Toddler temper tantrums ― the bane of every parent’s existence. No parent can evade it and in fact, many try to run for the hills when it happens, usually at the most inappropriate of times!
Others, like Hollywood celeb Drew Barrymore, deal with it by taking goofy pictures next to her 4-year-old daughter Olive, who recently lost it in the middle of Disneyland.
You can expect your child’s formative years to be filled with tantrums ― some minor, others major ― nor is it because he or she is destined to become a tyrant (at least we hope not). Rather, it’s because, at this tender age, your toddler is physically, emotionally and mentally incapable of controlling his feelings.
“The brain architecture to handle social, emotional and survival problems is crafted by experience and shaped by the environment or social input,” explains family coach and parenting expert Cornelia Dahinten. “This, coupled with the brain’s system of impulse control, a developing nervous system and not being mature yet, makes children unable to control their emotions.”
As boys are emotionally more fragile and speak later compared to girls, they tend to have stronger tantrums, Dahinten notes.
In general, tantrums are sparked by many factors. “If a child is already feeling bad, the tiniest thing can make the bucket overflow,” says Dahinten. “Feeling tired, stressed out, worried, fearful or hungry children will always have a quicker and stronger tantrum then a child who has slept enough, has had regular nutritious meals and has nothing else to worry about.”
Watching your child feeling sad and frustrated is no fun, plus, it also takes an emotional toil on you, the parent. However, do keep in mind that tantrums are an essential part of growing up. So, don’t be too quick to do everything in your power to prevent your child from having one.
“How the child responds to a tantrum basically teaches him and his physical system to calm down and overcome painful thought and emotion,” Dahinten explains. “It paves the way for emotional well-being and effectiveness as an adult.”
As the only way for your child to understand the world is to test boundaries, they’ll find it hard to make sense of the world if you “help” them avoid conflict. You are essentially depriving them of a learning experience.
Do keep in mind that tantrums are an essential part of growing up. So, don’t be too quick to do everything in your power to prevent your child from having one.
So, the next time your tot gets out of control, use these five tips to help her get through it ― it’ll also put her on the path towards a lifetime of emotional learning.
1. Label your toddler’s feelings for her
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT An ability to identify and connect to feelings, as well as communicate them provides a good foundation for all types of communication and relationship later on.
HOW TO DO IT “Acknowledge what’s going on by using their own words, mimicking their feelings and tuning in with your voice and facial expression,” Dahinten advises. If your child really wanted some sweets but you are against it, say something like, “Oh Alice, you really wanted this lollipop, but mummy said no. Now you are all sad, because the lollipop looks so delicious. It is so hard to not get what you want.”
2. Help your toddler tell her side of the story
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT When you get the lowdown from your little fella on what really happened, you can teach him how to behave differently if it happens again. You can also point out gently where he went wrong. Junior won’t feel defensive when he realises that no one is against him. “Learning the ability to explain what happened and knowing that people are prepared to listen to your side of the story builds trust,” Dahinten notes. If you acknowledge that your child retaliated because he was initially wronged, he is then more likely to see that the way he reacted to the situation might not be right.
HOW TO DO IT Say, junior was at the playground and a child snatches his toy. He pushes the kid in an attempt to retrieve his toy. The snatcher’s mum comes along, takes the toy away from your child and gives it to her son. A tantrum ensues.
Go over to your kiddo and say something like, “I see you are very upset because this boy took your toy without asking nicely and you were still playing with it. Then you went to get your toy back and you pushed the boy. Then he cried and his mum came and took your toy away again. I can see how upset you are.”
Acknowledge that the boy shouldn’t have snatched the toy, but at the same time it wasn’t right to push him either. Stress to your child that it’s never okay to hurt others, even if they are in the wrong. End by giving him options on what he could have done. Say, “Next time this happens, you can come to me and I’ll help you or you can tell the person you are still playing with that it’s your toy and you want it back. If the child doesn’t give it back, get help from an adult. Now shall we go and get the toy back? And when we do, can you please say sorry to the boy you pushed?”
3. Model healthy feelings
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT The mirror neurons [a type of brain cell] respond equally to [or mirror] an action that we see someone else perform. “So, when your child watches you yelling or having a tantrum as a response, it’s directly translating to him that, ‘having a tantrum in a situation like this is what we do when we feel this way’,” explains Dahinten. If you model a calm demeanour in stressful and negative situations, your mini-me will use that as a social reference and decide that’s how he should react as well in similar situations.
HOW TO DO IT When your little one is having a hissy fit, keep calm instead of losing your cool. Your composure will help him to cool down. Keep doing this as often as possible and he will start understanding how he should handle his emotions. Of course, it’s challenging to always keep your cool, so when you do lose it from time to time, tell yourself that it’s okay to feel angry, upset, sad and frustrated. Remember to tell your child that as well. Then, teach him how to overcome his negative thoughts and emotions, perhaps through breathing exercises, or removing himself from that situation until he has cooled down.
Whatever your children do, always be clear with them that it will never change the way you feel about them.
4. Express unconditional love
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT Whatever your children do, always be clear with them that it will never change the way you feel about them. Let your tot know her “big feelings” won’t stop you from loving her. “The feeling of being unconditionally loved results in safe attachment and this is a major ingredient to a healthy emotional setup in adults,” adds Dahinten. “It opens up the communication channels, trust, connection and safe attachment, which are the cornerstones of a healthy mind.”
HOW TO DO IT When all hell breaks loose, tell your little love, “It’s okay to be angry or sad, I sometimes also feel like this. You will learn how to deal with it in a different way.” When you admit to your child that everyone, including her parent, feels like this from time to time, it will make her feel less isolated and judged and more accepting of change.
Don’t use blaming or shaming techniques as these don’t work. Instead, teach them that failing and making mistakes is normal, even when they grow up. What matters is making up for those actions and learning from their failures.
5. Guide her behaviour, but resist the urge to punish
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT Junior will benefit much more when you offer help, support and guidance. This builds your child’s confidence, so that he’s better able to conquer those strong feelings. Smacking and time-outs only intensify the tension between you and your child and doesn’t address the root cause of why he’s acting that way. “Punishments come with the notion that children are doing this on purpose and that is not true,” Dahinten points out.
HOW TO DO IT Use time-ins instead of time outs. Remove junior from “the scene”, but stay there to support and talk him through what happened. Acknowledge, empathise and offer guidance, then suggest how he could have acted differently, propose that he do that the next time, then get him to agree to it. “It’s important that you as a parent understand what caused the problem your child tried to solve in an inappropriate way,” Dahinten states. “It’s important to actually see the intention of the child, which is almost never a bad one. Children are not born evil, they are born immature.”
Cornelia Dahinten is a family coach and director of The Parent You Want To Be ― Conscious Parenting Training and Playgroups, which organises regular parenting workshops and talks.
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