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Tantrums Still Driving You Crazy? Read This Eye-Opening Study

Photograph by Twenty20

I just read a frightening thread on Facebook. It was in a parenting group, and the comments were laced with an anger I can’t even find the words to describe. Everyone was responding to a blog post calling for a secret sign that frustrated parents can flash to other adults when children are in the throes of a public tantrum so that a stranger might come in and scold the child out of the tantrum. Parents on this thread were all in. They used sarcasm and references to the “good old days” when kids were told to “shut up.” Thankfully, I don’t actually remember those days.

While that thread represents a small sample of parents, results of a new survey released by Zero to Three paints a much different (cue giant sigh of relief) picture. In a survey of 2,200 parents of children between the ages of 0 to 5, Zero to Three found that 69 percent of parents say that if they knew more positive parenting strategies, they would use them. That’s the good news. The not-so-great news is that results of the survey also showed a fairly significant “expectation gap” in that a majority of parents overestimate children’s abilities to master certain developmental skills.

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Check out these findings:

· 56 percent of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3, and 36 percent believe that children under age 2 have this kind of self-control. However, brain research shows that these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.

· 43 percent of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age 2. In fact, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years.

· 24 percent of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at 1 year or younger, while 42 percent believe children have this ability by 2 years. Research shows this type of self-control is also just starting to develop between 3.5 and 4 years.

This survey is eye-opening because it shows that parents need more support and they need more information about what to expect by age and stage when it comes to social-emotional development.

I find a similar gap in my practice when working with parents and young children. Information is everywhere, and that can be beneficial when parents feel lost in a sea of negative behaviors they can’t seem to correct. The problem, however, is that very rarely do articles actually tell parents that tantrums and lack of sharing skills are actually quite normal for young children! Experts weigh in on how to “troubleshoot” these problems, but they should be telling parents these so-called problems are developmentally appropriate.

When I talk to parents at speaking events, I find two common themes in their concerns about social-emotional development: They measure their kids against the development of other kids, and they feel embarrassed when their kids “act out” in public. I can understand that. Sometimes it seems like parenting is done under a microscope these days.

The truth is that all kids develop on their own terms. Sure, impulse control begins to emerge at around age 4, but many children remain a work in progress on that front for several years to come (and so do many adults!) Kids begin to share at around age 3, but that doesn’t mean that they want to share every single time.

This survey is eye-opening because it shows that parents need more support and they need more information about what to expect by age and stage when it comes to social-emotional development. We’ve become so accustomed to finding solutions for “problem behaviors” that we’ve completely forgotten that children don’t enter this world full of adaptive coping strategies to deal with things like frustration and impatience. Those are skills they have to learn, and we, as parents, are tasked with teaching them.

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Wouldn’t it be great if the next time you Googled “how to stop a temper tantrum” a screen popped up that read, “You’re not alone! Kids have tantrums into the school age years. It’s how they express anger”? You would know everything is right on target.

I’m guilty of dishing out strategies and information because I genuinely want to use my expertise to help other parents along this long and complicated journey, but I do make every effort to normalize the behaviors that sometimes cause parents concern. When we know what to expect of our kids, we can guide them toward healthier and more adaptive coping skills. We also reduce the frustration for both the parent and the child.

Children don’t throw tantrums or grab toys from other kids to upset us, they do it because it’s what they know how to do at the time. When parents remain calm and guide their children through these skills with positive input, children learn how to cope, how to interact with their peers and how to solve their own problems down the line.

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