How To: Handle a Baby’s Temper

My son Owen is just starting to reach that ‘awkward stage’: He’s not quite reached the ‘Terrible Twos’ (He’s only 18 months, so not far off!) but definitely is starting to learn what he can and can’t do, and how to wind Mommy up!

His most recent favourite tantrum is when he hears the word ‘no’. ‘No, Owen, you can’t have the TV remote…No, Owen, you can’t pull the cat’s tail…’. Et cetera et cetera. He’ll fling himself down flat on the floor and start to wail. High pitched shrieks that continue on and on until he gets his own way or gives up exhausted. This can go on for AGES. And when it’s in the middle of the supermarket because I said no to chocolate pudding, it gets very tedious and embarrassing.

The other day it was in the middle of Debenhams in Birmingham City Centre. He was quite happy toddling around holding my hand as I wandered around with my mom and sister, until for no reason known to me whatsoever, he wants to go touch something he shouldn’t, and when I told him no he suddenly starts crying and flinging his arms around, stiff legs and back. He wanted to crawl around on the floor in the middle of the shop, and nothing I said or did would comfort him.

You get the obligatory dirty looks off people who think he’s spoiled and a naughty boy, or that I’m a bad parent. It infuriates me when people say “Maybe he’s hungry?” (He’s not), “Maybe he’s tired?” (He isn’t), but in point of fact what is the matter with him is he wants his own way, and can’t have it.

I absolutely refuse to give in to him. He has to learn that I am the boss and when I say no, I mean no. Even amidst this tantrum in Debenhams I wouldn’t give in; I simply put him back into his pushchair and left the shop – wailing baby in tow. Yet despite my firm resolve, there are times when it becomes very challenging and dare I say it, it wears you down. When I’m having to deal with this on a semi-regular basis at the moment, it brings you down and makes you feel like the worst parent in the world.

But it is completely normal. Young children haven’t developed the coping skills they need, and tend to just lose it instead. When they don’t get what they want, their limited communication skills means that they want something – food, milk, a nappy change, the cat’s tail – but can’t communicate that want to you. And when you don’t respond in the way they want, cue the tears.

It’s also a power struggle between the two of you: they are becoming more autonomous and aware of their own needs and desires, but when you clash over what they want and what you want, they try to defy you which again results in tears (His, not mine).

bare feet, boy, child

There are simple things that you can do to stop things getting to this stage, or to calm them down quickly so they don’t become too distressed. Some of these things work on Owen like a charm, such as leaving the scene of the crime (!) and taking away the source of the tantrum. Others I’ve had to adapt to suit him a little more. Try and see which things work for your baby:

  1. Ignore them. It may seem like the hardest thing to do when they’re clearly in distress, but sometimes the best thing to do is ignore their bad behaviour. When they realise that they aren’t getting the attention they crave, they’ll soon change tactic. When Owen is rattling the bars between the kitchen and living room when I’m cooking tea, and has been told countless times to stop I find the best thing to do here is ignore him. As annoying as his behaviour is, he soon gets bored when he realises that the kitchen is out-of-bounds and I’m not caving.
  2. Respond but don’t react. As shown in the situation mentioned previously in Debenhams, acknowledge their bad behaviour but don’t rise to it. Something I learned as a teacher is to not raise your voice as it shows a loss of control too early on. The same applies here: simply acknowledge what they are doing, but do not respond. If you lose your cool your toddler will know they’re getting a reaction and will continue their behaviour.
  3. Don’t negotiate – you are the adult. As I mentioned before, I refuse to give in to Owen. I don’t give in to his demands, and I do not negotiate his behaviour. He has to learn that there are limits to what he is allowed to do, and if he doesn’t behave there are consequences. If you give in, your child will learn that a tantrum gets them their own way, and you’ll get this behaviour every time you try to make a stand against them. It is hard, but the more firm you stand, they’ll soon learn the boundaries.
  4. Use time-outs and ‘punishments’ wisely. At 18 months Owen understands the idea of consequences now. If he pulls the cat’s tail he has a ‘time out’ for a few minutes on the opposite side of the room to his toys. It took a while for him to grasp the fact that he has to stay where he’s put (He kept laughing and moving away at first, thinking I was playing a game) but eventually he understood what was going on. I also take a toy from him if he’s not playing properly with it. He went through a habit of banging wooden blocks on the TV and TV stand because he knew he shouldn’t, until he realised that doing so would result in them being removed for a while!
  5. Positive reinforcements work best. I remember learning about this in Psychology years ago! When your toddler behaves well, reward them for it. Kiss them, cuddle them, give them treats and toys, praise them – let them know that their good behaviour is the desired behaviour. That way, when they do misbehave and the positive rewards stop, they know they’ve done wrong. It’s kind of like training a dog with treats when they sit down or roll over – except my little boy doesn’t chew the furniture!
  6. Give them a choice. Again, another teacher move. I don’t like being told what to do too much, so I can understand when Owen gets frustrated. Instead of giving your baby an order, offer them a choice. That way, they think they’re actually making the decision and feel more in control, whereas you providing the choices allows you to maintain calm and proper behaviour. For example, “Would you like a yoghurt or piece of fruit for pudding?” seems a lot better to a toddler than “You’ve got a yoghurt after”.

The important thing to remember is it’s just a phase they’re going through; yes it’s hard work, and yes it’s embarrassing, but they are just trying your patience and learning how far they can take things. You just need to remember to stay firm, but fair, with them.

As always, if you are worried about any aspect of your child’s behaviour, please seek advice from your Doctor or Health Visitor. 


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