Toddler tantrums often mimic adult behavior

February 29, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

A new study indicates the way parents approach the toddler years can affect how their child will develop.

Researchers found that “parents who anger easily and overreact are more likely to have toddlers who act out and become upset easily.” In other words, if you quickly fly off the handle at your toddler’s boundary-testing antics, it’s more likely for your child to have frequent temper tantrums.

The study also indicated that children who have high levels of “negative emotionality” during these early years have a harder time regulating their emotions and tend to exhibit more problem behavior when they get in school.

The findings aren’t all that earth-shattering when you think about how often we hear that children follow the lead of the adults around them. It makes sense that even young children are capable of modeling their parents’ actions – good and bad. However, the fact that this early behavior can continue into the school years presents a challenge that parents will want to nip in the bud.

There’s no doubt a toddler’s increasing mobility and push for independence can make those years particularly challenging. So what’s a frustrated parent to do?

  • Keep your cool. Remember that your frustration may only serve to fuel the fire. Take a deep breath and remember that a toddler doesn’t yet know how to control their emotions – but you do. Model calm, controlled behavior and over time they will follow your lead.
  • Ignore the tantrum. Make sure your child is safe and that they can’t hurt themselves – or anyone else – and then ignore the behavior. Yelling back only reinforces their belief that acting out gets your attention.
  • Take the situation into account. A toddler who is disappointed that he can’t physically do something (such as zip a jacket) may have a tantrum to vent frustration and may need to be comforted. On the other hand, one who doesn’t get what she wants and responds by swatting a sibling should be moved to a safe, quiet place to calm down.
  • Don’t cave. Giving in to your toddler’s tantrum in aisle 3 may get you through the grocery store, but it won’t promote positive behavior. When a child has a temper tantrum because you deny them something, and then you give in, you’re teaching a child that negative behavior gets your attention. And to a child, negative attention is better than no attention.
  • Acknowledge positive behavior. Praise even little instances of positive behavior and you are setting the stage for your child to repeat that behavior. Again, your child will behave in a way that gets them attention.


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