It doesn’t matter if you have just one child or six, there is one thing that never gets easier to handle – toddler tantrums.
It doesn’t matter how good of a parent you are, you can even be a parenting expert, and your toddler will STILL have tantrums. It’s just a fact of life when you’re parenting a 1 year old, or a 2 year old, or even a 3 or 4 year old.
Tantrums are simply unavoidable at this age, and there’s solid developmental reasons why. Firstly, toddlers have limited capacity for language. They are often completely unable to express their wants and needs in a way that their caregivers can understand. While they may be able to get their point across most of the time using gestures and the words that they do know, it’s inevitable that there will be misunderstandings. To them it’s evident that they’re trying to ask you for the pink cup for their water, so of course they feel disappointed when they get the blue cup instead.
Secondly, toddlers have a limited capacity for emotional and behavioural regulation. They’re a long way off developing this capacity; many adults still struggle to regulate their emotions, especially in the heat of the moment. Their prefrontal cortex, the seat of rational thought in the brain, is still developing, so when big emotions arise it’s easy for their prefrontal cortex to get overwhelmed. Irrational behaviour is the result.
Lastly, toddlers don’t yet have this thing that psychologists call Theory of Mind. Having a Theory of Mind is the capacity to see the world through someone else’s perspective, and it doesn’t develop until later in the preschool years. Before that time, children literally do not have the capacity to comprehend that we may see things differently than they do. While you may know that you saved their life by stopping them from running into a busy road, to them you’re just the angry parent who stopped them from running around and having fun.
While we can’t avoid toddler tantrums, we can reduce their frequency… to a degree at least. For example, here’s five ways that we invite a meltdown:
- Going to the supermarket just before lunch time
- Asking your child to pack up when they’re already angry
- Rushing into the bedtime routine straight after picking your child up from day care
- Telling your child that they can’t bring a carrot to bed when it’s already past their bedtime
- Asking your child to come to dinner now even though they’re concentrating on building a tower
When our toddlers are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Stressed, the triggers that they might otherwise brush off are much more likely to result in a meltdown. Their prefrontal cortex is already struggling to stay in control, so when one more thing happens – like getting the wrong colour cup – a tantrum is inevitable.
Consequently, we can minimise the likelihood of a tantrum by modifying our expectations when our toddlers are already nearing overwhelm, or by modifying the environment. For example, we can:
- Bring a snack for our toddler to eat while we do the shopping
- Leave the packing up for later, or even just do it ourselves
- Take five minutes for cuddles and connection before moving into the bedtime routine
- Just let them bring a carrot to bed
- Ask them to come to dinner once they finish building their tower
There will be times though that you can’t modify the environment or your expectations. There will also be times when things escalate very quickly, and your very happy child becomes a very angry child in the blink of an eye. Dealing with tantrums isn’t easy, but it is simple:
1. Remember that emotions are contagious
When our little kids are feeling chaotic, there’s two ways we can go. We can catch their cranky and join them in an escalating cycle of chaos. Or we can stay calm. Easier said than done, but realistically we can’t parent anybody if we can’t parent ourselves first. Do your best to hold it together.
2. Don’t try to fix it in the moment
Have you ever been angry, had someone say, “Just calm down!”, and responded “Good point, I needed that logic, I will just calm down.”? Of course not! When emotions are big, don’t try to fix things. Instead…
3. Focus on connection or space
Some kids want a hug when they’re feeling mad. Other kids want space. Most of the time, they want space first, then connection. If it’s possible, move your child to a private area. Say to them, “I can see you’re having a tough time. Do you want a hug or do you want me to give you some space?” They’ll probably tell you to go away. Give them some space, but let them know that you’ll be just around the corner ready to give them a hug when they’re ready. Then once they’re regulated again you can move onto problem solving.
OR Use distraction
There will be times and places where you can’t focus on giving connection or space. Maybe you’re already in the supermarket check-out when you sense a meltdown brewing. In those moments, distraction is your best tool. Toss them a lollipop, start doing a silly dance, put on their favourite episode of Bluey. Distracting them won’t prevent the meltdown, but it should delay it to a more convenient time (like at home, instead of on the side of a busy road). While emotions do matter, our kids’ emotions don’t matter more than everything else. Distract, get on with what you need to do, but be prepared for the emotions to spill out later.
Toddler tantrums aren’t indicative of our parenting skills. Every single toddler on the planet cries, stomps their feet, and pushes their parents away. Fortunately for us, toddlers also have the best giggles, give the biggest snuggles, and say the cutest things. So next time you’re in the midst of a toddler meltdown, take a big breath and remind yourself that on the other side of this big moment is the sweetest hug you’ve ever had.