Toddler tantrums are frustrating and exhausting for both parents and children. Use these tips from a child psychologist to help manage the meltdowns, says Lisa Salmon
Dealing with a toddler tantrum is something no parent likes to do, and few can avoid. However, how can parents manage these meltdowns, which are often for seemingly ridiculous reasons (to an adult), and can leave all concerned feeling frustrated, helpless and exhausted? Do mums and dads just have to grin (if they can) and bear it?
To an extent, yes, says child psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. However, before despairing parents start to wail and cry themselves, Hershberg stresses that there are many things they can do to keep their cool, help their child calm down, and reduce the frequency and intensity of tantrums.
Hershberg, a mum of two toddlers herself, says: “Parents often want to know exactly what to do during a tantrum, or in the moments immediately before. Those are the moments that feel like a crisis and can really take a toll on our sanity.
Hershberg says no strategy works for every child, every time. “The goal is to try them out and play with them to see what ends up being most effective with your child. The most important thing we can do is learn to pause, calm ourselves down, and then choose a particular path to take in a grounded and intentional way. Maybe the next day we choose another path. And maybe, over time, we learn that one path works best with our child.”
Here she outlines seven of the many ways to handle and reduce tantrums:
Hershberg says toddlers love all things silly, and it can help distract them from their mounting rage. She says when her three-year-old was about to lose it recently, she breathed on a spoon and stuck it to her nose. “Would I ever prescribe that per se? Of course not,” she says. “But if you think on your feet, and are willing to pull unexpected and absurd tricks out of your back pocket, you have a higher likelihood of stopping an oncoming tantrum train in its tracks.”
A parent’s own feelings and physical state — stressed, hungry, tired — can make a real difference as to whether a tantrum occurs or not, says Hershberg. She says parents need to be aware of their own state so they’re more prepared for their child’s potential reaction to it.
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“Tantrums are actually more aptly referred to as ‘tantrum interactions’, and there’s a ‘tantrum dance’ in which parents participate with their children,” she says. “The more we notice, on a daily basis, how our own physical and emotional states impact the energy at home and, therefore, our child’s behaviour, the better able we are to manage those things over which we have some control.”
Much of preventing and managing tantrums involves what happened earlier, so parents need to think ahead about their child’s perspective on events, and anticipate how they might react. If there’s a chance of something provoking a tantrum, then try to alter things, if possible.
“When we invalidate our children’s emotions by calling them silly, we increase the likelihood a tantrum will follow, because our kids, in a sense, have to work overtime to let us know the depth of their distress.”
If parents acknowledge their child’s distress in the first place (“I know you wish you had different sheets, this colour just doesn’t look right tonight”) then the child feels heard and understood, and is much more likely to stay calm.
Children want attention from their parents more than anything, even if it’s negative attention. So parents need to make sure they give more attention to a behaviour they want to promote, than to a behaviour they want to eliminate.
This tactic even applies to when parents use their phones. You may pull out your phone when your child’s playing, but there’s a chance they could kick off when they realise they haven’t got your full attention at which point you’ll put your phone away, thus rewarding the undesirable behaviour. Instead, only get your phone out when it looks like they’re about to have a meltdown, therefore making it clear you’re not going to give any attention to their behaviour.
A parent’s instinct is to ‘fix’ an impending tantrum, but this may suggest to your child that you don’t understand how upset they are, and runs the risk of intensifying the tantrum. Instead, Hershberg says parents need to describe what’s going on, and empathise with their child (even if it’s the last thing they feel like doing). “Empathy can go a long way when your child is in the throes of a meltdown, most often when it’s packaged in brief and clear words or phrases,” she says.
How toddlers learn to handle difficult feelings largely depends on how they see their parents handling theirs, so ask yourself what you look like when you’re angry or upset, and try to modify your behaviour, particularly when the kids are around.
Hershberg says that when a child is having a tantrum, their nervous system is overloaded, and science shows human nervous systems co-regulate.
“This means if both of you are stressed or frustrated, those feelings are contagious, in a sense, and you’re amping each other up. If you, as the parent, can stay calm and grounded, then your child’s nervous system can sense that, and use your state to return to its own calmer state.”
Children, and adults, can’t take in information when they’re in a state of high emotional reactivity. So let them know you understand how they’re feeling, but skip the rational explanations about what’s happening, at least until they’ve calmed down. “Often I observe parents attempting to explain things, using tons of words, to their child, as their child is crying or writhing on the floor,” says Hershberg. “If you need to set a limit, do so kindly, and with as few words as possible. Then move on.”
- The Tantrum Survival Guide, €12.50, Guilford Press