Q&A: 18-month-old tantrums

Cynthia writes:

"My eighteen month old daughter is very affectionate (loves to cuddle), but is also quite clingy.  I know this is age appropriate and so I make an concerted effort to make her feel secure, by giving her lots of physical contact, warning her when I'm leaving the room, etc.  Lately, however, she's started pitching fits, often when I'm not giving her the attention she wants.  She cries and tries to bury her head between my legs (if I'm standing) or in my lap (if I'm sitting).  My instinct is to hold her until she calms down, which happens quickly.  However, all of the books say to ignore the tantrum rather than cater to the child's attention-seeking demands.  The few times I've tried this, the fit escalates and my daughter is distraught for a long time.  Am I spoiling her by allowing her to have what she wants (attention from me), or am I simply giving her the comfort she needs when she's frustrated?"

This question is near and dear to my heart, because we're living through the exact same thing with my 18-month-old right now. Between the constant cuddling, head-burying tantrums, and the holding onto my legs as I try to walk, I'm beginning to get that jump-out-of-my-skin feeling, as I bet Cynthia is.

This age is rough. It's rough on the kids, because they have all these emotions and desires they don't know how to manage. Sounds like the back of a romance novel, but you know what I mean. All of a sudden they realize that it would by possible, hypothetically, to express their wills and get what they want. But they just can't seem to do it to make it work the way they want it to because the facility with language just isn't there yet (unless you've lucked out and have a signing superstar). That makes them little cauldrons of frustration and hurt.

It's really rough on the parents, because we're not only trying to figure out what on earth they're trying to tell us with all that straining and pointing and foot-stomping, but we're also the targets of all their frustration and anger and misery when they can't get what they want. No matter how well you know that they save it all up for you because they trust you most and feel comfortable with you, it's still just a gut-punch to have them smile and laugh with everyone else and cry and scream with you, seemingly all the time.

But back to how to handle the tantrums. I think there are three things you have to look at in any tantrum situation: 1) The kid's age, 2) the kid's personality, and 3) what you want to accomplish. IMO (well, duh, because this is my blog) ignoring the tantrums of an 18-month-old is going to be counter-productive. At this age they need so much guidance with everything, especially how to manage their feelings and communication. So ignoring the tantrum doesn't teach them anything at all, and it's not going to help them move through this stage on to a more pleasant one. That's not to say that sometimes kids don't get into a big loop you can't get them out of (that's personality a lot of the time) and the only thing that works to help calm them down is lack of stimulation (ignoring them is part of that), but in general they need guidance at this age to help channel their feelings. (That's also not to say that you don't sometimes have to ignore them because you can't take any more and if you don't walk out of the room you'll freak out. But that's managing your own emotions effectively, not managing your child's tantrum.)

So basically I don't think making the blanket policy decision to ignore the tantrums of an 18-month-old every time makes a lot of sense developmentally speaking. I also don't get why it's bad to give your child what s/he wants, especially if that's your attention. You had kids to ignore them? And how does withholding attention teach a child to be a loved, loving, secure person? I have to wonder about authors of books who are telling us to withhold emotion and comfort from our kids.

That's not to say that ignoring doesn't make perfect sense in other situations. Ignoring a tantrum can serve two purposes, and can be quite effective for older kids who have more self-awareness and more language. It can give a kid who needs to rage alone (maybe one who cries to release tension) the space s/he needs to do that. It can also work as a form of behavior modification, so it's stellar for older kids (and adults at holiday dinners) who are trying to control the emotional mood by throwing a fit. But most of that is better for kids over two, who have lots of language and who can make a decision about how they can be helped to feel better.

I always felt better about the tantrum when I could help the kid through it. For a baby (18-month-old) a lot of the time that means comforting. For a 2+-year-old, a lot of the time that meant saying, "It looks like you feel really bad. Do you want a hug or do you want me to leave you alone?" The first time they can tell you what will help them feel better, you feel like you just discovered the Rosetta Stone. Once the tantrum is over you can work on how to fix the problem that caused them to feel so upset. That evolves into "Go cry if you need to, and then come out and we'll talk about it when you're ready."

Hang in there. This stage is tough! So far it's my least favorite of all the stages (both times), and I just keep telling myself that if we can all survive until he's 21 months it'll get easier.