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Tantrums and the Terrible Twos Are Exhausting!


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Q: My son is 2 years old and seems to become more and more difficult with each passing day. Anytime I try to get him to do anything, he repeatedly tells me "no." I am so tired of trying to reason with him. Some days it seems that all day long it is a struggle between the two of us. He has also been having temper tantrums, sometimes three or four a day. I really just don't know what to do about this.

A: Temper tantrums in a 2-year-old are the most straightforward to deal with. They are the first episodes where the developing person realizes he or she has some control over how other people behave. Before the age of 2, the child has some recognition that what he/she does affects outcomes, but around 2 years the "no" is recognized for its power and used a lot. I cannot go without mentioning the term "the terrible twos," which describes this age.

This resistance to authority is healthy and a very important step in the child's development of a sense of identity as a person separate from his/her parents with an ability to make his or her own decisions. Successfully completing this stage leads to independence and feelings of self-worth eventually. Children quickly learn to up the ante when not getting their way and the result is the classic temper tantrum. This is the one where the child screams, yells, refuses to do what he is told, can lie down kicking, hitting and throwing things, etc. They occur at home and in public. The extremity of the tantrum varies with the temperament of the child, the past experience with the parent's authority style, and the situation. In the case you describe it is a more low-level, but consistent defiance that seems to be wearing you down.

One ray of hope is that no matter what you do, this phase will not last forever. There are things you can do to make it more manageable. Every good parent will give you the same advice: Withdraw attention during the actual tantrum. How this is done depends on the situation and personality of the parent and the child. The main goal is to remain calm and indifferent to the extreme behavior — in control. For example, in a store the child is screaming and refusing to cooperate. As long as he is in one place, you continue looking around the store close by, with an air of "as soon as you are through, we can continue." Depending on the child and parent, inducements can be offered approaching bribery. Be careful that whatever the inducement is, it is not seen as a reward. Otherwise, you have reinforced future tantrums.

If the child is running away, trying to destroy things or if you can't handle the public scrutiny, pick him up, leave the shopping and go home without discussion other than stating the obvious. If going home is the reward, then you have to think about whether you should take the child places where he can "win" this struggle in the first place. In those instances, just restraining the child with a tight hug might work better.

This discussion can go on and on with all the kinds of variables that change the details as to how to handle a tantrum. The general principle remains the same: Do not support or feed into the behavior. Ignoring the behavior as completely as possible is the goal. Remain calmly in control, essentially indifferent with an attitude of waiting it out. When it is over, matter-of-factly resume what was being done. No hugs or praises for stopping. If you are a talker, then just say the obvious such as "You really seem mad." "Well now that this is over, let's do whatever," etc. Distracting a 2-year-old is fairly easy at times and is a good method, if it is not seen as a reward. Be as consistent as possible.

In the instances you describe, it is a constant struggle at home. There the attitude remains the same, and you can use distractions and alternatives. "If you do this, then we can do this" promises, you can avoid struggles by anticipating them before they arise. This can be difficult to successfully and consistently deliver.

What the child is learning will hold him in good stead for the future. He learns to accept authority; be authoritarian himself in a kind, appropriate and respectful way; to be assertive; to be patient, and to be courteous and understanding while disagreeing. Those are wonderful traits in a human being and are important in all future relationships — from the most intimate to the broadest dealings with society.

Submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" via e-mail to Sherri.McMillen@mosescone.com. clearpixel.gif Gerald Taylor, M.D., is a psychiatrist with Moses Cone Behavioral Health Psychiatric Associates
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