Early childhood behavior and tantrums

Since I haven't been able to find a good concise guide that does this justice, and many parents have commented on how helpful my technique has been for them, I've decided to publish my own approach here. So here we go!

Dr. Joel's ten highly effective steps for raising a kind and happy child:

  1. Be the person you want them to be. Being a kind role model around them on a day-to-day basis is more likely to influence them than telling them to be kind when they’re not wanting to be.
  2. Stay calm and collected. If they get worked up, demanding, frustrated, angry, etc., and this eventually leads you to become frustrated, worked up, etc., then it serves as a reinforcement to their behavior. It mirrors the behavior, and going back to #1, models that behavior to them as the appropriate way to handle conflict.
  3. Empathize with their struggle. What may not seem like a big deal to us (e.g. getting to push a button) may be a huge deal to them. If they don’t get the sense that you understand how grave an issue this is for them, they will let you know. Usually by kicking and screaming to convey the severity of the issue. If you let them know right off the bat you can see how important this is to them, that reduces the need for them to demonstrate that to you. It also maintains closeness and compassion.
  4. Make sure they’re able to listen before you tell them a rule or limit. That might require moving away from the cause of the distress, having them sit on your lap, or asking them sweetly to make eye contact with you first and “open their ears”.
  5. Express the rule or limit very clearly. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be, and don’t be wishy washy, giving them a sense that negotiation is possible, or that maybe if they keep pushing they might get somewhere. “You can’t push that button right now, and this is not up for discussion, no matter how badly you want to”. 
  6. Ask questions. Before telling them why they can’t push the button, ask them if they can guess why you might not want them too. Get them involved and thinking about how their actions impact others and their environment, so maybe next time they can come to that conclusion sooner and easier without the need for limit setting. If they can’t guess, ask them if they’d like to know why you are setting that limit, and tell them if they want to know.
  7. Make a positive statement, and give them your vote of confidence. E.g. “you’re really good at being patient, so I know you can do this.”
  8. Take a break. “It sounds like you’re having a hard time staying away from that button, so let’s have you take a break in the other room.” This is not a punishment, your child is likely already upset enough and doesn’t need any negative consequence. But a breathing space away from the scene can be helpful. Always include with this another positive statement: “As soon as you’re ready to follow the rules, I would love to have you join us and we can play a fun game together!”
  9. Maintain consistency. Many breaks may be needed if they continue to push as soon as they return to the scene, sometimes ten or more short breaks until they give up. Some parents are tempted to change the approach since it appears not to be working. Don't. If your response to their behavior fluctuates, they'll keep pushing to discover what other responses they might see. But if it's the same boring response 20 times in a row, they'll move on. 
  10. Decompress. Children can be very focused and upset during these episodes, and may not be open to any dialog at all. After things have resolved, once you’re all reconnected and cuddly again, express something positive to them. “I know you had a really hard time earlier, and I just want to tell you how proud I am of you that you were able to get through that!”

Note that these steps are not expected to resolve a tantrum out of thin air, or prevent tantrums from ever occurring. What they are designed to do is to see tantrums as opportunities for learning and personal growth rather than a moment you’d rather sweep under the rug. With ongoing practice, these steps will eventually lead to a more connected parent-child relationship, easier and less frequent tantrums, and most importantly a desire to be good for the sake of being good, rather than to avoid punishment. Please let us know how these steps are working for you!

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Healthy Schedule

  • After birth (within 24 hours)
  • Newborn visit (day 3-5 of age, home visits encouraged)
  • 2 weeks
  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 9 months
  • 12 months
  • 15 months
  • 18 months
  • 2 years
  • Yearly thereafter