Your toddler’s meltdown is ok
It doesn’t mean you are a bad parent, that you are missing a piece of critical information about toddlers, or that your toddler is a crazy savage trying to drive you crazy (even though it may feel like it sometimes).
As toddlers deal with the difficulties of everyday life, their stress hormone increases. Just as 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. Their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that allows them to express strong emotions through words) is not yet developed.
What this means is that when they experience a strong emotion, they don’t have the ability to cope with it using words. So, God designed your toddler with a way to regulate their emotions without using words. Crying and, for many toddlers, tantrums/meltdowns.
This is why traditional methods of punishment like timeouts/spanking, or even just yelling a child out of a tantrum don’t typically work well. 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 teaching them the skills they are lagging or helping them learn new ways to deal with their big emotions.
It is important to note that tantrums are not done to manipulate us, to control us, or to drive us crazy as parents (although it may drive us crazy). Instead, tantrums are a physiological reaction from toddlers that helps them restore equilibrium in their bodies.
Tantrums are opportunities to connect, teach and learn
And what is more, tantrums are beautiful opportunities to connect, teach, learn, and help our child find new opportunities to get what they need.
As a psychotherapist who has supported many families, worked with many young children with special needs, and who has my own young child, I have dealt with my fair share of “tantrums”. What I have learned through my training and experience is that tantrums are a perfect opportunity to build attachment and teach new skills.
“Every day in a hundred ways our children ask, “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?” Their behaviour often reflects our response.” – L.R.Knost
5 quick tips to help you navigate 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 tantruming about. Ask yourself questions like: What’s going on for my child right now? When is 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 as something that is 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, looking to escape what they are currently doing, a sensory reason (hungry, tired, overstimulated), or they are seeking a tangible object or item. Keeping in mind why the tantrum is happening can help you come up with new ways to teach your toddler to access the same result without having the meltdown.
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 just let your child know that they are seen, that you are there, and that when they have finished getting out this behaviour you will be there to talk with them about what is going on. 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 with in 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 once they are calm you can talk about their requests and then just wait with them as they work through these big feelings.
3. The louder they talk the softer you talk
When your child is in a tantrum – you yelling at them will often just cause them to match your tone and feel they have to yell louder in order 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 in order 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 have the skills yet to understand what you are saying to them when they are in these moments of strong emotions. Keep your language at a minimum – use short and clear directions.
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, just like brushing teeth or eating with a fork. Try labelling what happened to them in a calm and empathetic way. Help them hear what happened and practice using skills that will help them express their need without a tantrum (asking for a break, taking space, deep breathing…).
Example: “It’s really hard for you when Daddy has to leave for work. You feel sad that you can’t come with.”
Example: “You are feeling sad right now, it’s hard to share your toys.”
Example: “You feel really mad with Tommy when he takes your toys. It is really hard. How can we tell Tommy how you feel?”
For more communication tips look here.
5. Distract – keep things light – and move forward
We do want to empathize and offer understanding to our kids, but we also want to make sure that we are not being triggered or drawn into their big emotions. In order to help your child quickly move on from the tantrum here are a few more suggestions:
Try and do something silly, distract your child if possible by either another object, conversation, or possibly even a change of location. This will help if the tantrum is on one specific object or location. Keeping your calm while they have a big emotion will show them that you can handle it, that their emotions aren’t scary to you, and that there are alternative ways to dealing with big feelings. This also keeps tantrums much more manageable for you!
Our job isn’t to join our child’s chaos, but to remain our child’s calm in the chaos.
Tantrums can be so difficult. We 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, you are a great parent, and your child’s meltdown is not a reflection of your ability as a parent, but instead an opportunity for you to connect with your child.