Posted by: Admin | May 5, 2011

Dear LC – My breastfeeding two-year-old throws tantrums. My family and friends say it is because she is still breastfed. Is that true?

No! Have you ever heard of the “Terrible Two’s”? They occur in children from the age of 18 months up to as late as the age of four years, and sometimes even older. Whether the child is being breastfed or not has no influence on how this developmental phase occurs. But wait – no, I take this back! In fact, breastfed children who have always had their needs met should live through  a shorter or a less severe form of the Terrible Two’s.

Let me explain.

The Terrible Two’s is an expression used to describe a period in a child’s life when she feels a lot of frustration. She is more intellectually awake and would like to express her more complex thoughts, but her verbal skills are lacking and/or she lacks the impulse control to handle the frustration brought upon by her limitations. Some experts say that the way tantrums are handled will determine how quickly the phase will pass, but others acknowledge that some children have higher needs and are more prone to tantrums regardless of how their parents handle these episodes.

First of all, if you have a child who can express herself easily with words, has an extended vocabulary, and  pronounces words clearly so she can be easily understood, you will probably not recognize much of what people are referring to when they talk about the Terrible Two’s. A child who can communicate is usually more “listened to” and will have less reason to become frustrated. Baby Sign language was developed with this in mind: to help a child communicate before her brain can actually allow her to speak! It is a simpler child-adapted form of the sign language used by the hearing-impaired. I took a few courses with my daughter and have used it with her. It was a fun activity, made me interact with her more, and got the rest of the family involved as grandmothers, brothers, sisters and even the extended family were interested in learning and using it. It also made a great conversation subject for gatherings. My daughter was not a verbally challenged child; on the contrary, she spoke early and clearly. So sign language became a game more than a necessity. With other children who are less capable of or interested in talking, sign language can help make communication easier and decrease frustration levels.

Many experts also talk about avoiding “triggers”. The first time you encounter a tantrum you will probably just ram right into it like a bulldozer. And you will not know what hit you! It usually starts with something quite simple, maybe a “no” to a very ordinary request for a candy, a treat, or a snack.  And bam! Next thing you know, your child will be screaming away and you will not be able to comfort her. In some cases, she will throw herself on the floor, kicking her legs about; some children even hold their breath for a while. But once you have experienced a few of these scenes, you will start to realize that there are triggers to these tantrums: there will be a pattern of behavior or something else that you will be able to recognize. For example, say your child has been up a few nights during the week, and seems more tired, more grouchy, and more likely to cry; then, when you decide you need to talk on the phone a little longer, or  you need to concentrate on what to buy at the store and so ask her to be quiet, or you are also tired and may be a little too curt in answering her relentless questions, there it goes! Boom! A tantrum! Some mothers also see a connection to their child’s diet. For instance, we do not realize how quickly sugar will trigger reactions. However, the most insidious culprit is food dye. Many children’s attention deficit behaviors – acting out, aggressiveness and poor impulse control – may be caused by the food coloring they ingest from many different foods. We always think to avoid candies, but we do not think about foods such as popsicles, jello, ice cream, cookies, cereals, and other common foods. How about cheese? Single slices contain food coloring. Food coloring is used in foods such as hot-dogs, sausages, oranges and salmon to make them more appealing. Still with respect to food, we also have to be careful of preservatives and artificial sweeteners; in addition, some children with food intolerances can react with tantrums. As you can see, the triggers can be numerous, but you will eventually get to recognize the ones that trigger your child’s tantrums. Here are a few common triggers:

-lack of sleep

-being told “no” too often or several times in a row

-being told not to do something or to stop doing something too many times in a row

– not getting enough attention for a while

– overstimulation (parties, too many friends over, socializing too frequently, etc.)

-activities demanding too much of them, such as those requiring a lot of concentration (learning the alphabet, learning how to count, etc.)

– candies, food coloring, food additives, sweeteners

-food intolerances or allergies

What to do when your child throws a tantrum

Frustration tantrums require empathy, not outrage! If your child wants to do something himself, try to help but ask for permission first. Show him you understand that he frustrated. Relate to him by telling him this also happened to you when you were little. Tell him a funny story of his brother or sister trying to do things by themselves. Remember, he does not have the verbal or emotional skills to express his frustration. Take this opportunity to bond with your child and direct him to a more manageable part of a task. Get down to his eye level and say softly “ Tell mommy want you want.”

Never ignore a frustration tantrum. It is like ignoring an essential need.

 My experiences 

I know that it is easy for me to write this and that it is different  when we are “in the moment”. I have four children so I am not writing based only on theory.  I am writing from past experiences. I cannot say I was a master with tantrums – probably quite the contrary. My first and my last born children were the ones that I had the most difficulty with.

My first-born threw the type of tantrum where you see the child on the ground in the middle of a mall, screaming, punching and kicking. Usually I had to almost drag him back to the car and return home. I never did find his “triggers,” but he usually threw tantrums when he did not get what he wanted. He was always a child with poor impulse control, and he continued to have this issue for a long time. Looking back, I would qualify his tantrums as “manipulative” tantrums. I will address this type of tantrum in next week’s Dear LC post.

My last child, who is now 6 years old, has helped me grow a great deal as a mother. She had a few good tantrums. She did not have them at around two as expected though. They started when I moved to Mistissini. She was then 3 years old and had the most obvious trigger: she missed her father! Many other little triggers added up as I was alone with her 24 on 24. She did not go to daycare and was with me all day. I worked part of the day from home, and in the afternoon I brought her to the office. You can imagine there was a lot of “Please be quiet,” “Don’t do that,” “Do not touch that,”…”Let mommy work a little, OK?,” and so forth. It did nothing good for my relationship with her.  However, I think breastfeeding her as a toddler did save me many tantrums. It provided wonderful moments when all was love and tenderness between us.

It should have become easier when she did enter daycare, but she got sick very often and I was up many nights. I am an older mother (I was 47 when my daughter was born), and patience seems to run away from me when I am overtired and overworked.  So she did throw some good tantrums. I handled them really badly in the beginning, as I did not realize what they were. I thought she was being difficult. Then, I saw the triggers. And I started to try different strategies to reduce the length of the crisis. I tried ignoring, time-outs, talking, negotiating, and other approaches. They did not work. What finally proved the most effective was just taking her into my arms. Naturally she would kick me away in the beginning, so it always took me a couple of tries, but I would firmly insist she stay in my arms. I tried to use soothing words and that got her crying harder.  So I learned not to speak; instead, I simply caressed her and rocked her. She would still cry and sometimes scream, but eventually the cries would diminish and she would simply stay in my arms. Holding and rocking her the first time completely took away the kicking and hitting for the following times. After the fact, she would express that she did a “tantrum”, and would come and tell me she was sorry. We would talk about it and both explain ourselves. That is when I found out that she cried harder when I spoke tenderly as it made her feel really guilty that she was behaving so badly. She wanted to stop her tantrum but lacked the control to do so.

She turns 6 in a few weeks. The tantrums are long gone. Once in awhile she will react to my impatience in times of stress or fatigue. She knows she does not have the most patient mother in the world. She did teach me to express myself more, so she also knows her mother’s  “trigger points” and we can then work around hers and mine.

She is understanding and I am grateful and in awe of the maturity that is in such a young and innocent child. I am not a perfect mother, but I am her mother, and oh, how I love her!

When you do not know what to do, let love guide you too!


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