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Toddler Tantrums: What You Need to Know written by Dr. Ash Nayate
If there’s one word that is synonymous with toddlerhood, it’s tantrums. They occur unexpectedly and without prejudice. Our toddlers are masters at having multiple tantrums daily, even hourly often for no discernible reason.
The top two questions that I’m asked by parents of toddlers are, ‘why does my child have so many tantrums’ and ‘what do I do?’ My advice is this:
Tantrums are a part of toddlerhood, just like learning to walk and run
Pushing boundaries are what toddlers do. It’s their way of testing the limits of their world
Whether we like it or not, parents are the main component of their world, so the majority of limit testing occurs with us.
Sometimes parents ask me, ‘why do they need to test boundaries?’
Well, it’s a bit like swimming at the beach. The lifeguards put up flags to signal the safe zone for swimming. We have a very clear boundary. Being within the flags is safe. Being outside the flags is dangerous. Imagine if we were out there swimming without an awareness of the safety zone. Most of us would feel a bit hesitant, wouldn’t we? A bit uncertain or just plain unsafe? That’s precisely why children need limits. Limits create a feeling of safety.
Unfortunately, limits aren’t always as clear cut as flags on a beach. Usually, limits are in the form of ‘I won’t let you hit me’ or ‘I won’t let you run on the road’. A child is wondering, ‘what does that mean?’
When does a pat turn into a hit?
When does the footpath turn into the road?
When children test limits they’re marking out their ‘safe’ zone in the clearest way they can. That’s why we, as parents, need to hold firm with our boundaries. If we keep changing the rules then the child never really has a chance to mark out the ‘safe’ zone, so they keep testing until they do.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO TANTRUMS?
Well, as parents we often need to enforce a limit that the child does not like. The child feels anger, annoyance, irritation, frustration and more. Those are strong emotions and can be pretty scary to a small child. Think about the last time you felt strong negative emotions – perhaps your heart was racing, or you felt flushed, or you felt sick to your stomach. If you didn’t know what was happening to you, you’d probably feel a bit worried. That worry causes the emotional intensity to ramp up even more. So now we have an emotional child, who is becoming more and more emotionally charged as the feelings intensify.
At some point, a threshold is reached, when the young brain simply cannot cope with the powerful emotion any more. And a tantrum is the result. A tantrum is simply the outward expression of those strong emotions. As adults, we’ve experienced those feelings at times. Moments when we’ve been so angry that we’ve wanted to scream, or hit something, or throw something. Moments when we’ve been so upset that we wanted to cry and throw ourselves on the ground in sheer disappointment. The reason we don’t (usually) do this is because we have the ability to put ‘brakes’ on our behaviour. We can curb our impulses to act out the emotion whereas young children cannot; their emotional controls are still developing.
This means that children cannot regulate their strong emotions in the same way that we can. Perhaps they are able to, where there are mild annoyances and upsets but where these irritations become really intense, young children are far more challenged. They reach their threshold much earlier than we do. The result is a tantrum. Adults have tantrums too but we refer to these as ‘letting off steam’ or ‘having a bad moment’.
In many ways, how we respond to children is quite similar to how we would want to be treated in that moment. When we’re really upset or angry, it’s hard to be rational. It is the same with children – the middle of a tantrum is not the time to try reasoning with them. A common approach is to ignore the tantrum. My response is – would you want to be ignored, if you were really upset or angry about something? This is why I don’t recommend any form of ‘super-nanny-style’ imposed ‘time-out’ for tantrums. Some parents like to tell their children ‘calm down’ or ‘you’re OK’. Imagine if you were really angry or upset and someone said those things to you. Would it calm you down? Or would it make you even more angry or upset than before?
WHAT DO CHILDREN NEED WHEN THEY ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A TANTRUM?
1. Give them a shoulder to lean on. Whether that’s literally in the form of a supportive hug, or simply holding their hand, or even sitting next to them: it depends entirely on the child’s personality. Our physical presence teaches our child that we’re there and we’re not going to abandon them when they have these big scary feelings. Our presence is doubly important if there is hitting or kicking involved to ensure everyone’s safety.
2. Always keep the words to a minimum. In the midst of a tantrum our children are easily overloaded with information. Too much dialogue from us is just confusing and stressful – thus adding to the cocktail of intense emotions. In many cases our presence is enough and words are unnecessary. If we do feel the need to say something, then perhaps a simple and clear statement like ‘I’m here’. I don’t recommend saying ‘shhh’ or ‘stop crying’ because this discourages our child’s self-expression. I also don’t recommend saying ‘it’s OK’ because the child is clearly not OK at that moment. If your child is attempting to hit, kick, or throw objects, a simple statement such as ‘I won’t let you hit me’ may be necessary.
3. We should always remain confident in our ability to handle the tantrum. Our child needs to know that we’re confident and capable for them to feel safe. If our child senses that we’re uncomfortable, annoyed or angry then this creates doubt, worry and fear and exacerbates those big scary feelings. Our child may start to believe that strong emotions are problematic and are something to be avoided. This potentially could incline the child to a life of food or alcohol addiction or other compulsive behaviours as a way of avoiding strong emotions.
WHEN THE TANTRUM HAS ENDED
It’s a good opportunity to reaffirm our connection with our child. This means letting our child know that we still love him and that we are there for him any time that he has strong emotions. This is also the time to reinforce the limit, if necessary, that led to the tantrum. For example say, ‘You were upset because I wouldn’t let you use the scissors. The scissors are dangerous and I’m here to keep you safe’.
Ultimately, when dealing with tantrums, a good rule of thumb is to put yourself in your child’s shoes. This means using our emotional intelligence and being empathetic. We must ask ourselves how we would wish to be treated if we were feeling intensely emotional. Whether young or old, it’s challenging to experience intense emotions and it’s important to handle them with connection, empathy and kindness.
Author of this article:
Ash Nayate is a clinical neuropsychologist, which means that she specialises in brain function and how this impacts on our behaviour. She has almost 15 years’ experience working with children and families, supporting them to feel happier, more confident and more resilient. To contact Ash please visit her website.