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Temper Tantrums

Tot Tips (8m-5y): Part 3 - Taming Tantrums and Winning the Whining Wars

by Harvey Karp, M.D., FAAP
Book Cover Image. Title: The Happiest Toddler on the Block:  How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One- to Four-Year-Old, Author: by Harvey Karp, Harvey Karp

The Happiest Toddler on the Blockby Harvey KarpHarvey Karp

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All toddlers whine and throw's normal! But don't take the wailing personally. Tantrums don't mean you're a bad parent or you have a bad child. Remember, toddlers are pretty primitive. They aren't great with language or logic…they are totally messy eaters…and when they're upset, they spit, scratch, and "go ape!"

The bad news is it will take a few more years for your child to get good at sharing and patience. BUT, the good news is a few simple tricks can hugely reduce whining and tantrums…in just days!


You know what I mean -- those little shenanigans that are not terrible…just terribly annoying -- like, pinching, begging, badgering, teasing, grabbing, clinging and screeching…to name a few!

In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, I call these "yellow light behaviors," because you discourage them by giving your child a clear warning (as opposed to aggressive or dangerous red light behaviors that need to be stopped instantly).

Here are three simple, super-effective skills to help turn minor conflicts into cooperation:

  • Connect with Respect: Using the Fast Food Rule + Toddler-ese + a bit of your kind help to detour around clashes.
  • The Art of Compromise: Turn a Won't-Won't into a Win-Win, so BOTH you and your child feel like winners…and partners.
  • Mini-Consequences: Clap-Growl Warnings and Kind Ignore: Two persuasive ways to show annoying behaviors are a dead end street.

    You can see learn the Fast Food Rule (how to show genuine interest and respect) and Toddler-ese (translating your words into a clear, crisp language that all toddlers understand) in The Happiest Toddler DVD. And, read how to help your child learn to compromise and cooperate in the Yellow Light chapter of my book. But, I'd like to say a little bit about one of my favorite mini-consequences, kind ignore.

    A smile, kind listening, a sincere gaze all feel good and are signals we give to say to our friends, spouse, or kids, "I like you…I'm interested…keep going." Psychologists call that positive reinforcement. However, if you want to discourage someone from talking to you, you'll probably respond from a mild "No thank you"…to simple ignoring….to a stronger "Leave me alone!" These discourage annoying people, short of having to scream or call the police.

    In the same way, kind ignore is like giving your child a bit of a cold shoulder. The next time your two-year-old begs for a 10th cookie, instead of saying, "You've had enough, Sweetheart" or "Mommy said, 'No!'" try kneeling down and sincerely saying, "You say, 'Cookie! Cookie! Cookie!' You love cookies! You want it now, now, now!! But, noooo more cookies….no more till tomorrow."

    If she stops nagging, play with her for 1-3 minutes to show you appreciate her being reasonable. But, if she continues nagging, try kind ignore. Say, "You really, really want it! But Mommy said, 'No.' So, it's OK, you can be sad, and Mommy will be back in just a minute."

    Turn your back or leave the room for 10 seconds. If she stops whining, come back and reward her, calming her with a bit of love. Say something like, "You were sad, but let's play with your dollies -- or do you want to look at a book together?"

    On the other hand, if she keeps crying, just repeat that you see she's sad, sad, sad (or mad, mad, mad) then turn away for another 10-15 seconds. [A Note: With spirited kids, the whining may get pushier the first few of times you do kind ignore. In one or two short sentences sincerely repeat your tot's desire, then turn away again for a few seconds. You may have to do this 4-5 times.]

    Don't even look in her direction too much until she stops whining. And, once she calms, don't forget to give her a few minutes of your loving attention. Avoid getting pulled into a discussion or debate (and save your lecture on why too many cookies are bad for you for the next day, after her frustration is fully quieted).

    Stick with kind ignore and you'll be rewarded by shorter and milder nagging sessions…within just days.

    There are lots more simple tips to help you win the whining wars, like playing the boob, gossiping, 90-10 solutions, and clear, consistent limits. But, now let's go on to tantrums…


    There are lots of good reasons that toddlerhood is the age of temper tantrums, Here are a few of them:

  • They're Not Good at Things: Imagine if you were shorter, weaker, slower, and dumber than everyone around you. And if they talked and laughed, but you had no idea what they were saying. Yup, you'd get pretty frustrated, too!
  • They're Kind of Rigid and Get Stuck: A toddler's primitive sense of pride may get bruised if he doesn't get his way. Really stubborn tots find themselves painted into emotional "corners," angry and scowling and unable to gracefully back down.
  • Our World Is Too Exciting...and Too Boring: Toddlers get overloaded by noisy DVDs and TV. But, an even bigger problem is the boredom they feel from sitting at home. Even the toughest tots become little angels when they get to spend hours a day playing in the grass and playground.

    Fortunately, you can prevent many tantrums from ever happening. Here are four strategies that can immediately cut the number and intensity of your toddler's outbursts:

  • Avoid problem situations: Nobody knows your toddler better than you. So you probably already have a pretty good idea which situations knock him off balance. The trick is to think ahead and avoid the common tantrum-triggers, like being overtired, over-hungry, or hyped-up (from decongestants, sugar or caffeine in cola, iced tea or chocolate); or too much tension and violence (toddlers model the violence they see on TV or when parents fight).
  • Connect with respect…all day long: Use the Fast Food Rule and Toddler-ese dozens of times a day, even when your tot has a minor upset. Your good communication will help your toddler learn how to talk and will teach him that loving people speak to each other with respect.
  • Feed the meter: Tots behave much better when we "feed their meters" with a few minutes of attention or fun at least 2-3 times an hour! All this builds up a wealth of goodwill.
  • Teach patience: Patience-stretching (discussed in my last essay) is a simple way to help even a one-year-old become less impulsive…calmer. And, once your toddler can wait just a little bit longer, he'll be a whole lot easier to be around.

    But, no matter how good a parent you are, tantrums will happen. And, it can be tough staying patient and kind when your tot becomes a screaming, red-eyed bully and pelts you with mean words, like "I hate you!" or "You're stupid!"

    Fortunately, The Happiest Toddler DVD and book can teach you an approach that can stop over 50% of tantrums in seconds! (This simple - but slightly odd - skill is as close to a magic wand as you'll ever get.)

    When your toddler starts to lose it, first squat down and repeat back a bit of his feelings by using the 3 steps of Toddler-ese - short phrases, lots of repetition and mirroring back about 1/3 of your child's level of upset in your tone of voice, face and gestures.

    "Mad ...mad ...mad! Sara mad! Sara wants the ball! Ball, ball!!"

    Try to delay voicing your opinion, reassurance, or distraction until your child starts to calm. Even sweetly saying, "Sweetheart, we have to share the ball, OK?" should be delayed until your little one feels like her heartfelt emotions have been heard and sincerely acknowledged.

    Try practicing this a few times on tiny eruptions before using it on major outbursts.

    Here's a real-world story that illustrates the concept from Linda, a mom who used Toddler-ese to neatly sidestep a potentially unsafe struggle when her toddler loudly protested getting out of the bathtub:

    "Our three-year-old, Jasmine, hates getting out of the tub. She would stay in there all day if she could. One day, when it was time for her to get out I gave her the two-minute warning and the one-minute warning. Then I turned the water off and she freaked and started yelling, 'No! No! I don't want to get out; I don't want to get out.'

    "I remembered the Toddler-ese, and I energetically waved my finger, frowned a bit, and echoed her words, 'No, no, no! I don't want to get out! I want to stay in the bathtub! I don't want to get out!'

    "I was stunned! Within seconds, she just looked at me and stopped crying. Then, in a calmer voice I said, 'Jasmine, I know you don't want to get out, but it's time to go; we have to get ready to see Daddy.' And she stood up and got out. Then I dried her fast and played dolls with her for a few minutes to thank her for her cooperation. It was great."

    The toddler years are a lot of work; it's not easy living with a little primitive! But I promise you that a few simple lessons can help you reduce stress, boost fun, and raise a healthy and happy child who will make you proud.
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    Meet Our Expert
    Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
    Assistant Professor, Pediatrics USC School of Medicine
    Dr. Harvey Karp is a pediatrician and child development specialist. He is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine, and was in private practice for over 25 years.

    Dr. Karp's critically acclaimed books and DVDs, The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, have made him America's most-read pediatrician. His baby work offers a solution to the 3,000-year old mystery "What is colic?" and helps parents calm crying babies in minutes to boost nighttime sleep. His unique approach to toddler care allows parents to reduce tantrums and help 8 month old to 5 year old children become more patient and cooperative…in just days.

    The Happiest Baby educator program has trained thousands of instructors to teach Dr. Karp's effective baby calming and sleep techniques. This approach is used to promote parenting, reduce postpartum depression and breastfeeding failure, prevent child abuse, and promote safe sleep in hospitals, clinics, public health departments and military bases across the country and around the world.

    Dr. Karp's work has frequently been featured in the national press, such as the New York Times, USA Today, People Magazine, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, The View, Larry King Live, CNN, BBC, and others. He is also an outspoken advocate for our children's right to a healthy and safe environment, and the importance of breastfeeding.

    Dr. Karp lives in Los Angeles with his wife Nina. Their grown daughter, Lexi, lives in New York.

    You can find out more on Dr. Karp's website.
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