on the new shirt but continues whining or gets defiant you know it's time to set a limit around the next thing that comes up. Very often you can expect some strong feelings from your child about your limit.
A framework for setting limits your child will listen to
This is Hand in Hand’s framework for setting a limit.
Stop, listen and think. Before you act, think about what might be causing your child’s dissatisfaction. This includes the part I just described – is your child satisfied after you say yes once?
Or, is what you have asked them to do beyond their ability? For instance, waiting silently in line for too long? Could you lighten things up by playing a hand game or have a staring contest.
Are you exhausted? Are you thinking about saying no to something you might usually say yes to because you don’t have the energy, like play or getting paints out? It’s fine to change up your usual rules and standards, but explain why, and that your decision is based on your needs. This may or may not be acceptable to your child. (You’ll soon find out!).
If you can’t figure things out, try asking your child what’s happening for them. Get on their eye level and ask why they are yelling or are unwilling to share. Listening to their reply can help your child offload their feelings before their behavior escalates.
And if they are already yelling, raging, or loudly refusing, you already know. It’s time to move to a limit.
Before, this would be the moment I'd angrily insist my son get his shoe on (which he’d throw at me). Or I'd tell him off for holding us up. It got me nowhere. So I learned to bring the limit calmly. To do this, act first and talk second. Move in close. Hold a hand that is about to throw a shoe. Make eye contact. Bring the limit.
“No. We don't throw shoes.”
Keep it brief, keep it light, keep it firm. You can even say it sing-song. And then keep quiet. Your child’s feelings are likely to bubble up right about now.
Tune into your child and listen. You really do not need to say much other than, “I know it’s hard,” or “I’m right here.”
You may notice your child squirm, sweat, or struggle to run away. Try to stay close and kind. Taking this time just to listen will help your child recover and return to a more even state later, but try not to rush for calm to return.
Sometimes you will rotate through this listen, limit, listen cycle again, or even a few times. You will see your child naturally come to a calm state after they work off the feelings and emotions, and sometimes that can seem to happen fast while sometimes it takes a while.
What I've noticed is that moving in and starting this process the minute I see my son going off-track is most helpful. When I set the limit early, I side-step a day full of complaints and whining, a day where my son refuses request after request.
When I remind myself the tantrum is helpful, when I breathe, take a minute to engage, and then listen, we often have a great day.
My son, happy and light, laughs a lot on those days. He comes out with bucketloads of knowledge bombs with facts and stats I never even knew he knew. And, he actually becomes very co-operative.
Resisting crying can sometimes feel easier
Even though I know the healing power of a good cry, I still resist my child’s tantrums some days. I tell myself I can’t listen to anything, let alone welcome his upset.
Part of me wonders if it’s because my mind reverts back to those early days. I still expect a day full of battles and I say yes more than once – until I catch myself.
Other times I just feel tired.
Sometimes it’s because I still misinterpret his behaviors. I’ve noticed that he resists tantrums, maybe because he senses I am reluctant to welcome them. Instead, he asks for snacks, more TV, or for me to look at him doing whatever he’s doing. Seen from the outside, it’s obvious. He’s seeking connection. But caught in the moment I still often overlook these small yet insistent requests.
On days when I start to feel annoyed and can’t quite put my finger on why, or days I know I don’t want to listen, I ask myself questions like these:
- Has my child resisted me more than three times? I wonder what’s going on?
- Is my child going through anything new or different that may have caused extra fear or frustration?
- Have I set a limit using the listen-limit-listen approach, or have I given a half-hearted no. This is when I don’t make eye contact, or I say a no from the kitchen when my child is in the living room.
- Am I feeling too tired or drained to deal with crying and upset right now? This is ok, by the way. I’ve found a few days can pass and then my son might cry after we’ve had a good time together – when I am way more open to listening. Kids can be so smart that way.
- Am I very involved in a current or planned task, so my child has not fully been able to show or release feelings? Just noticing this sometimes allows me to step away for a few minutes to be with him.
- Have I played, laughed or connected with my child recently? See below for why this is useful.
- Do I have negative feelings about my child’s defiance, whining, or upset or around the subject that may be causing their behavior?
The questioning process allows you to catch up with yourself and check in with your child in the moment, and is often the time I go to him and set a limit. You may also uncover habits or patterns that are helpful for the future.
For instance, I always found listening to “It’s not fair,” whining tricky because those words were banned in the house I grew up in. It’s hard to listen and be empathetic when you were not listened to, and I'll hear myself lecturing rather than listening.
Another time, I noticed my son’s defiance would flair if he felt rushed. He needed more space and time than I did to get something done. This was at odds with my style, which is often rushed and last minute. “Quickly popping out” for milk could easily become an epic battle of wills until I realised that this easy task for me was actually difficult for him.
How Good Planning Can Help Stop Tantrums
If I wanted him to tidy crayons away before dinner, he needed to know early on that I expected that – not when I was carrying plates of piping hot food to a messy table. (You have no idea how many times it took me doing that before the realisation clicked!).
These days I try to plan better, but also to listen more if he has feelings about being rushed.
One great tool for de-mystifying seemingly surprise acts of defiance and upset was in my Listening Partnership. This is where another parent and I listen to each other over the phone. Having them listen while I got to muse, wonder and complain about things (like how unfair it felt to me to have to plan), definitely eased the negative charge I had and helped me stay calmer and more laid-back when the same thing happened later at home.
Incidentally, I’ve also noticed his “It’s not fair,” quickly gives way to a requested task getting completed if I lightly shrug and give an empathetic nod. Hoorah!
This was of setting limits has, for us, been instrumental.
We do not fight like we did. I don't see so nearly as much resistance. Limits are not associated with anger. They help us get more done. In fact, I actually need to set limits a lot less.
These six other ideas stop tantrums before they start
This does not mean that you have to listen to hours and hours of tantrums. (Show me the parent who would sign up for that!).
In fact, listening and holding space for your child’s tantrums often results in fewer tantrums, simply because your child’s backlog of feelings is regularly released.
But there are several other things you can do to stop tantrums happening as often.
These ideas boost your child’s sense of connection with you, which keeps them feeling secure and confident. They also offer your child alternative opportunities to work through and release emotions. Use them together for maximum results.
Special Time – This is a special way to play one-on-one where you hand control to your child for a small window of time. There is a dual benefit of doing Special Time. Your child gets to call the shots, giving them an opportunity to exert that much craved independence. They get your undivided attention, which keeps them feeling warm, cosy and connected with you. If we’ve had a busy few days, I increase the amount of Special Time because it is so effective at rebalancing my relationship with my son. There is a free guide on Special Time here.
Physical connection – Physical touch is a great way to build connection. This creates a natural sense of ease and belonging. Try a morning hug, ruffling your child’s hair, rubbing noses, piggy-backs, swing-arounds or blowing raspberries on your child’s belly.
Empathy – When you empathise rather than offer solutions, your child feels heard. “Oh, you didn’t want to wear those pants today? The others are dirty. I know, it sucks!”
Play – Vary quiet, bonding play, like drawing, sand and mixing potions, with loud, competitive play which helps your child release their feelings through movement. Try hide and seek, chase, and pillow fights. If you let your child “win” most of the time, they’ll experience extra bundles of good delight often. (Here’s why it’s OK to let your child win).
Laughter – Sometimes my child gets what I call the zoomies, where he gets loud, smacks me on the butt, rushes around the house and does other things I used to find annoying. Until I realised these were his connection bids. Once I stopped chastising him and started meeting his energy instead by acting like a goof-ball myself (underpants on my head is always a win) he’d laugh and laugh. Laughter is a great way for kids to release lighter fears and frustrations.
Playlistening – I think of this as “play with purpose”. It’s play that you set up to generate fun around areas your child finds tricky or difficult. If your child is like mine and doesn’t like to leave the house for school, pick a time when you don’t have to be anywhere and “play” around leaving. Get dressed all wrong and pretend to leave. Or say you are leaving and then head to the kitchen or wardrobe and pretend it's another world. Tell a plush toy it’s time to leave and have the toy whine and complain and beg you to stay. You are really limited only by your imagination, and as long as your child laughs, you’ll know things are going well. This kind of play can be a wonderful way to lift any negative charge that has built up around a situation. It works best if you can set up the play and then let your child lead what happens during your time together. (Here’s why…)
You’ll find that when you begin to use all these strategies through the weeks and months ahead, changes will happen.
Your child will listen when you set a limit. Limits will be easier for you to set, and tantrums not such a heart-wrenching experience. You will feel close to being that patient parent you want to be. Your child’s outlook will shift. You will see less resistance and defiance. Your child will feel more free and able to comply with your requests.
And even better, you will feel a deep sense of closeness, connection and understanding of your child.
That has been the most surprising and most rewarding benefit for me.
My son’s fiery fury is long-gone
If your child is testing limits and fights every request you make, I hope this post helps. Identifying whining, resistant and defiant behavior as a symptom of a deeper need was a major turning point for me. Setting a limit and then listening took me time to believe in and to practice – and many days I resisted. I’m sure there will be times like this for you too. But if you keep at it I know you’ll see results.
What gave me hope was seeing my son beam at me, happy and content, when his cries were finished.
And, over the last few years, he is lifted from the heavy burden of carrying all those feelings around everyday. His anger and frustration are gone. He seems so at ease, and has grown into a confident, funny, very intelligent boy, who is increasingly willing to try more new things. (Play dates! After-school activities! Broccoli!).
He is still an inspired negotiator, and with the fire and fury behind it gone he is turning this skill into an actual asset. I’m no longer his enemy, I'm his parent, his coach and his biggest champion. And I no longer worry about how he’ll turn out at 15.
If your child often resists your requests, gets angry and defiant, I know how long the days can feel. Try these tools. Embrace the cries. They may feel like the opposite of what everyone else is doing, but they work.
Do let me know what changes you see in your family. I can’t wait to hear about your transformations.
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