Q: My 30-month-old has started throwing tantrums when I do not give her or do for her what she wants. During her fits, she cries, screams, tries to hit and even bite me, and then, if I prevent her from hitting me, will hit herself. My mother says this needs to be nipped in the bud. She recommends spanking. I say my daughter really doesn’t know what she’s doing and is too young to be disciplined for this. I’m also concerned about her self-hitting. What do you say?
A: I say your mother is right. But then again, I disagree with her concerning her recommendation that you spank your daughter when she has a tantrum. By the way, I prefer to call them “high self-esteem seizures” because they are the rage of the naturally narcissistic child at having someone — a parent, usually — refuse to immediately satisfy his or her unquenchable lust for entitlement.
First, your daughter’s tantrums are knee-jerk reactions; nonetheless, she is a highly intelligent member of a self-aware species. Don’t confuse “she cannot explain what she is doing” with “she does not know what she is doing.” Believe me, she knows what she is doing. She is trying to get her way and she believes that becoming an emotional volcano will accomplish that objective. You’ve probably given in a time or two, haven’t you? Yes, you have! Fact: If a parent gives in to one tantrum out of 20, 20 more are instantly loaded into the clip.
Second, you would do well to nip these seizures in the bud, or bloom, whatever the case may now be. As I said, however, I do not recommend spanking. I have no problem with spankings per se (research done by objective people does not find psychological harm — and even finds benefit — when spankings are infrequent and hand-administered by loving parents), but when the issue is a toddler’s tantrums they are not likely to accomplish anything.
Third, your daughter’s self-hitting does not merit concern. As you make clear, she does not hit herself randomly but only when you prevent her from hitting you. Under the circumstances, her self-abuse is what is known as a “displacement.” Also, she probably saw that hitting herself provoked a reaction from you, so she persists. She is, as I said, highly intelligent.
Fourth, the most effective means of nipping these seizures in the bud or bloom is to assign them to a designated tantrum place. When our daughter Amy was this age and her sense of entitlement got the best of her, my wife and/or I simply directed her or dragged her kicking and screaming to her very special tantrum room — the downstairs half-bath. We put her in, told her that this was the only room in the home where tantrums were allowed, encouraged her to scream to her little heart’s content, closed the door, and walked away.
For what usually was less than a minute, Amy would scream, shriek, kick and pound the door, and otherwise go completely berserk. Then she would become silent and, we assumed, sulk. Then she would emerge, go straight to her room and begin entertaining herself as if nothing had happened. We even invented tantrum places on the spot if they occurred in public. One time, for example, I confined Amy to a display bedroom in J. C. Penney’s until her tantrum over wanting a Dracula Colorforms set had subsided, during which time I simply sat in a nearby recliner, dreaming of a life in Tahiti without children.
In short, tantrums are no big deal unless allowed to become a big deal. With that in mind, nip away! Now, be a good daughter and go tell your mother she was right … mostly.
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at email@example.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.