If you have ever had a toddler in your home, you have undoubtedly experienced days where nothing you did was right. They wanted the pink cup, not the blue cup. They wanted oatmeal, not fruit. They wanted milk, not water. And the list goes on….
We are experiencing this with our toddler almost daily. She is having the biggest tantrums over what seems like nothing. In these moments, my body and mind instantly react by first wanting to use logic with her, and second, when she doesn’t understand my reasoning, I feel my body wanting to join her world of chaos and yell at her just to be quiet and drink from the dang blue cup.
It’s kind of funny to think about these moments after the fact when we have all calmed down. How rarely does it work to use logic in these moments of tantrums with our children? When we say: “Lily, the blue cup and the pink cup have the same function of holding water, it doesn’t matter what cup you drink from,” she never responds, “Oh mom, you’re right, my bad!” Instead, trying to use logic in these moments usually leads to more tears, chaos, and upset.
The calm in their storm
These are the moments when we want to remember that our children are not accessing the logical part of their brain. Our words are meaningless to them in these moments, and the most powerful thing we can do is be the calm in their storm.
Instead of using logic or yelling, I can be calm. I can narrate what is happening using a confident and calm tone of voice to say: “It’s tough to drink from the blue cup; you want the pink cup!” I can wait with her as she calms back down, borrowing my calm with taking deep breaths, and I can simply be with her as she moves through her wave of emotion, trusting that over time she will learn how to calm herself in this same way.
The ability to regulate emotions comes with time. This is why we rarely see adults getting angry about what colour cups they use, but we come to expect this from our toddlers. Our kids are not born with the ability to regulate their emotions. So in these challenging moments, we can model being calm to help them develop this critical skill that will help them for the rest of their lives.
Every toddler will have days when the bubble bath is “too wet,” the milk is “too milky,” their favourite cup is “blue NOT red,” and their eggs aren’t quite “goopy” enough. We can remember that in these moments they aren’t trying to be difficult; they are dysregulated.
4 essential truths
If you are in the midst of a tantrum, your toddler is dysregulated and you feel like you are ready to join the chaos and start screaming yourself, here are four essential truths to remind yourself of:
1. Your logic and reasoning during moments of tantrums will likely not be understood.
I know the tears and chaos can be triggering. It can be tempting to try and reason with our children in these moments. The first thing we need to remember is that they aren’t going to understand our logic and reasoning no matter what we say. If we can remember this, we can set ourselves up for success instead of adding to the chaos and becoming dysregulated with our children.
2. Your little toddler’s brain is still developing.
Your little one’s prefrontal cortex is not yet developed. This part of their brain is responsible for regulating emotions, thinking before leaping, empathy, self-reflection, and logical thinking. In moments of dysregulation, their primitive fight or flight reactions take over. This is where we see crying, tantrums, yelling, and kicking. They need your calm to find their calm because they can’t think logically when they are dysregulated.
3. It’s not about the milk being “too milky.”
Instead of connecting with the words they are saying, remember your little toddler is likely just as confused as you are. Instead of joining their chaos, or using logic, remember that they need to learn new ways of coping with these big feelings. We can help them learn tools for dealing with these feelings through a process called “co-regulation.”
4. Co-regulation is the key to teaching your child new ways of coping.
Just like when your child was an infant and needed your soothing voice, rocking, back rubbing, and so on to help themselves calm down when they were crying – as they enter toddlerhood, they will need to learn how to manage high states of emotional arousal. They do this by watching how their parents and trusted caregivers respond to them when they feel upset.
The research backs up that repeated cycles of emotional upset (for example, crying about the milk being “too milky”), followed by a calming intervention by a parent (like talking in a soothing voice or validating feelings), provides the basis not only for trust and safety but helps the child learn how to self soothe (a skill they are not born with).
In time, the child learns that they can expect a soothing response instead of more chaos following a big emotion or feeling. Through the process of co-regulation, they learn how to give this soothing response to themselves.
We teach them everything else. Why not how to deal with emotions?
We teach our children how to ride a bike and tie their shoes. We teach them how to use a fork to eat their dinner, and how to take their plate to the counter when they are done eating. We give our little ones time and patience when they are learning to walk, and when they are learning to talk we model and practice with them.
When our children have big emotions that lead to challenging behaviours, shouldn’t we teach them the skills they need to cope with these big feelings? Instead, we are taught to dismiss their emotions and punish their big behaviours. This makes no sense.
Just because my baby has turned into a toddler doesn’t mean they know how to regulate their emotions. This is a skill that is learned over time and with practice.
My child isn’t trying to give me a hard time; they are having a hard time.
It can feel frustrating at times, and I need to remember to take care of myself as well.