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Toddler Tantrums:
My Granddaughter Is Hurting Herself!

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 energy.

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!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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