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Three-Year-Old's Temper Tantrums

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: We have a three-year-old son who recently began a very disturbing behavior. He will, most often in the morning, go into a rage when asked to get dressed or have breakfast,etc. Once precipitated, the rage will continue unabated for up to an hour! It is impossible to talk to him during the episode as he cannot hear through his own screaming, and further it only seems to aggravate it more. We also can't seem to let him "cry it out" as he will attach himself to your leg, screaming not to do whatever you were headed for. Then as suddenly as it starts, it stops. As if a switch is thrown, he will re-engage in play and appear happy and light. How do will handle the rage episodes? Is this "normal" behavior for a three-year-old? What causes it? Help!!!

A: Your son has entered the tantrum stage. I know it's hard to fathom how this content little child seemed to turn overnight into this periodically rageful, inconsolable three-year-old. Tantrums may appear several times a day for months, plateau, maybe disappear, and then reappear at the next growth spurt. What usually precipitates these tantrums is the boxed in, angst-ridden feeling the preschooler has when he wants to be more independent but doesn't have the skills or freedom to do what he wants. Your son's seem to center around his railing against being asked to participate in his usual morning rituals. He's not consciously choosing to be out of control every morning. As you can see from how scared he is while this is going on, he is as overwhelmed and stunned by his uncontrollable emotions as you are. Trying to talk to him or reason with him during a tantrum is worthless, he truly can't hear you.

A book that will help you understand and head off tantrums, talk to your child about them, and reduce their frequency and duration is Kathy Levinson's " First Aid For Tantrums" (Saturn Press). There is also good advice about periodic rages in Patricia Henderson Shimm's "Parenting Your Toddler" (Addison Wesley). I know that after consulting these resources you will be far better equipped to understand the reasons why he is behaving like this and to cope with these tantrums. Thankfully they do pass as the child moves through this developmental struggle for independence and control.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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