Toddler Tantrums are one of the biggest topics that I am asked about in my 1-1 and workshop work. To help you – and your toddlers – remain cool and calm during a tantrum episode, I hope some of these tips will be helpful.
The first thing to be mindful of when we talk about tantrums is that we are not just talking about the ‘terrible twos’. Tantrums are not seen as possible as an under two but this is simply not the case! I believe they can start from age one, from both my Nannying experience and my experience as a Mum. The 12-18 month period can be tricky; they’re developing, often some separation anxiety arrives and they’re teething, too, which can intensify their tantrums and behaviour.
What is a toddler tantrum?
A tantrum is usually seen as some crying, an arching back, throwing themselves on the floor and rolling around, thrashing or banging their head. This is basically a form of communication. I believe that all behaviour is a form of communication, when your child is trying to communicate a feeling to you. They cannot tell you that they might be angry so, instead, they will show their emotion. As a parent, you will find it quite stressful and quite intense.
Why they happen:
We need to consider the reason that a child is trying to show us an emotion: often “I’m not ok with that” / “I want to do something differently to what you just said.” In my opinion there are two types of tantrums – the first is ‘a strategic tantrum’: you say ‘no’ to something and your toddler knows that if they behave in a certain way that it’s possible to get what they want, therefore on purpose they will do that cry or stamp and you might give in. They start to work out that “if I do this… then I get what I want”. I believe this is a child who is in control and they work out a behaviour pattern to affect the end result that they wanted, whether that be a snack, toy oy whatever.
The second type of tantrum that I see a lot of is ‘the emotional tantrum‘. This is when you’ve said ‘no’ to something but that child is so upset about it is they start crying and they get stuck and they can’t bring themselves out of that upset feeling; what they need is for you to help them out of it. Your toddler will lose full control because they can’t regulate their emotions and this upset is real; they really are that upset about us saying ‘no’ to something. Without that part of their brain functioning yet they will need help to bring themselves out of this type of emotional tantrum. Toddlers do not have the impulse control that we do as adults so they will just cry and cry to share their upset. They’re not doing this on purpose, it is simply a natural reaction to the huge emotion that they are experiencing. It’s so important that we, as parents, recognise that children having an emotional tantrum cannot help themselves so we do need to go over and help them, this isn’t a case of parents ‘giving in’. Connect with them and help them to feel better.
Your toddlers brain is growing so quickly: the primitive brain that deals with their eating / sleeping and basic emotions, as well as the developing brain, which deals with the rational, empathetic and planning part of our brain. This part of the brain is not developed in a toddler – in fact it’s not fully developed until the age of 21. As parents, it’s our job to nurture the connection between the ‘upstairs and downstairs’ parts of their brain and help them to move from one side of the brain to the other.
My top tips for dealing with tantrums:
Do not give in. There’s a difference between helping your child come out of a tantrum versus giving them what they wanted to stop the tantrum because that simply reinforces the behaviour. So if you say ‘no’ to a snack and then give them one to stop them tantrum-ing would be giving in and feeding that behaviour.
If it is a strategic tantrum it is worth giving it a minute or two, carrying on with your own business and try to leave it for a couple of minutes to see what happens. This will allow you to see if they’re testing you and it gives you a chance to see if you can distract them, which is often a really helpful technique to change their mind. Distraction is something that you go and do to encourage them to come and do something else, such as colouring or pointing to something.
If you realise your child is really upset and having an emotional tantrum, the best thing to do is to go over to them and, hopefully, pick them up or hold them to release oxytocin – the relaxation hormone – to help them to get out of that ‘stuck’ angry phase and move them into a calmer phase to engage the thinking brain. Say to them, to help them understand and regular, ‘I know you’re really cross and it’s really cross because Mummy said you couldn’t have that snack but it’s nearly lunchtime and after lunchtime maybe we can think about having that snack…’ Acknowledge their emotion to help them to understand and come out of the emotion so they can control it a bit easily. This does take time and patience; it is a routine that you can keep trying until they get used to it. Stay as calm and confident as you can, keep talking and, at some point, they will come out of it. This is not giving in; this is being realistic as a parent.
The more that we can help our children to label and recognise their feelings, the more we can help them to self-regulate and connect the different sides of the brain.
If you would like more 1-1 support around this topic, please click here.