Sunday, December 16, 2012

What to do when 2 year old hits and yells

Hi, I came across your email address when researching "anger overload" and was wondering if you can help me. I have a 2 year old girl whom I believe has "anger overload". She'll be perfectly fine until I say she can't have something or something doesn't go the way she wants it (toys won't stand up, blocks fall etc.) that's when she becomes so angry she throws things, yells, hits etc. Is there anything I can do to help stop this from happening? Any advice you can offer me will be greatly appreciated!

Hi, First make a list of the situations when your daughter gets extremely angry.  Look for patterns, and think about how you might head off some of the tantrums before the situations get to that point.  For example, you mention she gets angry when the blocks fall.  You could try telling your daughter when she starts playing with the blocks that they will fall soon, because that is what blocks will do.  Tell her "when that happens we will put them back together."  Then when you see the blocks getting closer to the breaking point, remind her they are going to fall soon.  The strategy is to change your child's expectations before she reaches the breaking point.

Often you will not be able to predict an outburst.  If she is getting frustrated but has not exploded yet, you can use "emotional distraction" to try to head off a tantrum.  By "emotional distraction," I mean that you try to do something that will change her emotional state from one of frustration to laughter or curiosity.  For example, you could mention a favorite activity, song, or funny story to try to distract her.  If she likes trains, make the sound of a train and start waving your arms and make funny noises.  Your behavior does not have to make sense to another adult (who might think you are acting silly), it just has to grab your child's attention.  Another option is to start an activity that your child likes in order to distract her.  For example, if she likes blocks, you could say "look at me building these blocks.  I could sure use your help."

Once your daughter reaches the point of anger overload, it is usually best to say and do nothing, unless she is hurting someone or breaking something of value.  If you have to restrain her, you should do so, but if you can wait her out, do that.  Young children will usually tantrum longer if you try reasoning with them while they are in the middle of a tantrum.  Furthermore, you do not want to give them attention for negative behavior.  While it might be hard to listen to her scream, she is more likely to settle down in the future if she has not received any attention from you during previous tantrums.  You will not see change immediately, but over the coming weeks, tantrums will usually get shorter or less intense if she gets no reaction from you during the tantrum.  Once she settles down, then talk with her (about other things) or play with her.

Two year olds do not have the verbal or thinking skills yet to deal well with frustration, so tantrums are more likely at this age, and should wane as she gets older.  In the meantime, try some of these strategies and see if they help.  You can read more about these ideas in my parent's manual about anger overload in children.  All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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