The Tremendous Toddler Years
I have a real issue with the idea of ‘the terrible twos’. That label brings with it a load of feelings such as dread and anxiety of children turning 2 and their “terrible” behaviour. The toddler years are an incredible time for your child and a fantastic opportunity for you to build the foundations of your relationship with them, which will continue to change and adapt for the rest of their life.
Before we think about tantrums and what you can do to help your child, it can be really useful to understand what is going on inside a toddler’s brain. Because understanding how our little ones brains develop can make it easier for us to have empathy for their struggles and reframe the situation in a way that puts us in a position of ‘wanting to help them learn skills’ rather than ‘wanting to give a punishment.’ Having this understanding may also help you not take tantrums personally or see them as a failure of your parenting.
Until approximately 3 years of age, children’s brains are right hemisphere dominant. This is the big feelings part of the brain where body sensations, what we see and what we feel is processed.
Toddlers feel life with their entire bodies to create a picture of themselves, their relationships, and make sense of the world. This is what makes their play so full of life and why they are excited and get so much joy from little things like the breeze in the trees, finding a long stick, watching their blocks tumble to the floor, or spotting a spider. How you relate and respond to your child is stored in their memory as a feeling. They won’t remember their first 3 years of life, but they will remember how it felt to be in a relationship with you.
The left-hand side of our brain is responsible for language, logic, and literal thinking. This part of the brain begins to develop around 3 years of age but does not fully develop until the age of 7. This fact is key in understanding child development because, until the age of 7, children are not able to fully integrate their ‘felt experiences’ about the world with language and logic. This is why an ‘academic education’ in the formal sense can be tricky for many children below 7 years of age and why learning through play and movement can be so much more impactful and meaningful for them. It is no wonder that children from Nordic and Scandinavian countries out-perform the rest of the world when it comes to academic outcomes in primary school as children don’t begin formal education (including reading and writing) until the age of 7.
Living with a dominant right hemisphere until the age of 7 is also why tantrums are so loud and physical, and why trying to use ‘adult logic’ to explain something to a toddler does not work! Have you ever asked your child, “Why did you throw that?” and they have either started giggling, crying, or walked away? They can’t tell you why they threw it, only that they got a physical response out of it (perhaps they wanted to hear the sound it would make or they enjoy the feeling of throwing, or it was just an impulse after having a big feeling such as anger show up in their bodies).
Young children below the age of 7 are navigating the world with only their feelings as a guide. Their limited ability to use words and lack of impulse control to make sense of ‘big feelings’ and what is happening to them means that they have a strong need for connection. It is our job as parents and adults in their life to support them through this stage of their development. When we can do this, we are helping to shape their brains in a way that will help them work through relationships and challenges in adulthood.
What are Tantrums?
Tantrums are your child’s way of communicating their distress, and provide a window into their emotional world. They may be overwhelmed— perhaps you are asking too much of them in the moment, or they are tired, hungry, scared, angry, upset, or another big feeling.
Even children who have good verbal skills may find it challenging to communicate emotion in words before the age of 7. Self-regulation does not just happen over time; it needs to be learnt. It is our role as parents and adults to help children learn emotional language and ways to self-regulate so that in the future they will be able to say “I feel angry” without having to act it out as physical rage.
When a tantrum erupts it can be easy to lose perspective, notice yourself running out of patience, getting mad or frustrated, shouting and saying and doing things that feed the tantrum and the chaos and make things worse.
When we lose our calm during a tantrum, everything we say and do is lost on our children. What they learn in those moments is that they have the power to ignite anger in us, which can make them feel scared, anxious, and unsafe, triggering further ‘big feelings’ that can make behaviours escalate even further.
Children learn to self-soothe through the experience of being soothed by their parents; therefore, emotional regulation (or self-regulation) happens through experience. Learning how to soothe your child means that you are teaching them to one day soothe themselves.
Finding calm for yourself in the face of your child’s tantrums is imperative to their well-being. There are many suggestions about ways to bring calm into your life using self-care tools like mindfulness, good social support networks, and finding pockets of time to ‘take a break’ and have some time for you, whatever that might look like. But when a tantrum kicks off you may need something that is going to help you immediately, there and then to ground and calm you enough to weather the tantrum.
A simple, quick strategy is to take one long deep breath and use a mantra to bring you the confidence to do the next steps. A mantra is an ancient Sanskrit word. Man- means mind and tra- means instrument. If you have never used a mantra before I encourage you to explore this idea and try it out. It can be can an extremely powerful way to switch your physical state from 'frustration' to 'calmness"'.
Some examples of Mantras that may help you in the moment may be:
“My child needs my help”
“My calm will stop the tantrum”
“These feelings are too big for my child, I can be their container”
“This storm will pass”
“I can help my child feel safe”
“Calm mama, calm child”
If you are someone who prefers images, then find a visualisation that helps bring you confidence, calm or safety. It may be a colour or something like visualising the sea and the coming and going of the waves. Use what works for you.
Finding a mantra or visualisation can help you feel confident and capable and inspire you to rise above the tantrum to offer your child what they need in that moment. It is a bit like putting on a 'costume' that helps to transform you in that moment and allows you to step outside of your child’s tantrum and stay present and calm to help them feel safe again.
Remember that it is good for your child to release these ‘big feelings’ and that their behaviour is an urgent request for help and deep strong connection with you. Every time you stay calm in front of your child while they are having a tantrum increases the likelihood that when they are older, they will respond to big emotions with calmness and compassion.
Three Practical Steps to Weather the Tantrums
In order to help and support your child, you need to look at the emotion that is behind the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. There are three steps you can do with your child at any age to support them through tantrums.
Give your child a story about the situation and put it into words. It’s okay if you are not entirely clear about what has happened; use what you see to describe what is happening.
“You dropped your yummy ice cream.”
“It is time to go home now, and you want to stay on the swings.”
Name the Feeling
Next, look at the feeling BEHIND the behaviour you are seeing. Describing what you see your child do can also help them start to recognise those feelings, try and keep it simple if they are little.
“You are crying, you look sad.” (Or ‘You feel sad.’)
“You are shouting and kicking; I know you feel angry with me.” (Or ‘You feel angry.’)
It may seem counterintuitive, but when we acknowledge that a situation is difficult, label the emotion, AND give permission for the feeling to be there, we help our children’s brain and body to calm down.
So given the examples above, this would look something like this:
“You dropped your yummy ice cream. You feel sad. It’s okay to feel sad, do you want a cuddle?”
“It is time to go home now, and you want to stay on the swings. You are shouting and kicking; I know you feel angry with me. I won’t let you kick, but you are allowed to feel angry. I am still here for you, and I love you”.
Reassuring our child of our love during these moments in a calm voice helps children feel safe and keeps them feeling connected to you. Remember that children are experiencing the world as ‘feelings,’ and your response in these moments will help them have a ‘felt sense’ of your relationship.
At times when your child is out of control…
If your child is engaging in dangerous or unsafe behaviour during a tantrum such as kicking, hitting, throwing, biting, or screaming so loudly that it is disruptive, then you need to put up a physical boundary before you can do the steps above.
First, you may have to physically place a boundary around the behaviour. To be able to regulate, children need proof that parents can keep them safe. Use your hands to gently hold or block hands and feet, as stopping the behaviour is key. Then – TAKE A DEEP BREATH – and say as calmly as you can something along the lines of “I won’t let you hit me. I love you. It is okay for you to feel angry, but I will not let you hit”.
Sit it out with your child and let the ‘tantrum storm’ pass. It may take a while, and your child may need you to continue to hold them to keep them and yourself safe. Remember that your child needs your calm, not for you to join them in their chaos. Keep repeating words that make sense to you calmly to reassure you that you love them, will keep them safe, and that they can feel the way they do.
Some children are more prone to having these ‘over the top tantrums’ than others. It is not a reflection of your parenting but to do with your child’s temperament. Some children feel things more strongly and deeply, and they may show tantrums in a much more intense and emotional way. Try to acknowledge any blaming thoughts that might appear at these times (such as “What is wrong with my child?”, “What have I done wrong?”) and remind yourself – this is no one’s fault. Children feel things intensely, some more than others. Your child needs your help to get through this, and the more you can weather the ‘tantrum storm’ with connection, acknowledging and validating what they are feeling, the more resilient and better at self-regulation they will become.
Tantrums are not enjoyable for you or your child, but they do provide an opportunity to learn about emotions. Your effort to stay calm in the face of their distress is one of the most important gifts you can give your child. It is hard to love our children when they are at their very worst and yet these are the times when we need to show them love the most.
If you need further help with tantrums or your child’s behaviour do not hesitate to book in a 20min telephone consultation or send me a contact request. Together we can think about your unique needs and what strategies may work for you and your family.