QUESTION: My two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter has been
having temper tantrums lately. They seem to be getting worse, and
nothing we do seems to help. I am a very involved grandmother and
care for my granddaughter often. She has begun to bite her own arm
and pull her hair out during these episodes. Is she just trying to
get attention, and is it best to simply ignore this behavior? Please
give suggestions on how I can help her.
ANSWER: Although your granddaughter
may be behaving in this way to garner attention, do not make the mistake
of ignoring self-destructive behavior. She must be stopped before
she hurts herself. It is important for parents and caretakers to act
quickly to communicate that this behavior is not acceptable and will
not be allowed!
Holding young children tightly in your lap so that
they cannot hurt themselves is one option. Hold her hands and let
her know, speaking in a calm but authoritative tone, that it is not
all right to hurt herself or others. Restrain her from hurting herself,
but accept her crying. Remind yourself that she is feeling angry or
tired, if this is the case. But do not stop there!
Consider whether she clearly understands your expectations
and what the consequences are for breaking your rules. It is natural
for toddlers of this age to "fall apart" and to push limits. It is
a period of high emotions for many children. Keep in mind that it
is the job of a two-year-old to challenge limits, and it is the parent
or caretaker's job to neutrally and predictably reinforce rules and
expectations, without withdrawing love.
Consider the meaning of your granddaughter's tantrums,
and reflect on the following suggestions:
1. Regulate activity and overstimulation. Tiredness
can play a role in tantrums. Keep in mind that a two-year-old is mastering
new activities at a rapid level -- from riding a tricycle to climbing
a gym set -- and periods of rest and quiet are essential to prevent
exhaustion. Consider a nap or a 30-minute "quiet time," resting together
and reading stories to help calm your grandchild.
Overstimulation may also be the culprit -- for example,
if the environment is noisy or flashing with lights, such as a shopping
mall or a gathering of relatives for a holiday party. A young child
may need an adult to regulate sensory input so that her nervous system
is not overloaded. This is particularly true before the age of four,
as the nervous system is still developing. An overstimulated child
may end up having a crying tantrum to release pressure. It may help
to take her on a quiet walk around the neighborhood as a break from
loud, boisterous activity, or to a park to physically release pent-up
2. Provide age-appropriate activities. Tantrums
can occur if a child is understimulated as well as overstimulated.
When caring for your grandchild, provide interesting projects and
structured activities, such as painting, building, or riding a tricycle.
(You can get some ideas for activities and projects on this website!)
Other children can be important play companions at this time.
3. Set limits and follow through with appropriate
consequences. When your granddaughter does an "out-of-bounds"
behavior that you have already told her NOT to do, prepare to deliver
appropriate consequences. "No, you cannot pull the plant out of its
pot. You must sit on the couch for 10 minutes, and you may not play
on your tricycle." This very process of limit setting -- including
consequences and follow-through -- makes a child feel secure, and
allows your grandchild to learn self-discipline. Expect your grandchild
to test you, and be prepared to set limits several times before she
is able to control her own behavior. Be clear, too, that when her
time is up she may return to her play or to doing a project by your
side. Make it clear that you are rejecting her behavior, not her!
4. Consider whether her emotional needs are being
met. Finally, tantrums that do not resolve or at least improve with
effective limit setting and attention to under- or overstimulation
may be a sign of greater emotional distress. Adjustments to new situations,
such as a mother returning to work, a new daycare, or a new sibling
may all bring on greater emotional needs that require a bit of extra
soothing and individual attention through trying times.
Consult with your granddaughter's parents about the
best way to put the above suggestions to use. Her parents will no
doubt have their own style and useful information to share that can
shed light on the best way for you to handle your granddaughter's
tantrums when she is in your care. Work together to nip self-destructive
behavior in the bud, and create constructive strategies to help your
granddaughter learn self-control.
Consistency and teamwork across the generations is
a most powerful ally. Your granddaughter is indeed a lucky child to
have a caring grandmother on her side!