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How to Teach (and Learn) Self-Control as a Parent

Any pediatrician or experienced parent will tell you that tantrums are just a fact of toddlerhood. Every child throws fits, and every parent struggles with how to deal with them.

What you're actually teaching is self-control, which is what makes it so difficult. That concept starts with you, and controlling yourself in the face of a screaming, irrational toddler is not always easy.

The official advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to distract, ignore and remove--in that order. On the surface, it seems simple. Distract the child when he starts fussing. If he is angry about leaving the playground, sing a silly song to redirect his attention and mood as you buckle him into the car seat. If that doesn't work and he continues to cry and yell, ignore it with the hope that he'll wear out the anger and frustration. And if that doesn't happen and he pitches a toy at your head instead, tell him sternly, ''No throwing!'' and remove the toys and other potential missiles from the car seat.

Simple--except you're now trapped in a vehicle with a kid screaming bloody murder because, after copious warnings that lunch was coming soon, you had the audacity to ask him to leave the playground. For food. Which he needs to survive.

Are you angry yet? Frustrated? Because I'm getting irritated just remembering this horrible experience--er, I mean, thinking about this hypothetical situation.

I am quick-tempered and impatient. These are not attributes that help me deal with my children's tantrums. But I've found one of the things that helps the most is acknowledging triggers and personality traits that make tantrums worse. For example, a screaming kid still moving toward the exit, I can deal with. But a kid rooted to the spot and screaming will set me right over the edge. I've learned to not even try to herd the boys when they throw fits in public; there's just too much potential for me to lose my temper. Instead, I just toss them over my shoulder, removing everyone from the situation. Looking at the boys, I know my little guy, 2, gets wild and fussy when he's tired, and my oldest rarely flips out anymore unless he's embarrassed. So, I take naps seriously and I'm teaching my 4-year-old to laugh at himself.

The goal, really, is to avoid tantrums. I know that sounds impossible. I'm not saying your kids aren't going to yell and fuss and generally act like fools. They will and probably at the most inopportune times. The goal is to head off the worst of it, the kicking and hitting, biting and flailing. You do not want your child to be a danger to himself or others.

As I said, you're teaching self-control. That starts by teaching them how they can act when they're angry or frustrated.

''Don't flip out. Ask for help.'' We say this to our 2-year-old half a dozen times a day. If things don't work perfectly right away, he wants to panic and scream (I don't know where he gets that), so we're teaching him that a better choice is to ask for help. The screaming stops, he makes his request, we help him and all is right in the world.

''It's OK to be angry. It's not OK to scream/hit/throw toys/bite/pinch.'' There's another phrase you hear often in our house. I think it's pretty self-explanatory.

Another one we use, usually as a last resort when we're at the removing stage we talked about earlier: ''You can choose to throw a fit. I choose not to listen to this. Go to your room until you get it together.''

What I took too long to realize is these phrases pertain to me as well. I can't be slamming around the house or screaming at the boys to quit their screaming or throwing a tantrum over a dinner recipe not working.

I need to ask for help--and that includes from my boys. Young children can be amazingly helpful if they feel truly needed and useful. Two months ago, I was flipping out every night trying to take care of the kids and dinner and the dog after work. No one was listening, everyone was yelling and I didn't have enough hands to do everything. Finally, I broke down and asked the boys if they could help and sorted out jobs they could handle. Tonight, the boys fed, watered and took the dog out to go to the bathroom and play without even being asked. I fixed dinner with a 2-year-old volunteer while the 4-year-old drew pictures.

I need to say what I really feel--not vent my feelings with violence.  A couple years ago, my husband and I got into a fight before work. Still angry, I loaded the boys into the car and slammed the door. I grumbled and snapped. ''Momma, are you mad at Daddy?'' my oldest asked. I said yes and he looked at me thoughtfully in the rearview mirror. ''You should hug him and say you're sorry.'' He was right. It was more productive than grumbling under my breath.

And sometimes, when all else fails, I need to remove myself from the situation. My boys each have blankies and when we send them to their rooms, they suck on the silky edges of these ''lovies'' and burrow their fingers into holes they've made in the patchwork. It calms them. We adults don't have blankies, but we need to figure out something that soothes us as quickly. My little one is hard-headed and stubborn, and everything, every single thing, is a fight with him to see who's in control. Sometimes, I put him in timeout and then, after he's finished his punishment, I take a timeout myself. I find my ''lovey,'' so to speak. I read a book. I make a quick call to my mom for moral support. I hug my husband. I go hide in the bathroom to take a few calming breaths in silence. I do something to make it so my chest does not feel as if it will explode with frustration.

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