Ask the Doctor - Answers to your Parenting Questions

11 Month Old Tantrums

Dear Dr. Laura,
My son is 11 months old. When things don't happen the way he wants them to he throws a fit. He will hit you, throw things and flat out scream for hours if you don't do what he wants. It's hard to know what he wants because he can't talk.

I know he can't talk to express. I just want to know what I can do to make things better, and make him happy. Please help me, I don't know what to do.

Concerned Mother

It is not unusual for babies at around a year old to begin to act this way. I want to reassure you that this is actually a very positive development: the beginning of your child's asserting himself as a separate person.

As babies become less distractable, and more assertive, they try to assert some control over their environment, just as we all do. He can't talk yet, but he can certainly communicate, by physically resisting situations he doesn't like. This self-assertion is in fact a healthy, developmentally appropriate stage -- but not easy for parents. In fact, it usually comes as quite a shock -- where did your sweet, compliant baby go?!

The second year is the worst stage of this self-assertion, because toddlers don't yet have the neurological development to reason or control their emotions, as they will begin to by the time they're three or four. But for the rest of your son's childhood, he will be developing his own sense of agency, which means becoming a person in his own right. While you will need to guide him, and set appropriate limits and expectations, you can also expect him to have his own ideas. If he has "big feelings" -- and it certainly sounds like he does -- you can expect him to let you know in no uncertain terms when he disagrees with you.

Think of it this way. This is his first expression of his own "agency" in the world -- the ability to express what he wants and try to get it. You want him to feel like he can have an impact on the world -- that's how optimism, competence and confidence develop. More important, when he sees that you care about satisfying his wishes, that's how he knows that he's loved. (If your husband told you that he loved you but always told you no about what you wanted, would you feel loved?)

So when babies express their wishes and you meet them, great. When they express their wishes and you can't meet them for safety or other important reasons, then they at least need to feel you have heard them and have a good reason for not helping them get what they think they need.

How you navigate those moments of disagreement will determine how close you will ultimately be with your son. It will also determine whether he becomes "contrary" -- in other words, will he feel a need to resist your authority in a knee-jerk fashion, because you two have an ongoing power struggle of you trying to enforce your rules against his desires, and that's the only way he can assert his own person-hood?

The more control little ones have over their own lives, the less they need to be defiant. So you may find that he will "tantrum" less if you let him make as many choices and have as much say as possible in his life (food, clothes, toys, etc.) Please check out the Toddlers section of my website for more ideas on managing babies as they move into the Toddler phase (which your son is already doing!)

Does that mean you just have to give in to everything he wants? Of course not.  It does mean you will have to be very creative as a parent now. One way to do this is Parenting Aikido, which is to grant his need for independence but still meet your need as the parent to keep things safe. For instance, give him the power to choose between two choices that are both ok with you. "We have to get in the car now. Do you want to climb in yourself?" (you may have to assist) "Or do you want me to put you in?"

It also means that you will have to offer him empathy when you can't do what he wants: "You wish you could have a cookie. But the rule is no cookies before dinner. Come be with mom and snuggle and let's have some milk." He may still tantrum, but he'll eventually learn that he can't always have what he wants, but he can have something better: a mom who takes his desires seriously and tries to make him happy.

I know that many experts advocate ignoring tantrums, but that advice is outdated and is a really bad idea. Your son is trying to communicate something he can't communicate any other way. He is not "throwing fits" to get your attention. He is throwing fits because he is 11 months old and feels so passionately about everything, and simply doesn't have the capacity to control himself yet. Research shows that when we ignore tantrums, kids tantrum more. When we "give in" to tantrums by giving the child what he is tantrumming for, they tantrum more. But when we respond to the unhappiness our child is expressing by offering him comfort and understanding,they tantrum less. So please don't worry that comforting him will make his tantrumming worse.

That said, you'll be glad to know that some tantrums are avoidable and that it is best to avoid tantrums if you can, just because they are scary to your child.

Since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, little ones who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums. And since babies who are tired and hungry don't have the inner resources to handle frustration, the less often your son feels overwhelmed and powerless, the less often he'll tantrum.

Here's how to tame tantrums before they start:

1. Sidestep power struggles. Let him save face. You don't have to prove you're right. Your son is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.

2. Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead. Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation -- whatever it takes -- prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no -- to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand. Don't drag a hungry or tired little guy to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.

3. Say YES to his feelings, but NO to his demand. He's allowed to want what he wants and have big feelings about your saying No to it.  Acknowledge his wishes, and don't give in against your better judgment -- but be kind about it, and stay connected to him while you say No to his request.  He's a little young to understand, but he understands more than he can say, so begin reminding him when a tantrum is brewing that if he has a tantrum you aren't allowed to even consider his request.  This won't necessarily work until he gets a little older, but it usually helps toddlers pull it together enough for you to address the situation that is making him crazy. Often this means we have to change our plans to avoid over-taxing a little one who is at the end of his rope (i.e., “I guess we can’t do a big shop today. We’ll just get the milk and bread and go home. And here’s a cheese stick to eat while we wait in line.”)

4. Make sure that your son gets enough “cozy time” with you so that he doesn’t have to tantrum to get it.  If you ever think your child is tantrumming "just for attention" then he must really need your attention, and the only possible response is to give it to him. Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum. If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect before you try to shop for dinner.

5. Try to handle tantrums so they don’t escalate. If he does launch into a tantrum despite your best preventive efforts, remember not to sever the connection. Stay nearby, even if he won't let you touch him. He needs to know you're there, and still love him. Be calm and reassuring. Don’t try to reason with him, but research has shown that simply acknowledging his feelings can shorten the tantrum dramatically, as in "You are so mad. You are showing me how much you wanted that candy." (Don't try explain at that point why he can't have the candy before dinner, and certainly don't give him the candy, just acknowledge and empathize with his feelings.)

If he tries to hit you, either move away, or hold him without hurting him so that he can't hit you. You can say "You are so mad at me. You feel really sad that you can't have that." Eventually, he will get past the anger to the sad feelings underneath and just cry in your arms. Remember that it isn't a bad thing for him to cry. Little people have so many frustrations. Sometimes, like the rest of us, they just need to cry.

Is he over-reacting? Of course!  But it's good for him to get all his sads and mads out in the safety of your embracing presence, so breathe your way through it.  Afterwards, he'll either sleep or feel so good you'll have a wonderful evening together.

Think about what you feel like when you’re swept with exhaustion, rage and hopelessness. If you do lose it, you want someone else there holding things together, reassuring you, acknowledging your feelings, and helping you get yourself under control. Your son needs to know that you love him no matter what feelings he has, and that as soon as he's ready, you'll help him recollect himself. Afterwards, make up. Take some “cozy time” together, so he is reassured that you still love him.

And don't worry. This too shall pass!

Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 30-Sep-2009 11:40 PM
I like this article. I have 11 month old (boy girl) twins. They are certainly beginning to assert themselves. I have to turn my head to hide the smile sometimes when they are trying to let me know they do not want something. Especially at meal times. They are so independent. I have tried to feed them by spoon and will continue to try, but they will not eat it that way. Smacking it off of the spoon. Just the look on their faces when they do this is enough to make me (a lot of things at once) but most of all laugh under my breath. Because I don't want them to feel like what they are doing is acceptable nor do I want them to think their feelings are "funny". The advice for creativity is good as well. I have found that this is the only way around the protests of my little tiny tots. When my son throws a fit and screams and turns and whales at diaper change, I sing the Barney song to him and it amuses him enough to distract him long enough to finish the change. If they don't like dinner, but love crackers, I learned to puree dinner in the blender and spread it on the crackers and let them go to town. But I am finding that they study me enough to predict my behavior. Thus making me come up with new ideas regularly to surprise and entertain. Because once something gets old to them I haven't a chance of distracting them from little (BIG) fits. Thank you. Mom in IN
Anonymous commented on 31-May-2011 05:16 PM
This is great advice! My 11 month old boy is defonately going throught this stage and it is tough but good to know it is a positive thing and that ther are ways to deal with it . Thank you .
Anonymous commented on 11-Aug-2011 03:26 PM
This info is really helpful and a relief to know there are others out there. My 11 month old son is so whiny and tantrumy at home, mostly with me. I can't help but feel sad about it at times. He is great with other people and very social but the minute
we are home he consistently falls into melt downs. He has had all of my attention as I have stayed home with him full time for almost 10 months and he has never known anything but tons of love but when this behavior started at about 8 months(every day most
of the day) I had to finally get some help to keep from losing it. I have tried everything to help. I always want to be able to just sit and be with him but he will often still fuss and fuss and start fussing again the minute I put him down. Its not like it
consoles or comforts him even if I carry him around all day. It's hard not to feel like a bad parent even though I know that's not true.
Tahlie commented on 14-Aug-2011 04:24 AM
Thank-you so much for the article. My son has just turned 11 months and this morning had his first meltdown to the point where I thought this is totally not normal and as soon as he fell asleep from exhuastion I googled tantrums at 11 months. I of course
handled the situation totally wrong but happy to know better now after reading your article. I now know for next time to keep cool and acknowledge his feelings. I give him choices with most things but really battling with nap times lately. Well as you said,
this too shall pass. Thank-you for helping me know this is all normal.
d commented on 02-Dec-2011 11:55 PM
Awsome thanks soo much great post my son is just starting this and i thought i was doing something wrong!! thxx
Karissa commented on 22-Mar-2012 12:12 AM
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I was concerned that my 11 month old son's behavior was abnormal. I know that I have not been handling his tantrums the way I should, but had no idea how to go about handling them properly. Thank you for putting my mind
at ease and providing strategies to validate his feelings while keeping my composure.

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