Two hours into the five-hour flight from LaGuardia to Salt Lake City, it started. Screaming. An all-out tantrum. Mark and Kathryn Newman of Tuckahoe tried everything to appease their then two-and-a-half-year-old son, Josh. "We had bought new toys just for the flight. We tried snacks. We tried playing with the telephone," explains Mark. "Nothing would distract him from the tantrum." Instead of angry looks from other passengers, the Newmans were met with sympathetic nods. After a tense hour or so, Josh finally fell asleep. "When I got off the plane I couldn’t imagine ever getting back on. I never wanted to fly with my two-year-old again," says Mark. Thankfully, a later flight time and a larger plane seemed to appease Josh on the return trip.
Like many parents, the Newmans had to deal with their share of tantrums when their son was young. Yet with a little know-how — and a lot of patience — parents can make their children’s tantrums less intense and even less frequent.
"The reason for tantrums is directly tied into development," explains Dr. Roseann T. Spiotta, medical director for the Family Practice Center at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. "Toddlers also have a limited ability to express themselves verbally and can have trouble dealing with their emotions and with high levels of external stimuli," continues Dr. Spiotta. "Because of these factors, tantrums can occur when the child is frustrated by being unable to do or get what he or she wants, when he or she wants or needs attention, when tired, hungry, or over-stimulated."
Dr. Angela Seracini, director of the Behavior Disorders Clinic in the Pediatric Psychiatry Service at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, concurs. "Little kids become frustrated because they have the drive to be more independent and autonomous, yet they can’t do it by themselves. Sometimes they have a system overload."
Most children start exerting their independence somewhere around their first birthdays. By the age of two, many toddlers have mastered meltdowns. For most, tantrum triggers can be as simple as not getting the color lollipop they want. Other factors are often at play, such as hunger or tiredness. By the time children reach the age of four, most have outgrown tantrums.
While not completely preventable, careful preparation can help you avoid tantrums or provide a way to diffuse them quickly. Look for your child’s tantrum triggers. Instead of immediately disciplining the child, consider what might be the underlying cause for the behavior.
Melissa Schill of Brooklyn found that her 3-year-old daughter, Anne, was always acting up when she took her to the doctor. "She would kick and scream as soon as we got to the office," recalls Schill. "She would scream, ‘I hate him,’ to the doctor. I always left mortified." Schill wondered if part of her daughter’s reaction was caused by nervousness. She found a book on visiting the doctor’s and bought Anne a play medical kit. Before appointments, Schill would read the book with her daughter and encourage her to play doctor. Now, Anne doesn’t mind seeing the doctor and Schill makes sure Anne has had plenty of sleep and snacks before they go.
According to Dr. Seracini, if you describe a new or unfamiliar situation to your child ahead of time, she will be better equipped to handle it. "Talk to your child about what’s going to happen. And explain what your expectations are for his or her behavior." For instance, many parents struggle when taking children shopping. Younger children want to touch everything and older children want to buy everything. Talk to them at their level about what is going to happen. Agree on a special treat the child can pick out at the store, or on a reward, such as reading a favorite book together afterwards, if the child behaves.
Some tantrums defy explanation. For the all-out screaming and yelling routine, Dr. Seracini suggests ignoring the behavior as long as the child is not endangering himself or someone else. Often the child loses interest in acting out when he doesn’t get a reaction. Parents might give the child time to cool down, either in a special chair or in her room. Some children simply want to be held and soothed. Remember that different strategies work better at different times.
As a child gets older, parents can initiate consequences for bad behavior. Karen Perkins of New Rochelle has six children who age in range from one to seven. She has heard her share of screams and whines. "Generally, I tell my toddlers that they either have to stop or they will have a timeout or lose privileges. It depends on the situation," says Perkins. "If everyone else is getting popsicles, then that child doesn’t get one. If everyone else gets to watch TV, that child can’t. But you have to do what you say you’re going to do."
Experts agree that most children are seeking attention with their tantrums. Dr. Seracini advises parents to use that to their advantage. Withdraw attention during bad behavior and praise good behavior afterward. "Especially with older children, try to step up a whole system of telling them what a positive alternative is to their behavior," she says. If a child is, for instance, kicking a baby sister, give her a better behavior to imitate. Help her stroke the baby’s face or sing a lullaby.
She suggests parents change their mindset when it comes to tantrums. Instead of getting frustrated or angry, which fuels and intensifies the tantrum, try to think of it as a developmental stage. While that might be difficult to do when your child is grabbing every candy bar in sight from the grocery counter, remember that he is learning how to control his impulses and he needs your help. Believe it or not, your toddler is not trying to upset you.
In the end, the Newmans learned their lesson about flying: Josh does not like enclosed spaces. When choosing flights, they look at plane configurations versus ticket prices. They opt for larger planes with four-seat rows so Josh has plenty of room to stretch out with mom and dad. They also bring along a portable DVD player to make the flight easier on him — and on them.