A Psychologist Mumma’s 5 Tips for Handling Tantrums

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Oh, the joy of tantrums! There are many reasons why children have tantrums, some of which can be perplexing to a logical adult with a well-developed prefrontal cortex

“You didn’t want the green plate? BUT YOU ASKED FOR IT.”

“You’re not going to the toilet? So you’re going to pee all over the floor right NEXT to the toilet?”

“You didn’t want your sister to be born but I can’t return her”

Tantrums challenge little children. It’s when their emotional self that outstrips their developmental skills such sharing, being able to logically work through a problem, and the development of Theory of Mind – why don’t you want to go where I want to go? The truth is that self-regulation abilities don’t actually develop till between the ages of 3 and 7, so till then, it’s all about co-regulation and having an adult help guide them through those big feelings. If I’m being completely honest, we never completely self-regulate. Man was not built in isolation, and will always need his village around him to lift him up. Yes, very often I will say “I need some space” or “I’m going for a run” to process my feelings, but equally I may lie on the couch in the arms of a partner or have a wine with a friend to debrief.

Tantrums are also absolutely essential parts of development. You’re doing parenting right by not always allowing them to have their way, and teaching them essential skills like learning to accept ‘No’ for an answer, and how to share space and materials, even when they’re not ready to. Tantrums actually signal to us where our child is developmentally with a certain skill, and can target important skills that we can focus on them learning. They’re doing child-ing (yes, it’s a thing….)because I made it one) right because they’re learning it’s okay to let their feelings out, instead of keeping them all in. They’re learning how to express what they want instead of passively accepting what life throws at them, and in this they’re building their individuality.

Put it this way – what’s worse than a toddler throwing tantrums? Adults throwing toddler tantrums, because whenever they used to throw a tantrum as a child, they got what they wanted. Often found these days at shopping centres, demanding a 100% refund on an item they wore and washed, but later changed their mind on. It is a key developmental conflict to work through at this stage in building healthy and resilient adults.

So here we are, my top 5 tips on dealing with tantrums while they’re still toddlers.

The Top 5 tips

1) Pre-Plan.

First step is reading blog articles like mine (ha ha!)I’m joking and serious at the same time.) What I’m referring to is understanding tantrums. When we understand why tantrums occur, we tend to have more empathy for their little souls and a framework to fall back on. The next step is to have a chat with your parenting team. This could be your partner, a co-parent, or someone who regularly looks after your child, such as a nanny or grandmother. How would you ideally like to respond to a tantrum? Sharing it with your parenting team increases the chances that you’ll practice it, and hopefully both of you can tag team and support each other in practising your plan.

2) Breath.

So often, tantrums challenge the very core of us. We’re tired, we’re busy dealing with something else, we’re embarrassed by where the tantrum is occurring… the list goes on. When we respond immediately to a tantrum, we’re responding reflexively. It’s great if your reflexive parenting represents your best self, but if it’s not, I’d recommend taking a second to take a deep breath. Take two even, or three. This creates space between your initial reaction and your intended response (Step 1), and helps you connect with your plan.

3) Forget the Rest.

It shouldn’t matter where you are. This is you, and your child. Much like how you stared into their eyes as a newborn and got lost in the world, do it again in those tantrum moments. Come closer. Connect. Forget the world. Go to a quiet space if you need to be, so it can just be the both of you again. Your child isn’t going to remember those stranger’s reactions (which ideally should be nothing short of empathic), but they are going to remember how their parent responded to them, and THIS is what is going to form their emotional landscape for life.

4) Connect and empathise.

“Hey little buddy. You’re upset that you couldn’t go to the park today.”…. aaaaaand hold it there. You’re letting your little light of your life (yes, even when they’re upset) know that you get it. You’re naming their feeling and connecting with them. Often, when we hold that empathic space for them, children feel heard, which enables them to relax and connect. Let that take as long as it needs to. It’s very tempting to go straight into why you said no, why they can’t have what they want etc. The ‘why’s’ however, appeals to the logical part of their brain which they’re not in touch within times of emotional dysregulation. The first step is helping their bodies to calm and connect back with you.

5) Explain Why.

It’s important that the ‘whys’ are tailored to their developmental age as well as their personality. For some children with well-developed emotional regulation skills, they may be able to process information close to the tantrum event. For other children who take longer to process emotions, even after a tantrum has subsided, their bodies are still feeling stressed and talking about it serves to increase the stress. They may need to go outside and play ball or jump on the trampoline, or watch TV for a while, choosing to talk about it later at night or even the next day. Recognise your child’s emotional processing style, and work according to this. It’s always important to reconnect and repair your relationship, and respecting their space and style is a great way to start.

After a tantrum is over, feel free to tag team in your parenting team or set your child up in an independent play activity so that you can have space to process and reflect on your own emotional response, as well as reset your stress systems.

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