Your sweet little bundle of joy has accomplished many milestones. He’s walking, feeding himself, being a helper, even talking a bit–more and more every day. But, oh boy, does he have his moments. Those inconsolable, uncontrollable, loud, intense, overwhelming tantrums. That state of utter confusion when she wants to do it all herself and is falling apart under the frustration that comes along with that. The morning gone from blissfully wonderful to a total nightmare and you don’t even know what the problem is. You ask yourself: Why is all this happening and What can I do to help make this easier?
Bad news first? The terrible twos (sometimes it’s the terrible threes) are a stage of development that many children go through and that we can’t take them out of. It’s their natural way of expressing themselves at a time in life where they experience great frustration and don’t have a lot of tools to deal with it. We may just have to accept that this is where they are at and do our best to support them through it. The good news is that this time provides ample opportunity for teaching children emotional language, self-regulation, social skills and more. They may not implement these new skills right away, but the long term effects will be apparent.
Here is some important information about toddlers and some strategies for supporting their healthy emotional development.
- Toddlers are in a transitional stage of development: a part of them still wants to be a baby (closeness, difficulty separating) and a part of them wants to be a big kid (independence, I can do it myself). Meet them where they are at with this. Understand that there’s a part of them that still needs to be young and attached to you. And respect their need for independence. It’s a balancing act, but it helps your tot develop a healthy sense of self.
- Toddlers need help expressing their emotions. Give them words and tools to express the entire range of feelings. Have a feelings chart up on the fridge at eye level for your little one. Model healthy expression of feelings and name the feeling for them when they are expressing emotions.
- Give children tools for expressing themselves. Model emotional language. Teach them feelings words. Guess their feeling experience and speak it to them. “I hear you’re upset right now.” Or. “I get it. You’re really sad that you have to wear a coat to the park.” The terms “big feelings” or “upset” are good catch-alls.
- Young children are quick to tantrum because their brains are not yet “wired” to respond with calm and logic. They need your help to calm themselves. Toddlers’ brains are undergoing huge amounts of development. Model self-regulation techniques like taking deep breaths, counting to ten, becoming aware of what’s in your environment… whatever works for you to get calm and in your body again.
- Toddler’s tantrums are not rational because their brain’s frontal lobe is not developed. What seems irrational to us may feel incredibly important to your child. Validate this and never discount their feelings. It’s ok to set limits on behavior, but always start by validating the feelings that are driving the behavior. “It’s ok to feel mad. But it’s not ok to hit Tommy. Let’s find another way to show your feelings.”
- Toddler tantrums very often stem from the frustration of feeling stuck, unable to express one’s needs and have them met accordingly. Empathize with this frustration to help your child feel understood.
- It is impossible to help someone regulate if you are dys-regulated yourself. Use the oxygen mask philosophy and make sure that you are regulated (5 deep breaths) before trying to help your child regulate.
- Give children a consistent space where they can go to calm themselves down. They may need your comfort so go with them, take deep breaths or just “stay with” (be emotionally present with your child) until he/she is calm.
- Stay consistent with your limits but validate the emotion: “I get it. You feels so sad that you can’t eat a cookie right now. And we have to wait until after dinner.”
- Spend one-on-one quality time engaging and playing with your child. At least 10-20 minutes per day in which phones are off, no other tasks are being performed. This is just about connecting and playing with your child.
- Use “I” statements: “I feel…”
- Talk to your child respectfully.
- Your child will not listen to you unless he/she feels listened to.
- When you change the way you look at your child, you see change in your child.
Try this approach to parenting your toddler and you are sure to see a shift in his behavior, the frequency and duration of tantrums and, in the long-term, in her ability to express her emotions and self-soothe. Respect, understanding and empathy are key components of communication at any age–toddlers need these with consistency and repetition for healthy brain development.