There's this perception that ignoring your kid during a tantrum is somehow failing to discipline your child. I'm here to take that misunderstanding to task. Now, I'm not saying that ignoring bad behavior is always the answer. If my daughter hits another child at the park, you can bet I'll do more than look up from my phone. Tantrums, especially by toddlers, are another story altogether. In fact, the things you're teaching your kid when you ignore them during a tantrum are extremely important lessons that will no doubt aid them in the future.
My daughter started throwing fits at around 18 months old. (Conveniently, this was just about the time my husband deployed. When we saw him during his two weeks of rest and relaxation, he asked me what I'd done with our sweet baby.) She's had a meltdown over just about everything, from the classic "I don't want to be strapped into my car seat" to the more unique "this diaper has Big Bird on it, and not Elmo." She really, really doesn't like to be told no, but this mama isn't afraid to say it. So fairly frequently I find myself faced with a monster of my own making.
I'm not emotionally numb to the cries of my child, so here's how I handle it: when my daughter has a fit, I walk away or plop her in her bedroom (or if we're in public, we find a secluded place). When she's had some time to calm down, I scoop her up and give her hugs and an opportunity to try again. Ignoring a tantrum (as long as the child is not destructive or in danger) is not a callous approach, nor is it irresponsible parenting. In my opinion, it is sanity-saving discipline with love that sends clear messages to the child, including the following:
That This Is Not How We Behave
Adults (our current president notwithstanding) don't throw tantrums. Now I know that my kid is not a grown-ass person, so I give her some leeway because she can't regulate her emotions yet, but a full-blown fit is not acceptable. That's why I remove her from the room. She can have that tantrum if she wants to, but she doesn't get to be with the people while she's doing it.
That Bad Behavior Doesn't Get Attention
The entire purpose of a tantrum is to gain attention, and it doesn't matter if it's positive or negative. If mom screams, "Stop!" she has inadvertently reinforced the behavior. In my experience, tantrums are a really good time to leave the room and do some laundry. (And let's face it, there's always laundry.)
That They Can Self-Soothe
This is not to say that I never offer comfort, because some meltdowns absolutely call for that. But when a parent ignores a tantrum, a child has the opportunity to look inside themselves for a solution. My daughter sucks her thumb, reads a book, or pets her kitty to calm down. Then I praise the heck out of her for getting back in control of herself and on her own. Learning to self-soothe can also help prevent tantrums down the road.
That Tantrums Don't Get You What You Want
The first rule of responding to tantrums: don't give in. All that teaches your child is that if they scream loud enough, they can get those Oreos they wanted in the first place. So when my daughter is crying for the teddy bear on the store shelf, I simply say, "I see you want that teddy, but mommy's not buying toys today. I know it's hard." And that's it. I turn a blind eye to any further tantrum-throwing.
That You'll Talk To Them When They're Calm
"I'll talk to you when your voice is the same as mine." Boy, if I had a nickel for every time my mom said that to me! Even though I ignore the tantrum, I always talk to my daughter after it's over. Mommy doesn't engage with a furious tot. Talking comes when the anger subsides and all that's left is sadness, which is more manageable. I use a calm, low, soothing voice and reassure her she's OK.
That It's Not Funny
I'm just personally not big on using humor to diffuse a tantrum. I feel like making a joke of it teaches the child that there's something funny about the behavior. Like when you laugh at your kid saying "Oh sh*t" and suddenly you've got a sailor on your hands. I mean, I guess I could throw myself on the floor and pound my fists, but I'm not sure my daughter's thinking is advanced enough to go, "Oh, you're right, mother. I see now that I'm being ridiculous." I'd rather put a firm "not amused" on it by walking away.
That They Need To Use Their Words
This is hard because toddlers often pitch a fit because of the frustration they feel at not being able to communicate their wants and needs with words. So it's not exactly fair to say, "Use your words." But at 2, my kid's also not mute. I try to be very responsive to her needs when she expresses them appropriately, but I ignore her whining so she learns that tantrums are not the way to get what you want.
That Their Tantrum Doesn't Affect You
Ignoring an outburst teaches a child that their behavior doesn't affect you, and that can suck the motivation right out of them. Now, it might not be true, but it behooves you to make it look that way. Inside, you could be boiling, but on the outside you're cool as a cucumber.
The next time you see a mom sipping her latte while her toddler sings the song of their people, give her the benefit of the doubt. She knows what she's doing.