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13 month old Tantrums

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My little boy is just 13 months, but the tantrums have already started. I know that its normal behavior for this age. But I'm concerned with how to handle it at this point. I don't want it to get worse over time because I'm doing the wrong thing.

I do the ignoring trick, it works for the smaller things. But when he's really upset it doesn't work. I think it seems to make him more upset. I'll leave the room and he'll follow me around screaming and crying and hanging on me. I am so torn, because he's still little and at that point, I feel like he just needs some comfort and he'll be okay. But then I have this internal dialogue telling me that by comforting him I am sending the message that its okay to throw these fits, and thats how he gets my attention.

He generally is a very easy little boy. He is easily distractable, very patient and easy tempermant. But the little tantrums are starting to happen more frequently and I'd like to know that best way to handle them right now as we are in the beginning stages of this.
-- Ashley


Dear Ashley,
I hear how torn you are in wanting to do what's right for your son. I know that experts often advise parents to ignore tantrums. That advice is outdated. Tantrums are a clear indication that at that moment, the child can't regulate himself. We know that kids develop the ability to self-regulate from their interactions with the parent. In other words, the child picks up from our limbic system whether the situation really is an emergency. If we stay calm and reassuring, we restore the child's sense of safety, and he can calm down.

Of course, if you promptly hand your child what he is tantrumming for every time he tantrums, then he will certainly learn that tantrums are a good way to get what he wants. But there is a big difference between "giving in" to the tantrum by giving the child everything he wants, and helping your child restore his sense of equilibrium by offering him safety and compassion. Ignoring an upset child actually decreases his sense of safety, so it makes it harder for the child to calm down. I am convinced that ignoring tantrumming kids makes it harder for them to learn self-regulation. I have not seen any conclusive research on this, but hundreds of parents have told me that when they respond to the unhappiness their child is expressing by offering him comfort and understanding, the child tantrums less. And it makes sense, given what we now know from brain research about how kids learn self-regulation.

So let's start from the premise that your son is not "throwing fits" to get your attention. He is throwing fits because he is 13 months old and feels so passionately about everything, and simply doesn't have the capacity to control himself yet.

Sometimes kids just need to cry, to show you all their upset feelings. I call that a meltdown. But sometimes tantrums are a response when children don't feel understood. If you can avoid those tantrums by offering your child empathy and understanding, that will help him feel connected and cared about, and will avoid some tantrums. And since tantrums are scary to young children, if you can avoid a tantrum by meeting your child's basic needs -- sleep, food, not over-stimulating -- that's a good thing, too. Finally, since tantrums are often an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums.

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. He's a little young to really understand, but begin reminding him when a tantrum is brewing that if he has a tantrum you aren't allowed to even consider his request. Unless they are really at the end of their rope, this message 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. Kids who feel needy are more likely to tantrum. If you've been separated all day, make sure you reconnect before you try to make dinner.

5. Stay connected. 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.)

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.

Finally, it is not unusual for babies at age 13 - 15 months to begin to act this way. The resistance we begin to see at about 13 months is actually a very positive development: the beginning of our child's asserting himself as a separate person.

As babies become less distractible, and more assertive, they try to assert some control over their environment, just as we all do. He can't talk yet, really, 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 for parents, 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 personhood?

The more control toddlers -- and your son is one, now -- 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 this website for more ideas on managing toddlers.

Does that mean you just have to give in to everything he wants? Of course not. You'll find yourself setting lots of limits. But if you can set them with empathy, at least he will feel understood, so he's less likely to resist your limits.

This mean you'll have to be very creative as a parent now. Think of it as Parenting Aikido, granting his need for independence but still meeting 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?"

13 months really is the beginning of a new stage, but it can be a wonderful one. Please don't worry that comforting him will make his tantrumming worse. It will help him feel understood, so he tantrums less. And if he cries, that's okay too, as long as you stay with him and help him feel safe. Trust your own instincts and enjoy your little boy!

Thank you for your suggestions and thoughts. I guess he really isn't throwing full on tantrums, because like you described them to be, they aren't really like that. Its more just crying and following me around to hold him if he doesn't get his way. I think I can see now that perhaps he's upset that he couldn't get what he wants but just needs some love at the moment to make the "no" seem not as harsh. I'm glad to know that by giving him comfort at that moment will not "spoil" him or make the tantrums worse.

I do try to let him always have options. What fruit of veggie to eat, what shoes to wear, what toys to play with in the tub, etc. He definitely knows what he wants! It does help with transitions, like from say playtime to getting out to run errands, since its not a struggle to get his shoes on, he choose them and willingly lets me put them on him.

I do see that the little upsets happen when he is either hungry right before dinner, or before nap time. So I think possibly making a better effort to snuggle with him during those times or give him a little snack while I fix dinner may help.

It is very new terrain for me. I'm grateful for the suggestions and the website. Thanks again! --Ashley


It is definitely new terrain when they get into the second year, and it always challenges us as parents. Sounds like you're doing great in offering him choices. And all humans are more likely to be upset when hungry or tired; it makes sense that he has fewer internal resources to deal with challenges then. (I know that's true for me!)

There's a myth that if we set a limit and our kids are upset because they didn't get what they wanted, we should ignore their unhappiness. In fact, kids always do better if we acknowledge their feelings. That doesn't mean we don't set limits, or that we agree with our kids' feelings. But limits without empathy is authoritarian child-raising, and just makes for angry, rebellious kids. If we can set limits and empathize with our kids' unhappiness about those limits, our kids will internalize the limits in a healthy way, and will be much more cooperative.

Here's something from another advice letter on this board that illustrates what I mean:
If you can make it a constant practice to honor your son's feelings, he will begin to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to manage them: “You wish you could have that candy. It's almost dinner time, so no candy. I know that makes you sad. You can have some carrots if you're hungry, and I can give you a hug to make you feel better. We can snuggle on the couch and read your book. I see you're too sad and mad to read right now, you want that candy so much you're crying. It's hard to be so sad and mad. When you're ready I'll hold you and give you a big hug.”

Adopting this strategy now will greatly reduce the number of tantrums your son has as he gets deeper into his second year. Enjoy him!

I have to say this is right on!

This morning at breakfast he was drinking his sippy of juice and ignoring his breakfast. He was pretty much almost finished with his juice and I didn't want him to fill up on the juice and not get the important stuff from the eggs and strawberrries on his plate. So I took away his sippy, telling him at the same time "lets eat a little breakfast, and then you can have more to drink" of course he was mad! In the past I would have probably said "Jalen you need to eat" or just gotten flustered at this outburst. But instead this morning I got down on his level and said sympathetically " I know its hard, you really love your juice, but lets eat a little bit and then we can have some more juice." It instantly stopped his little outburst!

I think I forget sometimes that just because he can't use many words with me yet, he still understands what I'm saying, and especially the tone that I use. Its important for me to remember I can talk to him and it will help!

Thanks again!

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