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Tantrums in Toddlers and Young Children

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

One of the hardest things to deal with as a parent or carer is a young child's explosive emotions. A perfectly calm child suddenly erupts with anger, tears, screaming and, once in a while, throwing, biting and hitting and leave us scrambling for how to handle it.

Their response seems perfectly irrational and over the top to us and we can sometimes struggle to find the right way to handle it. Logical explanations or attempts to reason fail and we oftentimes end up giving into whatever the child wants, especially if we have a younger baby to take care of, are late for work or in the middle of a busy supermarket and feeling everybody's eyes on us.

Many of us have been there. What makes such situations harder to handle is our own emotional response to them. Our kids cannot help but push our own emotional buttons. The situation is doubly hard if we are tired or unwell ourselves.

So, what do we do?

The Science

Well, first we need to understand that these explosions are perfectly normal and natural for a young child. The amygdala part of the brain, that tiny piece that controls our fight or flight response, is not fully developed until we are about 25 years old. In a young child, the amygdala is still in very early stages of learning what warrants an emergency hijacking of the brain (for survival purposes) and what does not. So this explosion of emotion is perfectly normal. And understanding this, already provides some relief in being able to cope with it as a parent or a carer.

Second, we need to recognise that while this amygdala hijacking is taking place, our child is unable to engage or process any kind of logic or reason. Their entire brain is focused elsewhere and no amount of reasonable discussion will cut through that. If anything, it is likely to make things worse, throwing more fuel to the fire and prolonging the tantrum.

The Paradigm Shift

The most important paradigm shift that we can make as parents and carers is to understand that we can be empathetic and understanding with respect to the emotion but strict in maintaining behaviour boundaries. This is a key element in effective handling of such situations so, let us explain what we mean in more detail.

Step one - make sure everybody is safe

The first priority in any situation is to make sure everybody is safe and that the child cannot do any more damage to themselves or others. For example, if a child is biting or hitting, by removing them from that location and clearly but calmly stating something like 'I will not let you hit your sister, it is not safe' or 'I will not let you hit the door, it can break and you can hurt yourself'.

If another child/person is hurt, tend to that first. When removing a child from a situation, always put it in terms of preventing something bad from happening rather than accusing a child of bad behaviour.

This is also a stage where you might want to take a few slow deep breaths yourself, before saying anything to the child. This helps you to regulate your own response, making sure you do not act out of anger or stress. Moreover, seeing us apply self-regulation techniques in day to day life models this behaviour for our children.

Step two - empathy and understanding

The second step is to show empathy and understanding for the emotion that the child is experiencing. Yes, we know it is hard, especially if the child just whacked you or their sibling or is throwng a tantrum because you said no to something. But it is super important.

This looks something like this:

'I can see you are very upset - it is very frustrating when you cannot have what you want.'

'I can see you are very angry right now. Anger is a powerful emotion and this is clearly very hard for you.'

'It is okay to be upset. I am here for you.'

Make sure to name the emotion (anger, frustration, etc.) - learning to name and recognise them is a key step in teaching our children to regulate their emotions.

Offering a hug or a cuddle at that point is also useful, although the child may not yet be ready for it. If they are not, wait until they are. Stay close and let them know you are there for them.

This step is part of a co-regulation process where we help a child calm down, until they have enough experience and tools to self-regulate their emotions.

This may seem illogical and might looks like we are rewarding bad behaviour with emotional support, but this connecting is the one thing that does cut through the emotional hijacking by the brain. The child is often scared and overwhelmed in that moment and that emotional support and understanding is key in building our connection with them. It also takes some of the wind out of their tantrum.

Moreover, we want our children to know that it is safe to feel those emotions. It is the resulting behaviour that is the problem, not the emotion.

Step three - address the behaviour

Once the child is calm enough to process what is actually going on, we can start a conversation about their behaviour. For example:

'It looked like you were very angry just now. Can you tell me what happened? Did you get frustrated by.....'

'Wow that was a big upset just now. That must have been scary. Now that you are calmer, let's talk about it so I can tell you why I did not let you do xyz....'

This allows a child (with our help) to think and express what was happening for them. Remember - such outbursts are not about a child wanting to be naughty, they are almost always a result of them not being able to handle an overwhelming emotion such as a desire for something, anger or frustration.

We can then offer a possible self-regulation tool to try. We can even involve a child by inviting suggestions from them. This builds a sense of ownership and resilience, as well as making them more receptive to the suggestions. This can look something like this:

'I wonder what we can do next time when you feel this angry? What do you think?

How about we try deep breaths? We can do them together? Shall we try this now, so we know how to do them next time?'

Do not expect miracles

This emthod is not a magic wand. But it is a solid foundation for raising emotionally aware and resilient children. And it does make those incidents a little less stressful each time.

Do not expect a child to learn and apply your calming techniques the very next time they get upset. This takes time and patience. But if you are consistent, soon you will be able to suggest that a child, for example, does deep breaths, while they are still in the tantrum and they will actually try doing them.

Three effective techniques that we like and you could try with your child are:

1) Slow deep breaths - count to four as you breathe in and count to four as you breathe out. Model that behaviour by doing it with your child. This technique sends a message to the amygdala that there is no critical danger and helps it to slow down the storm.

2) What can you: See? Hear? Smell? Touch? - this technique redirects the brain by engaging our senses and helps to calm down the amygdala. Play this game with your child when they are happy and calm, so they can get used to it before trying it out in more challenging situations.

3) Light shining through us - imagine a light that shines through our head and down through our body, until it goes into the ground, taking our frustration or anger into the Earth. This one is for slightly older children but it works well once they are starting to learn self-regulation. Again, try it with them a few times when they feel calm and happy and explain how this technique can help them make overwhelming emotions less overwhelming.

Be kind to yourself

You won't get this right every time. And that's not the goal. You will have days when emotional empathy in the middle of a full blown meltdown is just not feasible for you. And that is okay. You are human!

Remember - no matter how good a parent you are, at some point you will carry a screaming child out of a public place.

Decide for yourself which boundaries are solid (like hitting, throwing, biting, not giving in to buy sweet, etc.) and which battles are not worth it. Remember that your child is not trying to be mean - they just cannot regulate their emotions yet or see another person's point of view (at least until they are about 8 years old). So, have empathy for that and show it, while standing firm on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Use opportunities like these to connect with your child and to work on their self-regulations.

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