My 2 year old has temper tantrums. How should I best deal with him?’

toddler-cryingQ. We have two babies, a 22 month old and a five month old, so it’s busy to say the least, and both parents are also very tired. Our son is a super kid, loving, fun and gorgeous, but he definitely is developing a temper. It starts with something simple such as not wanting a nappy changed or wanting what is in a press for example, but if he does not get his way, he throws a tantrum.

I understand this goes with the age, but sometimes he grabs my face or neck and really squeezes. What is my best way to deal with this? My first reaction is to grab his arms roughly as he is hurting me, but I fear this sudden movement by me could spiral his own aggression. Should I stop changing him and come back to it in a while? Should I hold him down until he relaxes? I want to nip it in the bud but am afraid I am antagonising the situation by appearing aggressive or reacting to his actions.

A. Even though everyone talks about it and even though we are warned it will happen, the emergence of tantrums and angry behaviour in a two year old generally takes parents by surprise. Part of the reason for the surprise is that parents, especially with their first, somehow hope that their child will be different. Parents are genuinely surprised by the level of anger and wilfulness their child can display.

Even though you may have never shown anger to your son, and may have rarely even said “No” to him, he can suddenly become oppositional, start throwing tantrums and even displaying aggression towards you. This period is not called “the terrible twos” for no reason.

However, all these challenges are relatively normal. From about 18 months, children realise that they are separate from their parents and want to assert their own independent will. Just like older children they intensely feel the full range of emotions, from joy to frustration and anger, yet have almost no social skills in managing these strong feelings. They are set up for tantrums and conflicts with their parents.

You are right to think carefully about the best way to respond when your son behaves aggressively. Our natural reaction when we are hit or hurt is to get angry in return. However, such angry reactions can be unhelpful as they only show the child the negative behaviour you don’t want and don’t show him a positive way to behave instead. In addition, angry reactions can easily become a pattern, and lead to frequent upset for both parent and child.

As a result, the ideal is to try to respond calmly, firmly and positively and thus show your child a different way to handle strong negative emotions. When your son hits out you might firmly say, “No hitting” and then take his hands down. It can be helpful to then pull back for a few seconds and/or to look away, so as to interrupt the pattern before moving on and distracting him with something else.

As in all discipline situations, the key to success is managing your own reactions as the parent. The more you can manage your own feelings and choose your own responses, the more you provide your son with a good model as to how to behave.

In the Parents Plus Programmes, we advise that parents first “press the pause button” when faced by misbehaviour. Rather than immediately reacting, this means that you take a moment to step back and try to understand what is going on. It helps to try to be empathic to your son’s feelings and the reasons for his behaviour (Is he tired? Is he frustrated at something in particular? Is the situation a flashpoint?), as well as being self-aware about your own stresses and feelings. Once you understand what is going on, then you can choose the best way to respond.

You ask in your question whether it is best to hold his arms to help him relax or whether it is better to take a break for a few minutes. The answer is that either could work depending on your child in the individual situation once you are calm and relaxed yourself.

If soothing him while you hold his arms helps him relax, then this is great, but if it causes him to get more angry or if you notice that you are becoming stressed (and thus more likely to snap or react negatively), then it might be best to take a break and deal with the situation in a few moments.

Generally, there is no one absolute right way to respond and what matters is being thoughtful, self-aware and sensitive to how your child is responding to you.

In addition, preventing a problem arising in the first place is often the best way forward. For example, are there particular situations where he is more likely to hit out? If nappy changing is a problem, can you alter how this is done, perhaps setting him up with an interesting toy that he can hold as you change him?

If the problems are more likely to occur when your son is tired, can you anticipate this and divert him to a more relaxing or “wind down” activity or even for a nap if appropriate. Or if you notice him becoming frustrated or feeling left out, you can get in early and give him attention and comfort him so he is shown another way to deal with his feelings.

There is more information on dealing with these challenges of toddlers in my book Parenting Preschoolers and Young Children or in the articles on this website.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2011.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.