I am a woman who often likes control and has battled a lifelong tendency towards perfectionism. The more tired or stressed I am, the more calm and collected I want things to be. My first time trying something new usually stresses me out because I don’t want to mess up or not do as well as I’d hoped. The first hurdle is always the hardest for me and then I usually glide along until I hit a new, bigger one or see the finish line. I’ve learned that this part of me is quite rooted in anxiety. I am also self-classified as a “highly-sensitive person”, which plays itself out in a variety of ways, including me being very aware of how everyone around me is feeling and anticipating problems and needs before they arise. There’s a lot more to say about all that, but now I just give you this hint of my background to help you understand a bit of why I have even thought of these things to begin with.
So, toddlers and young children who are tantrumming stress me out a bit, particularly my own. Especially when we’re not sleeping well at night.
Having had a lot of experience with children, and having studied child development- mainly communication skills- I foresaw a few of the developmental hurdles that would be particularly challenging as my first baby turned toddler. I knew turn-taking could be really tough. I also knew delayed gratification and waiting for certain toys or food would be hard. Lastly, I knew how frequently a child’s lack of understanding could cause a communication breakdown which would usually result in that child getting upset or tantrumming.
( Don’t let his sweetness fool you. He doesn’t want to share. Not even with the monkeys.)
So, when Charlie was six to nine months or so, I started modeling language for him to help him understand the concept of taking turns. I wanted to provide the words and concept before the problem had actually come to fruition. The scenario would be something like this:
Me (while holding drumsticks, ready to show him my awesome skills): “Mama’s going to drum!”*
Charlie watches and eventually expresses an interest by babbling or trying to grab the drumsticks or squealing with excitement.
Me: “Ok! Charlie’s turn!”
Charlie gets to drum away.
Me (pick up maracas): “I’m going to shake my maracas.” Oh, yeah.
Charlie stops drumming and requests the maracas.
Me: “Ok, first mama, then Charlie.” I shake them a little longer, making him hold out a bit, but keeping the interaction positive and successful. “Charlie’s turn! Can mama have a turn with the drums again?”
We trade. You get the idea.
Basically, I made taking turns fun. I emphasized the words “turn” and “first X, then Y.” And I would model this language for him a lot. Babies and toddlers need tons of repetition to learn something. You will be bored with it long before they are. (Have you hidden a book yet because you just can’t read it again? We have several that go into hiding for a month or two.)
Later, when Joey wants to play with Charlie’s trains, Charlie can understand that Joey wants a turn and then he will get a turn again. I can remind him with that language he’s heard over and over again, “First Joey gets a turn, then Charlie.” He doesn’t think the world is going to end when his train leaves his hands. Because kids think this. They crumble to pieces thinking they have lost their favorite train forever. And life without Thomas would be so, so sad. It’s like how I feel if you take my chocolate truffle, except I know I won’t see that truffle again. Please don’t do this to me.
I would bet that teaching the “first, then” concept has probably been our most effective language-based** tantrum reducer. Young children have such a hard time understanding that something is still going to happen even though something else needs to take place first. Plus, waiting is really freakin’ hard. So, they hear playground!, get totally excited to go and then absolutely freak out when you try to get them dressed first. You can remind them, “First clothes on, then playground.” It also provides awesome leverage for when kids hate getting changed, dressed, into car seats or strollers or other strapped in devices. “First car seat, then FUN (toy, food, music, high-five)!” “First diaper, then soccer!”
This is best taught in playful ways, just like turn-taking, and integrated into all your normal everyday situations. “Oooh, first we get to eat carrots (as you set them down), then I’m going to cut some cheese slices!” It can be as simple as playing with blocks (“First I’m using the red block, then I’m stacking the blue block”) or airplane (“First, on my feet, then, up in the air!”).
Please don’t get me wrong. I may not like tantrums, but I also understand that there is a time and place for children to experience disappointment and have to learn boundaries. I don’t try to shield my children from all challenges. I don’t think I’d be doing them any favors by sparing them disappointment and obstacles. But, I find that normal life scenarios bring up plenty. People get sick, budgets constrain, weather prevents plans, toys break, mom doesn’t let you use the chef’s knife, food doesn’t taste as we hope, etc… None of us need to add extra challenges during regular, routine moments like leaving a fun place or getting into a car if a little talking through it at their level will help.
Additionally, we have expectations for our boys. They both clean up after themselves and help out around the house and yard. Even at two-years old, Miles knows how to clean up and actually has been able to (to a degree) for a year! He doesn’t always want to, but he can do it with most of his toys and will usually come around if we structure it right. (“Let’s clean up so we can go ride our scooters before bedtime!” We have to be willing to have that awful, sad moment of him not getting to go ride his scooter on occasions that he doesn’t pitch in, but you can bet that’s all he needs to do it from them on, at least for a week or two.) It’s all about motivation and consistency.
I’d probably be very rich if I could guarantee this will work 100% of the time. It won’t. You know that, I’m sure. But, if children are well-rested and well-fed, this strategy will help mitigate and decrease the number of less than pleasant moments that make you want to pull your hair out and wear earplugs.
*Maybe you’re wondering why the heck I am not using pronouns talking to babies and young toddlers. Pronouns are pretty confusing to little ones- they really don’t understand them. I’ve found that their comprehension is aided by using proper names for the first year, often first two. If you’re keyed into your child’s understanding, you’ll know when switching back to “I” and “you” isn’t a problem for them. And, please, for the sake of all our ears, switch back. Nothing’s weirder than somebody talking to a four year old this way.
**Best ways to prevent tantrums: feed your children healthy food on a regular schedule, make sure you children get the sleep they need. These are pretty hard to argue with. Meals, naps, and bedtimes are ridiculously sacred in our house.