In this months ‘Ask Mellownest’ column, Claire and Nneka give advice on ways to deal with toddler tantrums.
If you have a question for the Mellownest team or want their advice on understanding your child’s behaviour or emotions please email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question can be put forward for next month (all questions are anonymous).
I’m hoping you can give me some advice. I’m at my wits’ end with my little boy. He just turned two in January and we are definitely having the terrible two’s. He’s always been strong-willed but now he’s having tantrums all the time and it’s really getting me down. I feel like we have a battle about everything and then he’ll just throw himself to the floor and scream for what feels like ages. I have no idea what to do when he does this as nothing seems to work. I’m getting to the point where I can’t face going to groups or see friends as I feel so embarrassed when he does this. All the other two-year-olds seem to be so much better behaved than mine. I would just really like to know how to handle them so it’s not taking over our whole lives.
Dear Mumbler member,
You have my sympathy, it sounds like things have been really hard work in your house for a while. When it comes to managing toddler tantrums we have to account for normal cognitive development, temperament and your response to his big feelings. Let’s take it step by step:
It’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers to begin to push the boundaries. This often coincides with huge leaps in their physical development. As they can walk, climb and grab better than they ever could before the world becomes much more exciting. Unfortunately, their ability to communicate their wishes and intentions isn’t as developed as their physical capacities.
This often leads to a crabby toddler who can’t understand why you are trying to stop him doing something or trying to make him do something that he has no interest in doing, i.e. getting dressed. Once we begin to pay better attention to their attempts to let us know what they’re after we can respond more appropriately or offer them a slightly safer alternative.
Due to their immature emotional and cognitive development, a toddler’s brain can become easily overwhelmed. Feeling emotions like anger or sadness, or physical sensations like hunger or tiredness but being unable to interpret them or manage them appropriately often sends a toddler over the edge. When this happens, they enter a physiological state known as ‘fight or flight’ in which their body is flooded with stress hormones. A tantrum is simply a physical manifestation of the release of all of this stress. (Grown-ups experience fight or flight too – we just tend to call it feeling stressed and hopefully manage it a little more positively!)
Taking Preventative Action
Toddlers and in fact all children benefit from a little careful management to prevent the situation getting to crisis point. At Mellownest we often talk about the emotional cup at our workshops and we teach parents what to look out for and how to give your child’s cup a refill. Making sure your child has their physiological, balance and connection needs met in advance will go a long way towards preventing a meltdown.
In fact, we recently wrote a whole post about the emotional cup which you can read here.
Why your Response Matters
Now you understand more about why tantrums happen and what you can do to prevent them a little more, let’s think about your responses and feelings.
I’m getting the sense from your letter that you’re feeling pretty fed up with parenting at the moment and it’s become a little more of a chore. If you can, step back from the situation and take a look at your own feelings.
Could there be times when you’re becoming hooked into power battles with your son?
Now while there are certainly times when you as the adult needs to lead and set limits, it also might help the situation if you were to loosen the reins a little.
Offering your son directed choices about food, clothes and activities can go a long way towards reducing conflict. Just give him two different options and let him pick. If he doesn’t choose straight away leave the options there for a few minutes before trying again.
Try to move away from insisting that he does as you ask straight away by giving lots of cues that something is going to happen. An example of this would be getting your bag and putting your coat on a couple of minutes before you help him with his, all the while telling him where it is that you are going. An excited tone and facial expression will go a long way towards convincing him that your plan sounds fun.
Engage him by being Playful
In fact, fun might just be the key thing to aim for more of. Often when we get trapped in a power struggle with our children one of the first things to disappear is our ability to be playful. Sing, make things a game, be silly and put his trousers on your head so he can laugh and tell you where they really go. We often forget as adults that children communicate far more by their behaviour than their spoken words and play is their preferred language.
If we can learn to tap into our own playful side it’s often a much better experience for everyone.
What to dointhe moment
Finally, what can you do in those moments when the tantrum hits?
First things first. Stay calm. If you enter a state of flight or fight yourself, you’ll find it hard to think clearly.
Take some deep breaths. It might help to remind yourself that tantrums are normal and that rather than doing this to annoy you, your son is having a hard time and is feeling overwhelmed by his emotions.
Try to avoid thinking of a tantrum as something ‘naughty’ that requires a punishment. Research shows that children who are given lots of support to manage big feelings when they are little, actually grow up to be children (and indeed adults!) who can self-regulate more successfully than peers who have had a more authoritarian style of parenting.
Once you feel calm, make yourself available to your son by staying close by. Some children like to be picked up or soothed by being touched gently, where others might lash out when they are in this state – so use your judgement. The key is letting him lead the interaction.
Convey your Calmness
Simply keep your face and body language calm and open. Don’t bother talking too much at this stage as any logic he does possess is certainly not in play now. Let him know that you’re there when he’s ready. And then wait.
This might take five minutes or thirty-five but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent it’s that you can’t really hurry a tantrum. If you do manage to shut it down, it’s likely to erupt again a short time later (which is what I guess might have been happening for you and your son).
This becomes much more challenging when you have more than one child, but you are in the fortunate position of only having your son to consider at the moment.
I know that this doesn’t sound easy but what I can tell you is that as you practise this approach the tantrums are likely to become less frequent and lengthy as your son learns to trust that you’ll stay with him through these big feelings.
More importantly, I hope that you will feel differently about his behaviour. Instead of feeling frustrated and embarrassed you’ll be able to meet his needs calmly and confidently.