3 Year Old Temper Tantrums

20140125_121052Max is 3.  He has been the socially outgoing kid who is great at expressing himself, has an amazing imagination, plays well with others, etc.  He started walking when he was 7 months, talking soon after, and everyone has told us he is extremely advanced for his age.  Maybe I got used to this?  Maybe I thought the tantrums of the two’s were all we’d see?   Maybe I’m an idiot?  Whatever the answer (my family votes idiot) we’ve hit ground zero for temper tantrums in our household and I have no clue what to do.  I’ve read the books, I’ve read the online articles, I’ve spoken with his teachers, I’ve asked my parents…now I am asking you, people of the internet.  I’m not posting a quirky Op-Ed like I normally do, nor a rant, or product review.  No…we’re going back to the early days of this site from almost 5 years ago and I’m asking for advice.  Please comment on this post with anything you have found that has worked for you or words of encouragement.  I am at a loss.

It started about a month or so ago.  At first it was just whining and not wanting to transition from one action to the next.  Typical.  My wife Kate and I would calmly address it and if it escalated he’d get a short timeout followed by a conversation with explanations and resolution.  We rewarded good behavior, offered unrestricted affection, and instituted a couple of go-to mantras:

  1. We clarified that he was a good boy who sometimes behaved badly…not a bad boy.
  2. We clarified that we loved him no matter what, even when we are frustrated.

2014-03-11 17.12.15That seemed like the right foundation to build consistency and structure upon.  We focused on avoiding tantrum situations by simplifying options and giving him the ability to choose what he wants to do (within the perimeters of the situation).  Things he is expected to do we did not phrase as a question but rather as a statement:  i.e. we say, “Time to go night-night” instead of “Are you ready to go night-night?”  When tantrums occurred we did not cave to them, reward him, reward him for calming down after, etc.  Kate and I were on the same page, things seemed to be working, potty training was our main focus (and it has been going great), and then…BAM!  It just suddenly went haywire.  A month ago we went from a handful of tantrums per week to a handful of tantrums per day.  Now?  Everything is a tantrum.  Everything.

It starts with whining, shouting “No!” and throwing himself on the floor.   This is “Phase 1.”  Then it escalates to slapping, hitting, and kicking the floor, walls, chairs, etc. around him to see if it will get our attention.  This is “Phase 2.”  He is baiting us.  (I often take the hook)  Next he is placed in timeout and it peaks (“Phase 3“) with screaming as loud as he can “No!” repeatedly while slamming doors, kicking things, and screaming animal sounds as loud as he can till he’s red in the face and his voice is cracking.  He looks and sounds like he is possessed.  It is out of control.  It is not normal behavior.  It is atrocious.

While every adult in my life is snickering and thinking, “Karma.”  That doesn’t help me.  Yeah…I was an emotional kid who didn’t play well with others when I was younger.  I don’t want Max to have a childhood like mine and if I can do something now that will help him later in life I want to do it.  That’s the American Dream right?  Make something better for your kids?

20130527_123758Phase 4” is the conversation.  He’s 3 so timeouts are never more than 3 minutes.  The intensity of his tantrum dictates if we ignore him during the tantrum or wait with him for it to ebb.  We have a breathing technique that really calms him down fast and we are great at the conversation part…the question is:  How do we avoid having so many tantrums in the first place?  What can we do to help him transition better?  Are we doing the right thing?  Are other parents going through this?  Have other parents gone through this?  Is this normal?  What worked for you?  What didn’t?  I am genuinely asking for advice.

My dad told me many things on the matter but the one that has stuck with me is, “Pick your battles.”  I hear his voice in my head when I look at Max and I ask myself, “Is this a battle worth picking?”  More often than not I found the answer to be no.  Where I was picking lots of battles and holding Max to unreal standards as the tantrums escalated in frequency…I now try to let the smaller things go.  However, everything we do starts with Max throwing his body on the floor and yelling “no!”  Maybe I have started picking my battles too late because we have multiple tantrums per day.  For me, I go to work 5 days a week so I only interact with him in the morning when he first wakes up and at night before he goes to bed…the two times he is most prone to throwing a tantrum.  I want to spend time with my little boy…but he is so hard to enjoy spending time with.  We used to play together.  We used to enjoy dinner together.  We used to do everything together.  Now, I feel like I’m just surviving him and getting him to bed.  Last night we played basketball in the front yard and it was great…then we had to come inside for dinner and the epic meltdown and front yard tantrum is a more intense memory than the joy of playtime for me.  He’s turned me off from wanting to be around him, yet if I don’t do positive things with him it will get worse.  How do I get out of this cycle?  Everything is a tantrum!

“Max, time for dinner.”  “No!”

“Max, time to go to school.”  “No!”

“Max, time for night-night.”  “No!”

“Max, do you want pasta or chicken?”  “No…I don’t want pasta or chicken!

“Max, do you want ice cream?”  “No!  Wait!

Seriously, his automatic reaction to everything is “no!”  How do we keep “Phase 2” and “Phase 3” from happening so much?  Is this all my fault?  All Max wants to do is play basketball.  Tantrums come from potty breaks, every meal, nighttime, morning, putting on shoes, leaving the house, in public, on the floor of the Scotrade Center as the Wichita State Shockers win Arch Madness, in the middle of the night, out at dinner, when I’m breathing, when I’m sleeping, in my dreams, in my nightmares…

Help me Obi Wan Interneti…you’re my only hope.

2014-03-02 20.09.31


*UPDATE:  While writing this post I was researching temper tantrums and taking notes on the process Kate and I use with our boys.  I often find that what we say we are going to practice and what we do practice differ because people react instinctively in the moment.  I was pleased to see that we were practicing what we preached but saw a weak link in the chain:  How we address the first whimper (“Phase 1”).  Immediately after scheduling this to post I read about another parent’s plight with tantrums and her process – which i decided to try last night.  I came home from work, Max and I played together, we had fun, I gave him the heads up that bedtime would be in 10 minutes, we looked at the clock and discussed it, we played, time was up, I told him it was time to go upstairs for bed, and boom…Max plopped on the floor and said “No!”  Instead of reacting to this and sking him to get up I provided him with 2 options:  “Max, would you like put on your pajamas or brush your teeth first?”  Curve ball.  He excitedly asked to brush his teeth and wanted to know if I would carry him.  I happily obliged.  We went upstairs, he brushed his teeth, he used the potty, we put on pajamas, we read 2 books per usual, and it all went fine.  Then the next tantrum opportunity popped up.  Earlier in the day two toys had been taken away from him for hitting and yelling at Mama, Max wanted them back before going to bed.  I told him, “You’ve been a very well behaved boy since our talk this morning and I think you should get them back but right now it is time for night-night and not playing.”  The whining began…so like before, I gave him two options:  “Max, I can put the toys on the kitchen table or on the ottoman downstairs so you can play with them as soon as you wake up…where would you like me to put them tonight?”  He chose the ottoman.  We hugged it out, snuggled, and Max went to bed without tears.  Tantrum free night.  We are going to keep working on this and I will post a follow-up soon.

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9 thoughts on “3 Year Old Temper Tantrums

  1. I’m going to ask a few questions:
    Does Max hear “no” more often than yes?
    Are transitions abrupt or slow lead ins?
    Does Max have the power to make reasonable choices most of the time?

    Tough times. I know.

    1. The transitions are slow and well explained. Max hears yes all the time and is rewarded for good behavior. He has the power to make many choices and has power over his own destiny. However, he loves to throw his body on the floor. Oddly last night, I tried a different technique for transitioning activities and we had no temper tantrums…TBD if it works ongoing or was just a placebo result.

  2. Honestly? This sounds like totally normal three-year-old behaviour. My daughter hit that phase at age 4 instead and it was dreadful. I, too, felt like I was just surviving her. I was grateful that I got to drop her off at day care and go to work so she would be somebody else’s problem for eight hours. Yes, that’s a terrible thing to think about one’s own child, and I felt dreadful guilt over it, but it was true.
    It sounds to me like you’re doing everything right. Your son is just in a phase where he wants to exert control over everything, and of course that’s just not feasible. Keep doing what you’re doing. Eventually it will pay off. And eventually he will also hit the magical age of 5, or, as I refer to it, “the end of toddler bullshit.”
    Hang in there, man. You’re doing great.

  3. I had similar issues with Dylan. How I survived I don’t know but let me just say that it does get better. One thing that worked and continues to work with Dylan is “do you understand?” I don’t allow him to answer with a simple yes or no but a “yes I understand or no I don’t understand.” Depending on the choice we then discuss what he does or does not get. It takes a little time but it has worked marvelous.

  4. Know this must be difficult. Sounds like Max is frustrated and acting out (= attention). Wonder with Dodge starting to walk recently (mobility) if Max might perceive his space as usurped. While I know this won’t be easy, perhaps making sure he gets special one-on-one time with Kate and you each day might help ease things. Sounds like Kate and you are already making positive parental adjustments. As you already know, parenting is the most important, yet difficult, job we will ever have in our lives. However, at the same time, the most rewarding. This too shall pass.

  5. I got a tip from a Psychologist for behaviorally-impaired children who would prefer to stay anonymous. I would like to share part of her email in case there are other parents researching this topic and reading for tips, ides, etc. This is a great tip:

    “I remember how frustrating it was when my son went through that. He was a stinker. One thing that might work for transitions is to set an egg timer. Set it for 5 or ten minutes and tell him when the timer goes off it is time for bed, dinner, bath, etc…. Put timer where he can see it and carry through. He might even get to a point where he can set his own timer. And, you could give him a choice of 4 or 5 minutes, for example. That would make him feel more in control of the situation. Sounds like power struggles to me, but I do know that “terrible twos” are often experienced at 3 or 4.”

  6. Sounds like about the right stuff. Like the egg timer, but if you try to use it for everything it too will just become”part of the landscape”, plus you don’t want to lug an egg timer everywhere. Maybe just your bedtime and mealtime tool? And yes, pick your battles. And don’t be afraid to just walk away when you can….leave him alone doing his version of “the gator” on the floor. With you missing, where’s the fun and what’s the point? And if you ever need to really win that major battle, forget 3 minutes……put him in his room for an hour, or until he’s calmed down for at least 10 minutes. He won’t be damaged for life, and trust me…..he’ll remember. Remember, your best and first shot is reason, but sometimes he won’t be reasonable. Oh, and absolutely none of this will work perfectly, so make a small investment in upgrading your wine cellar.

  7. Ryan sounds like you have it under control. Different thinks work for different children. Marcie was my fit thrower. I know imagine that. She out grew it—-well, sort of. B

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