As my daughter gets closer to the age of 2, I am becoming more familiar with the phrase the “terrible twos” or what seems like the “tantrum twos.” I know that it’s developmentally normal, but it does not necessarily make it any easier to deal with. It also does not necessarily give me more patience or understanding in the moment when emotions are high! It is so easy to become “reactive” in these situations and easily lose your cool. So, let’s take a moment to think about tantrums.
When do they happen? Timing of tantrums may often occur in transitional times. Two big ones may be before dinner or at bedtime – times when your child may be hungry or tired – two simple underlying causes which can sometimes be avoided.
Why do they happen? Most of the time it relates to children not getting their way or being told “no.” Children at this age are seeking autonomy and independence. And, to be fair, they don’t always get a lot of choices. So perhaps giving children some age appropriate autonomy throughout the day and saving “NO” for when it is really needed can be helpful. I am by no means promoting passive parenting or not having rules, discipline or structure in your home. But if it’s something that really is trivial (my daughter INSISTING on wearing her purple shoes EVERY DAY – is it really worth the battle in the morning while trying to get her dressed and out the door?)
Let’s also take a moment to consider what is going on in children’s brains during a tantrum. There’s typically screaming, crying, thrashing, maybe hitting, throwing? It just what looks like they are out of control, right? Well, they kind of are!
The part of the brain that controls thinking, reasoning, self-understanding, and balance sits on top of the emotional center of the brain. You can think about it like a lid, keeping your emotions in check. In a very emotional situation, the emotion center of the brain can begin to override that “lid,” and you are literally no longer able to reason or empathize or user higher functioning of your brain. You’ve literally flipped your lid!! That’s what is happening to our children!! That’s why it is completely pointless to reason with someone whose emotions are out of control. It’s not the time to discipline either.
Your goal in a tantrum is to get yourself (yes, parents’ lids flip too!) and your child calm enough so the lid starts doing its job again and regulates those emotions.
Tips for Dealing with Tantrums
1) When a tantrum occurs, do your best not to react until you yourself are calm. Walk a way for a moment if needed. Name your feeling (to yourself): I’m really angry/tired/annoyed. Tell yourself a grounding thought such as this will pass, this is not about me, this is developmentally normal.
2) Connect with your child and calm. Sit with them in their frustration.
3) Get down on your child’s level. Use non-threatening body language (soft face, eye contact, open arms). Offer a hug. Offer things you know may help them calm (singing a song, bringing a favorite stuffed animal).
4) Once you are BOTH calm: repeat your child’s words back to them, validate his/her feelings. Talk about appropriate vs. in appropriate behavior. Enforce the limit with compassion. Be clear and certain, not necessarily forceful.
5) Retell the story later. This helps to make sense of their emotions. Children may find it scary when their lid has flipped. When your child is calm and open to listening, talk about what happened and how he/she felt about it. Consider doing this during an unrelated activity (coloring, riding in the car).
These are simply basic guidelines to follow. You will figure out what works best for your own child. You may also find what has worked at age 2 may need to be tweaked for age 3. But, I hope the tips help! I keep this list on my fridge!