Our son is now two weeks from 2 years. He has been throwing tantrums for about six months now. In the past it was usually if he didn’t get what he wanted. He would then scream for about 10 minutes and then calm down again. (He screams very loud, a whole department store would halt if he starts). This last week his tantrums have become very aggressive. He really tries to hurt us if he can. He would bite or scratch, slap us, fall down, and all the time he would be screaming very loud. These tantrums now last for up to half an hour. We’ve tried to hold him still, ignore him, nothing helps. Last night he woke up late at night and we had a repeat of a tantrum he had before he went to bed. At first we thought he was dreaming, but he was actually wide awake. My husband is allergic to things like caffeine, iodine and gluten. We are now trying to cut these out of his diet to see if it helps. How should we handle these aggressive tantrums? Thanks, Igna
Oh Igna, I am so sorry to hear that you guys are going through this! Tantrums are never easy, but are even worse when they involve aggressive behaviors. I’m sure this won’t be much of a relief, but this behavior is not atypical. Lots of two year olds go through aggressive bouts. Having said that, I know you want to know what to do! When faced with behavior challenges, the first thing I suggest is to take a step back and evaluate the situation by asking some simple questions:
- Is he getting enough sleep? I know, this is a common sense. Over the years, however, I have found that common sense is not always that common. Look at his sleep patterns. Is he still napping twice a day? Does he sleep through the night? I did a post on the importance of sleep. You can check it out here
- Take a look at nutrition. You mentioned in your question that your husband has some food allergies. Good for you for exploring whether he may have food allergies as well. Many parents overlook this. I remember working with a young boy who was about two and a half. He bounced off the walls and was extremely aggressive when I first met him. Granted, discipline was lacking in his home initially. After some coaching, however, his mother gradually took back control and his behavior started improving. On top of that, however, they eliminated red dyes from his diet at the recommendation of their pediatrician. I am telling you, that boy was like a different kid when I went to see him. He was focused, well behaved and a pure joy to be around. While I don’t want to discount the importance of the increase in discipline, I am convinced that the elimination of the red dyes played a role in his drastic improvement. Call me crazy, but I do. For the record, I also believe that the full moon causes people to act crazy.
- Are the behavior expectations in your home clear? I know he is still little, but do you and his father have the same expectations when it comes to his behavior? If not, getting on the same page is crucial. Enough said.
- Does he do this with other caretakers such as daycare providers, grandparents, etc? If the answer is “no,” the problem lies within your responses to his tantrums.
- Is there anything going on medically? Has been in to see the pediatrician? Does he have an ear infection? Could he be getting his second year molars? A check up might be warranted to rule out any medical conditions that may be contributing to his lower tolerance of frustration.
- Have you been consistent with your previous attempts to manage this behavior? I know that consistency is hard, but lack thereof is usually the crux of most ongoing behavioral problems. They are looking for that ONE time that we give in. Smart aren’t they?!
Okay, having done a little (or a lot!) of personal reflection on the situation, here are some suggestions:
- Aggressive behaviors need to be dealt with a swift response that minimizes any positive contact between you and your son. The most effective consequence for hitting, biting, scratching is immediate removal from the situation and placement in time out. In my previous post, a reader asked about how to deal with biting. The suggestions I made there hold true for any type of physical aggression. You can read more about it here. Be sure to check out the links in that post regarding time out. Also, keep in mind that you want to limit verbal and physical contact as much as possible. Kids will take whatever attention they can whether it be positive or negative. What they can’t stand as to get no attention, thus the rationale for placing them somewhere where contact is limited, e.g., a corner in a separate room, their bedroom, etc. (always keeping their physical safety in mind, of course!
- As for the screaming, ignoring is really the most effective strategy. Of course, this is not the easiest especially when you are out in public. The key, again, is to not talk, touch or look at him while he is doing the undesirable behavior. Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want! By that I mean, ignore the ugly behavior and respond to him only when he has stopped screaming. If he starts again, ignore again. I know this can be a real challenge when you are in a store. If the behavior happens frequently in public, plan some outings where you won’t mind leaving when the behavior occurs. For example, go to the store with the sole purpose of teaching him that when he screams you will immediately leave. Don’t do it when you HAVE to get a gift for someone or get some grocery shopping done. Do it when you have the time and energy and view it as a teachable moment in his life. If he can learn at this young age that when I scream in public, we leave you will save yourself tons of headaches as he gets older. And don’t worry about any grimaces from other customers. I guarantee, if they are shooting you dirty looks or muttering under their breathe they either 1) don’t have kids or 2) it has been so long since they have had kids that they don’t remember what it is like to be in public with a screaming kid. They are not worth your time and energy. Teaching your son, however, that the natural consequence for screaming is 1) leaving fun public places and/or 2) being ignored by my parents IS worth your time and energy. If you are at home and the screaming is wearing you down, put him in his room until he is done. Only interact with him when he has stopped. If you keep poking your head in while he is screaming, you risk the chance that you are inadvertently reinforcing the behavior.
I hope you find this information helpful, Igna. Please be sure to keep me posted on how things progress or if you have any other questions or concerns. Thanks for the question and being a Mentor Mom reader!