Why do toddlers throw tantrums?
Just the other day, I was sitting and watching TV, and my little toddler walked up to me, and while smiling, she grabbed the remote control. I took it from her and gently said, “I can’t let you have this.” As I removed it from her hands, her sweet smile shifted to a look of “how dare you to do this to me.” Before I knew it, she was screaming and crying and entering into a state of dysregulation that many call a “tantrum.”
Our little toddlers can’t regulate their emotions on their own. This means when everyday life happens, such as a show ending, a friend taking a toy, or not getting mac and cheese for lunch, their fight or flight reflex may be triggered.
When this happens, your brain may want to use logic and reason to help your child understand why they don’t need to be upset. We may also be tempted to punish the feelings and enforce consequences to help them learn when they don’t listen to our logic and reasoning.
However, brain science shows us that when they are dysregulated, they meltdown, get angry, hit their brother, etc. – they cannot process our words, punishments, or consequences.
How can I help?
I remember when my daughter first started to have really big feelings. My husband was asking me, “What can we do! Do we need to add in punishments? How do we stop this?”
I explained to him that tantrums or moments of dysregulation are developmentally appropriate for children. Instead of fighting the feelings, the best thing we can do is a partner with our children and walk alongside them during their feelings, modelling how we want them to cope with their emotions as they get older.
In our Parenting Little Kids course, I teach a simple 3 step framework for responding to tantrums. Narrate – Wait – Connect.
First, we narrate out loud what our child is doing or feeling. This allows our children to know we get what is happening for them, AND over time it helps them find the words on their own to tell us what is happening.
For my daughter, who was upset about the remote being taken away, I may say: “I hear you! You wanted to play with the remote right now, and I couldn’t let you play with it.”
Through narrating, you teach your children the words that you hope they will someday say to you when they feel overwhelmed. It’s a great way to start building their emotional intelligence!
From here, I like to wait in silence with my child instead of adding in extra words. I focus on my presence and body language over the words that I use. I recommend this so that we don’t overwhelm our child’s nervous system with more words and just let them let out their big feelings instead. I might offer a hug or a hand on their back as they let out their tears.
We DO NOT need to meet our child’s every demand.
In fact, in this waiting period, when our child is upset, we are teaching them essential emotional regulation skills by keeping our calm and modelling to them staying calm. We are helping them learn that not every demand needs to be met, and over time they will take on the way we are coping with this uncomfortable feeling (calm, cool, collected) when they have big feelings themselves.
Finally, when my child has let out her tears over the situation, I come back and connect.
I might tell her the story of what happened: “You were feeling really sad you couldn’t have the remote. You let out your tears, and now you are feeling better!”
I might give her a creative yes: “I can’t let you play with the remote control, but YES, you can play with the car!”
We want to use this connect process to connect with what is happening underneath the behaviour, rather than connecting with the behaviour itself.
Instead of thinking: “How can I make this emotion better?”
We want to think about: “How can I connect with this feeling instead of the behaviour?”
Our temptation is to spend so much time connected with the behaviour. Instead, if we see the behaviour to communicate the feeling, we can truly help our children.
A common question I get asked is: “Are there any conditions that could be causing my toddler’s tantrum?”
There are many reasons why tantrums happen. I encourage parents to “get curious” about these reasons. Is the child overwhelmed, tired or hungry? Do they want a toy or activity they cannot have? Does the child want to leave a situation or not engage in a task? Do they need a break or a snack, are their parents overwhelmed and stressed? Has there been a significant change in the child’s life? This list of possible reasons goes on and on.
Staying curious about the “why” behind the tantrum can help you know how to best support your child. Shift your mindset from needing to punish tantrums to tantrums being a call to tune in with what your child needs at that moment.