Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums? Whining? Fussing? 

Welcome to Toddlerville

That's code for: that moment in time when your precious, typically amenable baby with the sweet-disposition turned into a sassy spitfire who screams the instant she wants to be, do or have something that you doesn't want her to be, do or have. 

With my own daughter, it was never a whiny scream, but a shrill, piercing pitch of a scream that could send a cold shiver up my spine like no other sound known to man. Sometimes I think she'd scream just to test me

Where did your cherubic, pleasant, enchanting little babe go? She morphed into a sweaty, demanding, tantrum-throwing little monkey with a penchant for ear-splitting shrieks. 

Sound familiar? 

I've been there. When my own daughter entered this uncharted territory of development, I tried my best to be as Zen as I could about certain toddler behaviors like temper tantrums. My husband and I even chuckled through some of it as we taught her to "just breathe" when she was feeling overwhelmed.

She picked it up fantastically even commanding us for our own good to take a deep breath at times, but it didn't mean that she never got upset nor did it mean that we could always "stop" her from expressing her emotions in a fiery show of force. 

And honestly, I also had hopes of a less novel solution to the randomness of her outbursts. Asking a toddler to "just breathe" isn't exactly a reliable remedy for meltdowns. It was an important piece of her growing ability to self-regulate, but let's be honest - TALKING to a child who is having a temper tantrum is not exactly an effective cure. 

The only cure was to self-regulate my own emotions as I allowed her to safely offload
her uncomfortable feelings while enveloped in my unconditional love. 

Her emotions NEEDED to be expressed. I needed to be able to withstand the pain of her discontent. I can still sense the throbbing sensation of holding down my rage, acknowledging it, trying to "just breathe" through it as I remained present and as available as I could be to my out-of-control child.  

It wasn't always easy, but watching her now - at age 7 - it was totally worth it.

Here's the good news!

Temper-tantrums are a normal part of childhood development. Children, especially toddlers, are only beginning to learn how to express their feelings and sometimes it can be overwhelming for them. Maturity doesn't happen over night and it doesn't grow because of time-outs, authoritarian parenting or stricter discipline.

Those things might make us feel more competent, less afraid or more in control - but they do not add to the development of our child's emotional intelligence - his ability to use his emotions as a guide, to be able to be aware of, manage and direct our emotional stability.

That comes with time, patience, an emotionally present care-giver and lots of experience in cause and effect.

Judgment has no place in toddler discipline because it only serves to disconnect
the very circuit needed for young brains to mature - the relationship.

Toddlers have great big emotions and tiny, little bodies. Often with few words, they can't always tell you exactly what they are feeling, they can only show you. Take your time and be patient when your children get frustrated and allow them to safely process the feelings out of their bodies.  

Their sensory systems are on overload and when they are mad, hot, hungry, afraid, frustrated, over-stimulated or simply exhausted they resort to the one way they know that helps release that pent up frustration - crying, screaming and thrashing about the kitchen. 

C'mon, who can deny that belly-wrenching bursts of emotion help relieve the pressure of kids gone wild, days gone wrong and an overall feeling of what the heck!? 

Toddlers are no different. It feels good to scream and let it all out. It is a healthy, healing process that you should safely guide your toddler through while remaining connected to her. 

Steps to easing tantrums and parental anger.

1. Remain calm, take a parental time-out if necessary. 

One of you has to keep your cool. I don't advocate time-outs for kids but I do recommend them to parents who need a moment to regain composure. Take a step back, count to ten and breathe, then when you feel calm enough, return to your child. 

2. Find the root cause.

Over-stimulation, hunger, tiredness etc... You’ll be in a much better position to deflect the tantrum and help your child calm down if you know the real reason they are upset. 

3. Listen & Validate 

Make sure that your child knows that her feelings are heard and understood. If your toddler is throwing a tantrum because she wants ice cream on her waffles and you are adamant about no ice cream at breakfast then let her know that you understand how she feels without belittlement or judgment. 

You don’t need to give a long logical explanation for why she can’t have ice cream for breakfast. You only need as many words as it takes to tell her in language she can understand. 

“I know you love ice cream. It sure is delicious.”

“It would be great for breakfast but probably not so healthy.”

“I know how upsetting it is not having ice cream all the time.”

“Especially at breakfast, it’s so yummy."

"I know it's one of your favorite treats!”

Don’t patronize but get down on your child’s level, eye-to-eye and empathize with her. Really connect and respect her feelings, however unreasonable they may seem to you. 

4. Hugs & Touch

Hold your child through her temper tantrums. If you are still nursing, this is can be tantrum magic. If not a hug, cuddle or squeeze is enough to calm a frantic state. Sometimes they won’t let you and flailing around on the floor is more therapeutic. That is okay too. Guide your child to another space if you are in public. As long as they aren’t hurting themselves, it is okay to let them work it out. 

5. Regroup & Redirect.

Look for your window of opportunity. Act too soon and the tantrum may escalate. Be patient and follow your child's cues to find the right moment to offer a new choice, a new direction or activity. Start a game, sing a song or discover something fun together. Most often you will find that the best course of action is to let your child have their tantrum, especially younger toddlers. Often in the heat of the moment there is no talking them down anyway. They simply don't have the ability to "hear" you during a temper tantrum let alone understand reason or logic. 

Know your child. They all have their buttons. Know what they respond to and you usually can short-circuit total mayhem. Toddler temper tantrums are most often linked to some other issue or physical/emotional upset. Listen to your child. 

Don’t be afraid that you are somehow “letting them get away with it." I know it can feel like you are losing control and being permissive. 

You are not. 

Providing a safe space for your child to express her feelings is not being permissive, it is being a conscious and connected parent. Don't succumb to the peer pressure to control your child in a timely fashion or punish her for her inability to control her feelings. Time-outs or total isolation are not appropriate responses to toddler temper tantrums. 

What do you think? How do you help your toddler through difficult emotions? Leave me a note in the comments below and share your story!

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Handling Temper Tantrums: Return to Parenting Toddlers