Ask Dr. Karp: How can I stop my 3-year-old's tantrums?

Ask Dr. Karp: How can I stop my 3-year-old's tantrums?

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Ask Dr. Karp is a monthly Q & A series with world-renowned pediatrician Harvey Karp. Each month, he'll join us on the our site Blog to answer questions from our fans.


Q: My 3-year-old has been throwing tantrums on a daily basis. The whole thing usually begins with him screaming for something (e.g., a truck). When I give it to him, he screams that he doesn't want it. If I take it from him, he screams that he wants it again. We go back and forth until I'm so fed up that as soon as he says he doesn't want something, I refuse to offer it again. This causes him to have an even bigger meltdown.


Dr. Karp: Three-year old tantrums often seem to come out of left field. The "terrible twos" (which actually happen from 18 to 24 months) are long past, and the year between the 2nd and 3rd birthdays is usually pretty happy, with lots more language and growing patience. But for many toddlers, the time between 3 and 3 1/2 could well be called the "terrible threes." It's when our kids get stuck in battles of will (and won't) that can drive a parent crazy!

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to bring some peace and reason back to your house.

Start, of course, with good communication. Try to respond to his upsetness by sincerely acknowledging his feelings, using short two- to three-word phrases repeated five to ten times. And don't just speak flatly, like a robot. Our kids feel respected when we state in simple words what we see they're upset about, using about one-third of their level of feeling in our tone of voice and gestures. (This slightly dramatic way of speaking is called Toddler-ese, and it's very similar to how we speak to them when they're very happy.)

And after you get good at Toddler-ese, here are three other effective tips to try:

1. Get outside! At this age, kids love parks and preschool. It's boring being home all day with Mommy. You'll find that a couple of hours a day in the park help to burn up some of your toddler's extra spunk.

2. Practice calmness. Doing a little slow breathing with 3-year-olds once or twice a day – such as right before a snack or some fun activity – helps them learn better control over their outbursts. (Tell your toddler it's your "magic breathing," to make you feel happy inside. Try just two or three breaths to start, and let him watch you doing it first for a few days.)

3. Avoid tantrum triggers. Many kids fly off the handle when they get overtired or over-hungry, are cooped up, watch too much TV or play too many video games, or have sweets or stimulant foods (chocolate, cola, ice tea, and so on).

Please don't lose faith! This phase will soon pass. And when it ends, the "fantastic fours" will start to unfold in all their wonderful, silly glory. Learn your lessons well, though, because they'll help you a lot when the next tantrum period comes – between 11 and 14 years of age!

And please come back! I'll talk about other fast-acting tips from The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book (like gossiping, playing the boob, and patience stretching) in the upcoming months.

Photo: mdanys, Flickr

Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.

Watch the video: What To Do When Your Child Throws A Temper Tantrum (August 2022).

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