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Tantrums? Power struggles? . . . Oh, you must have a toddler

Mother comforting daughter during tantrum.

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. What's behind tantrums?
2. How to balance control?
3. How to react to not eating?

Got a toddler? Then chances are you’re riding a developmental roller coaster of epic proportions. Tantrums, power struggles, potty training, picky eating and much more.

Exhausted? Hang in there. With a little patience, you can make it through this tumultuous time – and come out of it with a happy, healthy, joyful, curious and loving child.

Almost every parent has had to confront a toddler’s grocery store meltdown or at least watched with sympathy as a fellow parent navigates the tricky candy terrain of the checkout lane.

But such is life with a toddler, right? Actually, it doesn’t have to be this way, said Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a world-renowned scientist, clinician and advocate in pediatrics and child development.


“Children have tantrums as a way to gain control, to get what they want,” said Dr. Brazelton, founder of Brazelton Touchpoints Center. “All children go through this at least once, but it can actually be curbed quite well after that initial tantrum.”

Ann C. Stadtler, a nurse who worked closely with Dr. Brazelton, explains further.

“The first time a toddler gets overpowered or doesn’t get their way, he may react by having a tantrum. Initially, he may not notice the reaction because he is overpowered, but then he does notice how his parent reacts. But as he learns to control his strong emotions he can also control his tantrums.

“Children become very competent at regulating their tempers. They learn how, when and where they are able to turn a tantrum on and off,” Stadtler says.

That should come as a relief because once you understand what might set off your child, you can better respond the next time tempers flare.

“When you can expect a certain reaction or attitude from your child depending on the situation they’re in, then you’ll know how to measure your own reaction,” said Dr. Brazelton, who wrote more than 35 books on pediatrics, child development and parenting, including the bestselling "Touchpoints" series.

“If the child is having a tantrum in the grocery store, for example, use a positive model to calm him down," Dr. Brazelton said. "Hug him and say, ‘I know it’s so hard to come here and not want to take home candy,’ or cookies or whatever it is he’s crying for. Calm him down that way. And he’ll likely stop crying and think about it, and talk it out a bit.”

Toddlerhood is a series of progressions and regressions, peaks and valleys, and it’s what Dr. Brazelton called a touchpoint. In other words, it's a period of disorganization (or regression) that comes just before a burst in development (or progression).


“If you can expect this [regression] is going to happen, then you can pay attention to how you react as the parent,” said Dr. Brazelton, who spent six decades in private practice. “Giving a child a chance to talk about what’s frustrating them is a very powerful and calm way to give them the control they’re fighting for.”

While tantrums aren't surprising, it’s the nighttime behavior that can baffle parents.

“Kids practice their behavior and what they’ve learned during the day while they sleep,” Stadtler says. “For example, children practice pulling to standing in light sleep. When they become very imaginative in the day, they may dream at night. Parents may wonder why their child is waking at night. Rather than thinking their child is learning something new, they may wonder if the child is sick or something happened that day to disturb their child.”

The preschool years are also home to one of the most exciting, and yet most challenging, milestones of early childhood: potty training.

“Preschoolers have a magical way of thinking along the lines of: If I don’t want to do it, I don’t have to. And so as parents, the first thing we have to understand is where they’re coming from,” Stadtler says. “Having your child sit on the toilet even if they don’t have to do anything, and then reinforcing that action with a pleasurable behavior [reading a favorite book, etc.] makes the toilet training family focused. Each time the child agrees to sit on the toilet, whether they go or not, give reinforcement so the child feels successful. Kids can try things out but if they don’t feel successful, they’ll pull back.”

If a child has a painful bowel movement in the beginning, they may regress from the training and think they can hold it in forever to avoid the pain. At that point, it’s best to see your pediatrician to help ease any constipation and soften the child’s stool so it won’t hurt again and training can resume.


Toddlers can be some of the most stubborn people. “After all, a toddler’s favorite word is no!” Stadtler says.

If that's the case at mealtimes, Dr. Brazelton said don’t worry. “In reality, a child doesn’t need to eat but four things a day to do well: a pint of milk, a multivitamin, 2 ounces of protein (meat, cheese, beans, etc.) and some orange juice.”

The key to this refusal of food is your reaction. In the bid for control, if the child perceives they’re affecting the parent, they'll continue that behavior. So it’s best to remain nonchalant and offer food again later, Dr. Brazelton  said.

Whether they’re refusing to eat dinner for the third night in a row or staging a meltdown at the grocery store, Dr. Brazelton advised to approach your child with a calm, loving manner, which should ease the tension.

“The toddler years are a very high-excitement period,” he says. “And children pick up the values and attitudes modeled by their parents. So it’s important to model the behavior you want to see in your child.”


• Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, founder, Brazelton Touchpoints Center
• Ann C. Stadtler, founding faculty member, Brazelton Touchpoints Center

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