Oh toddlers! Such adorable little people with such giant emotions. One of the most difficult parts of being a parent to a toddler is dealing with their big feelings. Sometimes they can be amusing, like when they are upset about the tiniest most insignificant things. That’s why you see those threads on Twitter and Facebook where people will explain what their child is crying about, sometimes accompanied by a picture of the crying child.
One of the mom groups I am in on Facebook has a tantrum thread going right now. Here are a couple of my faves. “My toddler threw a tantrum today because we went out the front door. He wanted to go out the garage door.” “We were driving home from the store. He wanted to go right… we live left. So screamed and told me to go back.” “My 2 year old gave the dog a red pepper, she cried cause the dog ate the pepper.” “My 20 month old had a tantrum last night because her dad’s boots were too big for her.”
During the times when you are not amused by their antics, a tantrum can be really hard to deal with. So it’s important to remember a few things about them, most importantly, you are not alone!
What Tantrums DON’T Mean:
- I hate you
- You are mean
- I’m a bad kid
- You’re a bad parent
- I need to be punished
- I’m trying to manipulate you
- You have to give in to my demands
What Tantrums DO Mean:
- I’m trying to communicate a need to you
- I’m overwhelmed
- I’m trying to figure out these big feelings
- I’m watching how you react to my big feelings
- I don’t know how to handle what I am feeling
- I love you and I feel safe with you
Developmentally speaking, tantrums are completely NORMAL and should be happening. Bummer, I know. Their brains still have a lot of developing to do, and it is changing every single day. The part of the brain that takes care of managing emotions and body control is working hard to grow and develop, and when your toddler has big emotions, that is their brain doing the work.
What The Middle of the Tantrum is NOT The Time For:
None of that is going to help in the middle of a tantrum, and none of it will resonate with them. When we (yes, *we,* all people of all ages) are upset, especially when those feelings are intense, have a hard time accessing the part of our brain that helps us to control our bodies and emotions. Our ability to learn is impaired and even communication skills. This is why a day after a difficult argument, you can think of the perfect response that you wish you could have said. When you’re no longer in that heated situation, you have better access to that important part of the brain.
So what should you do during the tantrum? Just wait it out. Stay calm, stay near and reassure your child that you are there. If you are not calm, there is no way you’re going to help your child become calm. You also may need to do things to prevent them from hurting themselves or others, like taking away toys that they are throwing, or moving them away from the wall if they are banging their head against it.
When the tantrum is over, and your child has better access to that part of the brain that is developing, this is a good time to reflect on what happened. This will look different for every toddler depending on where their communication skills lie. Ways that you can help them reflect are:
- Naming their feelings – “You were mad that we had to come inside. It’s ok to feel mad about that” Narrating their feelings helps them learn the words they need to express how they feel.
- Set some boundaries – “It’s not ok to throw your toys or hurt yourself when you feel mad”
- Talk about coping skills – “Next time you feel that mad again, what can you do?” or “Here are some things you can do next time you feel really mad” (this is a little more advanced)
After the tantrum is over, your toddler really needs to know:
- They are safe
- You love them
- You still care about them
It can be really hard for parents to go through a tantrum, especially when your toddler is hitting you and screaming at you, and then deal with them after the tantrum is over. Oftentimes, once it’s over they are back to their smiling selves again while we may still be shaken up, annoyed, frustrated, or angry.
In these moments, it’s really important for us to let it go. Take a deep breath, and make sure your toddler knows you still love them, no matter what. When your toddler has a meltdown, and allows themselves to be overcome by their emotions, it means that they feel safe with you. This is why often a toddler will have a lot more tantrums for the parent that spends the most time with them.
Now, what about preventing tantrums? This seems really impossible, and it kind of is. As I mentioned, tantrums are normal, and a part of brain development. But there are things you can do to help reduce their frequency and severity.
- Routines. If your days and weeks run on a regular routine, your toddler will feel more secure. Imagine how anxious you would feel if you weren’t in control of your days, and every single day was different and unpredictable.
- Limit the number of times they hear “No” “Don’t” “Stop.” I know this sounds impossible, but it is doable. Try to couple a “no” with a “yes.” Try something like, “You want to play outside? Yes, that sounds so fun! When I am done folding the laundry in 15 minutes, we can go outside to play.” or “You want to go to Grandma’s house? Yes, that will be so fun! Today we have to go to school though, so let’s call her and ask if we can come over tomorrow”
- Praise good behaviour throughout the day now and then. (It’s a nice way to break up all the “Nos, Don’ts, and Stops” they hear all day.) Example: “You’re petting the cat so nice and gentle, that’s great!”