As toddlers deal with the difficulties of everyday life, their stress hormone increases – just like when you deal with the difficulties of everyday life, your stress hormone increases. However, unlike you, toddlers do not yet have the ability to regulate these emotions because their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that allows them to express strong emotions through words) is not developed.
This means that when they experience a strong emotion, they don’t have the ability to cope with it using words. When your child is having a tantrum or is dysregulated, they aren’t bad; they are learning how to handle big feelings for the first time.
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Your toddler’s tantrum is okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, that you’re missing a piece of critical information about toddlers, or that your toddler is trying to make you angry (even though it may feel like it sometimes).
This is why traditional methods of punishment, like timeouts and spanking, or even just yelling a child out of a tantrum, don’t typically work. The child doesn’t have the skills you may expect them to have to calm themselves. We can try these methods to calm tantrums, but ultimately, what will work best is offering them your calm and teaching them new ways to deal with their big emotions.
It is important to note that tantrums are not done to manipulate us, control us, or make us angry as parents. Instead, tantrums are a physiological reaction from toddlers that helps them restore equilibrium in their bodies.
Tantrums Are Opportunities to Connect, Teach, and Learn
Even more, tantrums are beautiful opportunities to connect, teach, learn, and help our children discover new ways to get what they need. As a psychotherapist who has supported many families, worked with many young children with special needs or children who are highly sensitive, and has three young children, I have dealt with my fair share of “tantrums.” I have learned through my training and experience that tantrums are a perfect opportunity to build attachment and teach new skills.
Here are a few quick tips that can help you change the way you see tantrums. This new perspective can actually change the entire vibe in your home!
4 Tips for Handling Toddler Tantrums
1. Approach Tantrums With Curiosity
When your toddler is having a tantrum, it is important to remind yourself it is not about you. It often isn’t even about the thing that they are having a tantrum about. Ask yourself questions like:
- “What’s going on for my child right now?”
- “When was the last time they ate and slept?”
- “Have they had a busy day?”
- “Do they need a break?”
- “What are they trying to tell me?”
Asking yourself these questions can help you see the tantrum in a new light. Instead of thinking of it as something being done to you, think of it as an opportunity to learn from your child.
Tantrums usually happen for one of four reasons:
- The child is seeking attention.
- The child is looking to escape what they are currently doing.
- A sensory reason (hungry, tired, overstimulated).
- The child is seeking a tangible object or item.
Keeping in mind why the tantrum is happening can help you develop new ways to teach your toddler to access the same result without having the tantrum.
For a deeper, scientific understanding of why your child may be having tantrums, check out 4 Reasons Why Toddler and Preschooler Tantrums Happen: The Science Behind the Outbursts.
2. Practice the Art of “Being With”
During a tantrum, stay near your toddler. Don’t add too much extra language (see next point), and don’t add any more demands. It is important to let your child know that they are seen, that you are there, and that you will be there to talk with them about what is going on when they have finished getting out their feeling. When you are “being with” your toddler, you can just be near them.
It is important to remember that whatever demands they place on you, or words they say to you are just a part of the tantrum and not things that you should follow through within the moment. For example: “Mommmmmyyy I need the bear…. No Mommmmmmy no bear….. Mommmmy, I need milk….. Mommmmy no milk”. If you have been with a toddler in a tantrum, you know the demands I am talking about! Let them know that you can talk about their requests once they are calm, and then just wait with them as they work through these big feelings.
Offering your calm and showing them that you are confident in handling their big feelings is powerful for your children. They will learn how to regulate their own dysregulation through repeated exposures to your calm over time.
3. The Louder They Talk, the Softer You Talk
When your child is in a tantrum, yelling at them will often just cause them to match your tone and feel like they have to yell louder for you to hear them. Instead of yelling, talk in a quiet voice. This will prompt your child to tune into what you are saying, and they will need to quiet their voice to hear yours.
Further, just as your child doesn’t have the skills yet to regulate their strong emotions with words, they also don’t yet have the skills to understand what you are saying to them when they are in these moments of strong emotions. Instead of adding in a lot of words and talking in these tough moments, keep your language at a minimum; use short and clear directions. Wait until they have borrowed your calm and come back to a place where they can understand your words before you continue to talk.
4. Teach the Words and Skills They Need
Once your child has calmed down, you have an amazing opportunity to help them verbalize what just happened. Emotional regulation and verbalizing emotion is a skill that needs to be taught, like brushing teeth or eating with a fork.
Try labelling what happened to them in a calm and empathetic way. This can be done by narrating out loud what just happened. Tell them the story of what happened before the tantrum and after. This can help them make sense of their own emotions and experiences.
After this, you may practice using skills to help them express their need without a tantrum (e.g. asking for a break, taking space, deep breathing, etc.).
“It’s tough for you when Daddy has to leave for work. You feel sad that you can’t go with.”
“You are feeling sad right now; it’s hard to share your toys.”
“You feel really mad with Tommy when he takes your toys, and it is tough. How can we tell Tommy how you feel?”
Your Job Isn’t to Join Your Child’s Chaos
Your job is to remain your child’s calm in the chaos.
Tantrums can be so difficult, and I want to remind you that it is so important to give yourself and your child compassion as you and your child both learn to navigate toddler emotions for the first time. You are not alone in this, and your child’s tantrum is not a reflection of your ability as a parent, but instead, an opportunity for you to connect with your child.
For more on connecting with your child and supporting them through their big feelings and challenging behaviours, check out our best-selling parenting course Parenting Little Kids.