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I want to start out saying that I realize there is nothing unusual about my son's behavior as I'm about to describe, especially considering the situation (new baby). I am just wondering what, if anything, can be done to help him out.

My son, the oldest, is just a couple of weeks shy of his third birthday. Two months ago, my wife gave birth to his younger sister. There are just the two kids.

Since shortly after the younger sister was born, and especially since we no longer had grandparents visiting to see the new baby (we live far enough away that we do not see grandparents except a couple of times per year), the behavior of my son has changed noticeably. When things don't go the way he wants, he resorts instantly to whining, which builds up (sometimes also instantly) to an epic crying fit. When he starts whining, it is nearly impossible to reason with him or get him to listen to us, and when he's throwing a fit it's basically impossible to get him to calm down and listen for at least a little bit. He threw large fits before his younger sister was born, but nothing like what he does now nor as often (it's several times a day now).

These whine sessions/fits are thrown when something happens that he doesn't want (like, time to turn off the TV or time to stop playing outside), when we can't understand what he's saying, or even for small things. Often the fits over smaller things are easily resolved by us, but he's so inconsolable he won't pay enough attention for us to resolve his problem.

After throwing a fit for a while, we can usually convince him to calm down and he is able to calm himself down fairly quickly. However, it takes a while to get to that point.

Again, I know this behavior isn't unusual. I am not expecting to eliminate fits or whine sessions from my son, but I am hoping I can teach him to express displeasure in a reasonable way for at least a few seconds before starting whining and throwing fits so those things that are easily resolvable can be resolved before he gets to the point that he won't pay attention to what we're saying any more.

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Different situations are different. Sometimes kids throw a tantrum because they have a disappointed desire (aka, the movie is over, time to turn off the tv; or, that's enough dessert, time to be done; or, we have to stop playing and put our toys away because it's time for bed; or, no we aren't going to buy that toy). Other tantrums are the result of a disappointed expectation ("I thought grandma and grampa were coming over over right now; I thought we were having Mac n cheese for dinner!"). And some tantrums are the result of increased particularity due to exhaustion ("You're touching my blanket!; Dada took a bite of my French fry!; I need my cup to be facing exactly this direction!; no music!").

With tantrums of the first type, if my son is too worked up to listen, I start with, "Do you need a timeout so you can calm down?" About 80% of the time he will calm himself down immediately, and the other 20% of the time he has a brief timeout - usually about 3 minutes. I will say that this ONLY works because every time I tell him that a behavior is going to lead to a timeout, I deliver. And the first few times (when he was 18 months - 2 years) he would sometimes continue throwing a tantrum in his room for quite a long time before calming down - sometimes 20 or even 30 minutes - but I kept explaining to him that he could come out as soon as he was calm, and eventually he got it).

Once he's calmed down, I explain to him the reason for what's happening, and what the future consequence will be if he continues to react with a tantrum - "A movie is a special treat, and we watch movies to have a good time and make us happy. When the movie is done, it's time to turn it off, and the appropriate response would be, 'thank you mama for watching a movie with me, that was really fun.' If watching a movie means you're going to be upset afterwards, then we won't be watching movies anymore, because the whole point is to make us happy." For a given situation, I typically need to offer this kind of explanation on maybe 2 separate occasions before he stops having tantrums about that thing. At this point, the worst I get in most situations is, "Why can't I have that toy, mama?" And then I say "You tell me why," and he says (for this particular situation) "because I already have a lot of toys at home, and we're only here to buy food." He will be 3.5 the end of this month.

For the second type of tantrum, there's some vulnerability involved in the way he's feeling, so he needs more compassion and understanding. If he is willing to accept a hug, then I know he's truly feeling sad about it, and not acting out to get what he wants. If this is the situation, I tell him I understand how he's feeling, and that I makes sense to feel sad or disappointed when you think something is going to happen and then it doesn't. He usually calms down very quickly with just that, but then we do the explanation thing afterwards just like with type 1 tantrums - "grandma and grampa can't come over today, even though they said they were going to, because their dog got sick and they have to take him to the doctor; I understand why you thought we would have mac n cheese for dinner since we just bought some at the store, but mama got that for lunch tomorrow, and for dinner we're having (insert food here)." Once he understands, he's usually immediately accepting of the situation and moves on. Just like with a type 1 tantrum though, if he's mad and won't listen or accept comfort, then we first start with a timeout until he's calm enough to talk about it.

The third type of tantrum is all about feeling vulnerable, and my response is all about comfort. Lots of hugs and kisses, and only understanding. I do tell him that he needs sleep/rest, and that I'll help him be in a situation where he can take a nap as soon as possible, and if it really is an exhaustion tantrum, he's grateful to hear that. I will also mostly cater to his desires in this kind of situation, because I know the root cause is feeling vulnerable, and uncomfortable, and out of control, and his "demands" are his assessment of what will make him feel safe, and comfortable, and in control (of himself and his physical space). Once he is comfortable, he will usually calm down and go to sleep, and a couple of hours later he's back to his happy self.

He has about one tantrum every two weeks, and in the last year or so has only had 2 that lasted longer than 3 minutes. Most are of the exhaustion variety.

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My son is almost 2. When he starts getting upset like this, I give him a choice. For example, "Do you want to have your diaper changed, or do you want a timeout?" I think he likes to have some control over his world, and the choice seems to calm him down some, I can actually see him thinking about it sometimes which is awesome. He often decides to do the thing he was originally upset about when given a choice. Hope this helps!

  • This is a great idea, and when my son was 2 it worked great! Doesn't work as well now though. – NeutronStar Sep 15 '17 at 21:37
  • here are my thoughts. I think your son is feeling quite left out with the new born around. Have both of you as parents tried spending individual time with your child? Special bonding time ? This will help him immensely. Also try to get him involved in small chores with the baby ? 3 year olds can help around with the house and take responsibility; like putting things in the dustbin; packing up their stuff after playing. I have a routine established for finishing off with activities, i usually set an alarm or sing a sing and let him know that is the end of activity – bhavs Sep 20 '17 at 6:14
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    Also I would give him positive choices to decide - " Do you want to come in and read a book with me or do want to hop like a bunny into the house " Positive options mostly work. Also I ask my son to sit on couch in the living room and think about stuff instead of sending him away from everyone. Worst case scenario; I deny him of my company by timing my self out ( here we have a balcony where I spend 15 to 20 minutes so that I get a breather too ) – bhavs Sep 20 '17 at 6:17
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One thing that I believe has not been mentioned... I work with young children and one thing that I find helpful is to give children a warning when something is about to happen that may upset them in some way.

For example, saying “ In five minutes it will be time to go to the toilet alright?” Or “ We need to go inside soon, so finish what you are doing please”. If they start whining at the warning you can remind them they still have some play time left. It may take some time but after a while i find the warning system helps. Make sure you follow through after 5 mins though. It doesn’t matter if you actually wait for 5 minutes or 3 minutes or 2 minutes as children this young usually cannot tell how much time actually passed.

Every child and family is different and I believe it’s about having lots of different ideas to try out and see what works for you and your child.

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