How to respond during those big, unreasonable toddler tantrums!
How to respond to those unreasonable tantrums!
Screaming, pulling hair, smacking, the list goes on... Tantrums in full swing can be so overwhelming. I remember chatting in a mum's group last month about all the unreasonable reasons that toddlers have explosive outbursts. While treading rather lightly, we found a wonderful outlet in listening to one another's horror stories - albeit rather humorous as well.
Sometimes we have to choose between crying our eyes out or simply laughing over how incredibly unreasonable kiddos can be! My favourite unreasonable reasons for tantrums that I heard that day were 1) a tantrum over the cat not unlocking the front door and 2) not being allowed to sit in the oven to watch dinner cook! Oi vay!
So, what is happening with our toddlers? Why are they flipping out over something so silly or trivial?
The key to understanding ANY behaviour will always begin and end with a chat about the good ole brain. Everything we do is based on what is happening between our ears. Let's take a minute and explore your toddler's brain to fully understand those frequent tantrums.
Three reasons your toddler is so unreasonable.
1. Their cortex is still developing.
Wha?! What is their cortex and why does it matter?
The prefrontal cortex is where we humans do all of our thinking, problem solving, reasoning and so on. Essentially it is where all of our executive functioning skills take place.
When your brain experiences something unexpected or difficult it sends a signal to your emotional midbrain (the "oh cr*p!" when you spill your coffee) which we then turn towards our cortex to reason our way through the problem ("If I change my shirt I can clean this one and the coffee won't stain it.").
Pretty reasonable, right?
Now let's look at a toddler's brain. Same experience leads to the midbrain BUT without the reasoning skills that the cortex provides it can instantly stimulate the brainstem where we find the fight/flight responses...leading to an emotional outburst in place of simple problem solving.
This is why tantrums can seem more frequent during those early years of development while your kiddo's cortex is still developing. They simply do not have the ability to problem solve or reason their way through a problem.
2. Their reactive, emotional brain is in charge.
Without the cortex your youngster is relying heavily on their primal midbrain to make their decisions (uh-oh!). Just imagine what it's like to spill coffee on your shirt after you have just had the argument of your life with someone you love! All those emotions are still heightened and now...coffee stain!!
Small problems are always ten times worse when we are in an emotionally charged state. This is all natural brain work and part of its never ending role of over-complicating your life to keep you "safe". (Thanks a lot, brain!)
For toddlers though this is where they are most of the time. They are primarily relying on their midbrain to make decisions since their cortex is underdeveloped. What a to-do! This puts our kiddos in a vulnerable spot which leads to very emotional days and nights in the toddler's household.
3. Everything, and I do mean everything, is "me me me"!
We could go on and on about why toddlers are so doggone unreasonable but I'm going to focus on these three so I don't lose all my readers (watch them all go running for the hills!!).
Whenever someone tells me how selfish their toddler is I have hard time not chuckling to myself, because it is SO true and an expected part of their natural development.
Your toddler's brain is egocentric by nature. While this will change gradually allowing them to understand another person's point of view, at this stage they only understand THEIR point of view. This is why explaining the consequences of their actions is like talking to a brick wall. "You make mummy sad when you throw things." means absolutely zilch to your toddler. Sorry mama!
In fact, explaining how you and others feel will only add to the tension in the moment. This is a) because your kiddo does not understand and they may feel overwhelmed and anxious and b) because you might unintentionally work yourself up thinking "Why are you still throwing!? I told you it makes me sad! Don't you care about how I feel?"
The thing is, tantrums are not personal.
We may take aggression, defiance and resistance very personal but the reality is that behaviour during early childhood is just your little one's brain sorting things out. We often get in the way by placing responsibility onto the youngster for their emotions.
"You should know better!"
"No TV until you learn how to behave!"
As your toddler grows and their language kicks in, the temptation to confuse language development with emotional intelligence is very common. "He is so clever, he knows not to do that!" Yes, your child may "know" specific actions have consequences but the ability to regulate that behaviour is still a ways away.
But don't fret! Let's talk about ways to start helping your kiddo through those big emotional outbursts.
Three things to DO during your little one's tantrum.
Sometimes when the outbursts start it can become so overwhelming and all we want is to know that we aren't messing our child up even more!! So, before I share with you exactly what to do during a tantrum, please stop for a moment and simply be kind to yourself.
You are not alone in those moments of overwhelm. You are not the only parent questioning yourself or your toddler. "Am I doing this right? Why is she always so upset?"
As a behaviour specialist, I hear these questions every day from my families. Your child's tantrums are completely normal and a necessary part of their learning. So deep breath and let's dive in.
The first and most important thing you can do for your toddler during a tantrum is remain calm.
Now, I know that this asking a lot but hear me out. Your child does not have the ability to self soothe through their big emotions like you do. We already discussed their brain's current stage of development and they are primarily relying on their over-reactive, primal brain to make decisions for them. This leads to a lot of messy, bubbly emotions meaning it is up to you to be their soother.
The more escalated your child's emotions become, the calmer you need to become. Great ways to soothe our own reactions to a tantrum are taking a deep breathe, standing up or changing positions and choosing one a "go-to" sentence.
This leads to the second thing to do when your toddler is tantruming and that is saving this moment for validating. This is not a time to lecture, scold or threaten your youngster. "Why are you always like this?" or "Look at him, he's behaving like a baby." Hold your tongue mama, and choose one sentence that validates only.
Their primal, reactive brain is already in a flurry of emotions. Lectures and reasoning (while most times with good intentions) only fans the flame. Instead, validate their emotions in one soothing sentence.
"I know this is hard."
Choose a sentence that soothes YOU and your child. Stick to this one sentence and remain as silent as possible. Present - validating - but mostly silent.
Lastly, show your youngster how to regulate their breathing during a tantrum. We all know how effective breathing techniques can be for self soothing, the tricky thing is teaching toddlers! As your kiddo ages you can use fun activities to guide them through their emotions but at this age, your toddler may be too young to follow along...especially during heightened emotions.
A great, simple way to teach your toddler how to begin regulating through a tantrum is guiding their breathing.
At some point in their tantrum all toddlers inevitably reach that silent moment where they have to catch their breath. This is when you lean down and stroke their back, "I know this is hard." or "Mummy's here." Sticking to your one sentence, gently rub your child's back or give cuddles while they catch their breath.
Some kiddos will return to screaming and kicking as soon as they catch their breath so be ready to stand back up silently. After a few moments when they begin to take deep breathes again, return to stroking their back and using your chosen sentence.
Over time, your little one will begin to follow your lead and regulate their emotions by taking deep breathes. This is where the magic happens. What once used to cause never ending tantrums will gradually turn into a few minutes and then... calm.
~ One family reported back to me saying their child, once using self harm during tantrums, now would let out a quick squeal and be done!
With this consistent approach to tantrums, your gorgeous toddler will begin to learn HOW to self soothe. So, that's it mama. Three gentle steps: Remain calm, choose your one validating sentence and guide their breathing through gentle strokes between screams.
Now, I want to hear from you. What's the most unreasonable reason your toddler has exploded in a tantrum?! Which step are you most looking forward to using next time?
About the author
Stephanie Wicker is a child behaviour expert, parenting educator, counsellor and speaker - who has successfully guided families through early childhood for over 15 years. Through her experience with private consultancy, as a preschool teacher and special needs therapist - she has worked across the many facets of early childhood behaviour.
Stephanie's evidence-based programs are grounded in behaviour science and her passion for Relational Frame Theory (RFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and developmental psychology all play a big role in her programs.
Stephanie’s experience covers early intensive behaviour intervention programs for children with special needs and for families newly diagnosed. She hosts live training events all over Australia, where she shares her practical solutions and language techniques, along with providing private, in-home therapy sessions for those seeking more personalised support.
Through her company, Simply Kids she provides family resources such as digital books and educational activities, designed to keep behaviour simple.
"By helping parents place emphasis on connection, empowerment and encouragement, I believe that all children have the ability to reach their full potential." - Stephanie Wicker