© Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz | Dreamstime.com
On any given day with a toddler, there’s a good chance a tantrum will erupt. It isn’t because your child is lawless. It’s because he’s crazy smart.
The human brain is huge. It takes years of growing to reach adult size and years of living to learn how to use those smarts. While your toddler’s brain is growing like crazy, it may seem he’s a little crazy, too.
This is a big part of the chaos of the toddler years. Not only is your child’s intellect developing — along with his vocabulary, his understanding of social dynamics, and his awareness of a wider world — he’s also learning what to do with all that new brain power. Their heads are thundering with new ideas, new words, new games, new songs. The newness is awesome. But with it comes new emotions, too, and your child simply isn’t equipped to handle the waves of shifting feelings.
First, we’ll talk about the cause of this emotional roller coaster, then we’ll explore ways you can help your child cope.
They Just Can’t Handle It
Toddlers are ruled by impulse. Many react to their world with impatience, tenacity, and defiance. Trouble comes when these emotions smack into the wall of your rules and parental will.
Each night, it’s a crushing blow to learn that dinner is peas and carrots, not cereal and popsicles; that Wednesday is another school day and not a Play-Doh and Lego fiesta. Their wants are in conflict with your parenting choices, and their hot-fire emotions are triggered at every turn.
A series of nos, and your child is backed into a humiliating pattern of defeat. Lacking the vocabulary to voice her frustration, she reacts with one of the few responses at her disposal: throwing a tantrum.
If you cave whenever this happens, a pattern begins to emerge. To avoid that, we must access the tools we have to better manage our child’s tantrums without letting this explosive behavior take root. Remember, tantrums in the toddler years are a natural part of development. It’s our job to not let them become a habit.
The Master of No
Communication and respect are key to managing tantrums. Get down on your child’s level, your eyes even with his, and use body language to present a calm and open demeanor.
Listen to what your child is saying, then use your words to help him define his feelings. Sometimes, it can be helpful to echo their words back before using your own, as shown here.
“No, no, no! I want Play-Doh. I hear you. You’re mad because you want to play with Play-Doh. But we don’t have time right now. I’m sorry, I can see why you’d be upset.”
This approach can be used in most instances and often is enough to end the crying and start the listening. Next, voice your point of view and the rules that will be followed.
“I know you’d rather be playing, but right now we have to get to school and see your teachers and find out what you’ll be doing today. So, lets go.”
Be patient with his outbursts while your child finds a balance between emotion, language, and urges. Sometimes it’s easier (and okay) to give in to your child’s whim. But hold your ground as a rule, with respect and clear communication. This way, you and your child will get a handle on tantrums together.
Give a timeline. When you’ve got 30 minutes to get ready before walking out the door, tell them. Tell them at intervals how much time is left and how many tasks remain to be done. “We have 10 minutes now and you still have to brush teeth and get shoes on.” Show respect. “Because I said so” isn’t respectful. But getting down on their level, looking them in the eye and telling them you understand that they’d rather eat marshmallows and watch Dino Dan than go to school shows you acknowledge and respect their point of view.
Don’t explain the why. Apples are preferable to cookies as an afterschool snack, but your child doesn’t want to hear that. Instead of talking about fiber and calories and nutritional benefits, leave out the why. Simply acknowledge her disappointment, then follow up with the way it’s going to be. “I know you’d like a cookie, and not getting one is sad. I’m sorry. But we have apples.”