#5 – Toddlers, tantrums (and training!)

My sister lives in Sydney with her husband and three adorable children (I might be a little biased…). Her youngest is 2 years old and he is an absolute scream.  Recently, I was talking to the family on Facetime and intermittently throughout the conversation, a big red bus would cross into the screen followed by hysterical laughter as Max (my nephew) would block the camera with his toy.

Eventually, however, the novelty wore off for the rest of the family and Max’s sisters became a bit fed up.  So, his mum took the bus away.  He was not happy.  A little tantrum ensued that lasted about 3 minutes and then it was all over.

It’s easy for me to say when it’s not my child screaming in my face, but tantrums are very normal for toddlers.  However, it is important to remember that the way in which we respond to a tantrum is crucial.  Children are learning every day to interact with the world.  As they try new things and learn new tricks (such as screaming at the top of their lungs), the response they receive will largely determine whether that behaviour sticks or resolves.  We called this, learned behaviours.

Consider this.  You see a vending machine and decide to buy a bottle of water.  You insert your money, press the button and nothing happens.  The money has gone, the water does not move.  What will you do?  Will you chance it and try a second time, risking more money to see if it will work?  Or will you cut your losses?  This is an example of learning and unlearning a behaviour.  In this example, the learned behaviour is using a vending machine.  We have become trained to understand that a vending machine works by taking money in exchange for a product, which we call a reward.  If we don’t receive the reward, we will very quickly learn to change the behaviour.  You might try a different vending machine, but you certainly won’t stand there continuing to feed money in without any reward.  However, sometimes unlearning behaviours is not so easy.  What if, for example, it was not a vending machine but a pokies machine?  In this situation, you are not expecting a guaranteed reward, you are playing for a potential reward.  So, you play $20 and receive nothing.  Will you stop?  Or will you remember that one time when you played $2 and walked away with $200?  Maybe you try another $20… and another… and another.

To be fair to our children, we need to provide consistency.  If a tantrum leads to one outcome 90% of the time, but every now again will result in a different outcome, unlearning behaviours becomes very difficult.  In other words, if you want your child to unlearn a behaviour (such as a tantrum) it is very important not to reward that behaviour, even if bribery seems like the easiest option at the time.  For example, if I’m a child throwing a tantrum and my parent says to me, “if you stop, I’ll get you an ice-cream”, I have effectively just struck gold on the pokies.  From then on, every time I throw a tantrum, I will probably hold onto even the slightest glimmer of hope that I may get an ice-cream.

It is very natural for parents to feel overwhelmed when it comes to managing their child’s behaviour.  It’s ok to make mistakes, but it is really important to ask for help if you feel you need it.  Our beautiful children need to learn how to interact with the outside world and so they too will be testing things for the first time and making mistakes as well.  The most important thing – be consistent, be calm and remain positive!!

Links to previous blogs in this series:

#1 – Introduction to series
#2 – Why do dogs wag their tails?
#3 – The developing newborn: What is normal?
#4 – Does my child have autism?