Inside: Learn how to help your upset toddler move through temper tantrums using empathy. Plus, why toddler tantrums happen and how they’re linked to your child’s brain development.
My two-year old son and I were cuddled up in his bed together, his little chest moving heavily up and down.
“I don’t know mama. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
He kept repeating the phrase over and over.
“I don’t know.”
It was said almost in a whisper.
This, in stark contrast to his loud, explosive tantrum of just a few minutes ago.
You see, my son doesn’t have a lot of fancy words yet.
He’s 2, and he’s still learning how to express himself. When he tries to explain himself it often comes out in fast, nonsensical bursts of sound, followed by easily understood phrases, followed by more babble.
But this was clear. He just….didn’t know.
The last hour or so had been a mess for him, and by extension, for the rest of the family.
When a toddler is losing it (and I mean LOSING IT) it’s a freight train barreling at you with a force you have little help of controlling. A force that comes from the BIG FEELINGS that are bursting out of a tiny body.
A toddler is a powder keg of emotion. He is Kanye West at an awards show. He just. can’t. stop. himself.
This makes sense. Toddlers are high on feelings and low on impulse control. They are high on wants and decidedly low on the ability to satisfy those wants.
As a parent you regularly find yourself in a position where you must thwart your little powder keg. There is just no way to possibly satisfy the many, many demands of a two-year old while still maintaining any standards in your home.
In the moment that my 2-year old began releasing his balled fists – something clicked for me.
He really, truly doesn’t know.
He doesn’t know why he’s so upset, and he can’t understand how the feelings inside of him are operating. Much of the time, he doesn’t even know what he wants, really.
He just doesn’t know.
As an adult, I sometimes don’t know why I’m so upset. I don’t always understand how the feelings inside of me are operating, either.
So how could he, at 2, possibly know?
What exactly is a “temper tantrum”?
A temper tantrum is an outburst that usually arises as the result of a need that is not being met. Tantrums are more frequent in children who aren’t able to express themselves (hello, toddlers) and who don’t yet have the ability to control their emotions.
As we all know, emotional regulation is a life’s work, and our toddlers are just at the start of this journey. They’re going to need a little slack here.
Why do temper tantrums happen?
A temper tantrum can happen for lots of reasons. If your child is tired, overstimulated, or simply can’t express herself or have her need met she may end up in a tantrum.
Children do not develop the ability to handle frustration over night. This takes year to develop. The ability to tolerate frustration is particularly compromised when a child isn’t able to communicate well yet.
Toddlers are developmentally geared to want mastery over their environments. They are not, however, able to handle the amount of control that they want.
This sets the stage for frequent conflicts during the “Terrible Twos”, as any parent will tell you.
This is what I’ve learned about calming temper tantrums
I will be honest: there is no magic bullet. There is no spell you can put on your child that will work 100% of the time.
But there is something you can do that can dramatically improve your interaction with your toddler, and reduce the intensity of the situation. You may well be able to shorten the tantrum and return you child to a state of calm faster, too.
So, what can you do?
Validate, validate, validate.
SHOW and TELL your toddler that you hear him.
“You really wanted to take that ball! You wanted to take that ball so badly!”
This doesn’t mean that you give the child the ball (or whatever it is that they want but can’t, for any number of reasons, have at that minute).
It simply means that you’re able to validate their desire.
The parenting framework Language of Listening teaches that children will continue to communicate until they feel heard.
My background in child development and career as a social worker has led me to the same conclusion.
Through their behaviors, kids will indeed continue to communicate until they feel they’ve been heard. I believe that this is as true for teenagers as it is for toddlers, by the way.
Children want to be sure that you GET IT and they will pester you for as long as needed until they’ve made their point.
If you’re skeptical about this, just try making a phone call with your child in the same room. I guarantee you that your kid will find something URGENT (i.e. “Mom did you see this rock I found?”) until you pay attention to him.
To be fair, a lot of this madness isn’t really their fault.
Remember: Your child’s brain is developing at lightening fast speed
Your child himself probably does not understand why he’s so upset. He just…feels upset!
If you can keep in perspective the fact that your child himself is confused by his actions, it can go a long way toward helping you keep your patience.
Take a minute to digest that.
Every second??? That’s insane. How many millions of new neural connections are you forming right now, huh??? HUH???
Anyway, this explosive brain growth *probably* has a little bit of something to do with why your toddler seems….well, insane.
That is a lot of growth going on in a very short span of time.
Now, think about when you feel upset – do you want to be grilled about why you feel the way you do?
Do you want to answer a lot of questions? Do you want someone to talk you out of feeling the way you do?
Of course not!
What you really want is for someone to “get” you.
We all want to feel validated.
Toddlers are no different.
Here’s what you can do to help your toddler:
Come down to his level.
Look him in the eye.
And acknowledge why he is upset.
“You wanted to go outside! You wanted to play outside so badly, and we didn’t have time. You really really wanted to go outside.”
Let the feelings be, and just acknowledge his perspective.
It’s not your job to talk your child out of how they’re feeling. In fact, trying to do so is likely to aggravate him.
Children are entitled to their feelings. This doesn’t mean that they’re entitled to any and all behaviors, especially those that are dangerous to themselves or others.
But they’re allowed to feel how they feel, and you can let the feelings pass through without trying to stop them in their tracks.
By simply acknowledging in a sincere way that you hear him or her, you can do a lot to take the punch out of a tantrum.
“You really wanted that cookie. You’re very sad you can’t have it.”
Then give him a hug. Look him in the eye. Get where he’s coming from.
This works surprisingly well.
Your toddler may very well surprise you by stopping her tears, having felt heard.
Note: I’ve learned a lot about letting feelings be, and empathizing with your kids by listening to Janet Lansbury’s excellent podcast, Unruffled. If you’re struggling with your young child and want to develop some skills for how to deal with outbursts at home, I’d highly recommend it.
Do not take any of this personally.
It’s really, really not personal. Your toddler is not out to get you.
Your toddler is not able to rationally acknowledge that yelling “I want milk!!!!” and then “I don’t want milk!!!!!” is confusing to you.
Your toddler doesn’t want to torture you in this way unique to the under 3 set.
Because, again, it’s not rational behavior.
Recall the image of a child whispering “I don’t know” over and over again if you want to restore your sense of empathy here.
Can temper tantrums be prevented?
Temper tantrums are a normal part of child development. Particularly for children under the age of three, tantrums are an expected, albeit unpleasant, fact of life for many kids (and their parents).
There are some things you can do that can stack the odds in your favor when it comes to preventing tantrums, although they aren’t foolproof.
Maintain a predictable, reasonable schedule for your child.
An overtired kid who has no regular bedtime and doesn’t get a snack when their body expects a snack is much more likely to melt down.
Give your child choices, within reason
Toddlers are not very in control of their worlds, much to their dismay. While you can’t let your child do whatever he wants, if there are opportunities to allow your child to make a choice (“Do you want the apple or the blueberries for your snack?”) – that can help.
Know your child’s limits
The world is big, and rather overwhelming for small kids. Try to avoid putting your child in situations that are above his ability to manage them. If you know that your toddler cannot sit through a movie, or make it at a sit-down restaurant without causing a ruckus – look for alternatives.
Perhaps you’re on vacation and need to eat out – well, find a kid friendly restaurant, bring along crayons, and go at a time when it won’t be too busy.
Try to keep temptations away from your child
If your toddler isn’t allowed to touch a vase, try not to keep it within his reach. Anything you’re able to control in your home environment to minimize the amount of conflicts you’re likely to have with your toddler is helpful.
How else can you respond when your kid throws a temper tantrum?
After expressing your compassion, in general, you want to stay as calm as possible and ignore the behavior.
Distractions help some children, but not all. You can give it a try and you’ll quickly see if that’s hitting the mark for you or not.
If your child is physically lashing out – hitting or kicking others – you can hold him or her firmly (not roughly) until he or she calms down and can remain safe.
Most kids will outgrow temper tantrums by around the age of 3 1/2
Like many unpleasantries (i.e. constant night wakings in babies) tantrums are something that for most kids are a phase.
Parenting is full of (amazing! exciting! heart-warming!) stages. It is also full of a lot of (*cough*) challenging phases.
This is one of them. You can get through this period of time with your toddler, and luckily evolution has thrown us a bone here and also made toddlers the cutest, funniest little people ever.
Otherwise our ancient ancestors would have abandoned their toddlers in quiet caves thousands of years ago, and then where would we be? More importantly, where would Peppa Pig be?
So, good thing we decided to keep these cute, explosive little people around.
Is professional help needed?
If your child’s tantrums seem particularly severe to you, or if he/she is harming others or him/herself, you may want to bring it up with your pediatrician.
Other issues that may warrant a closer look include tantrums that are escalating rather than decreasing after the age of 4, or a child who is causing himself to faint during tantrums by holding his breath.
In those instances, or if you’re just not sure, share your concerns with your child’s doctor, and if needed a referral to a mental health provider can be made.
For the most part, tantrums are nothing to worry about.
Your child is expressing feelings, and you’re modeling compassion and empathy for your child by validating those feelings.
You’re setting limits so that your child is safe.
And you’re modeling patience (well ok you are trying to model patience and sometimes you’ll pull it off and sometimes you won’t). But you’ll keep trying because that’s what we do as parents.
In time, your child will learn to manage his own emotions better. We can all get through this.
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