Tantrums are a natural stage in every child's development. While some parents with easy going children may have fewer of them to deal with, no parent avoids tantrums altogether. However, there are steps we can take to avoid and/or mitigate tantrums.
Why do kids have tantrums?
When an infant cries, we rush to meet its every need. Our agenda is aligned with the infant's agenda. As a child passes the first year mark and begins to explore the world and have a greater sense of himself as an individual, for the first time his agenda might be at odds with our agenda. Your child now knows that there are different kinds of foods and that he likes some better than others. He knows which shirts are scratchy and which shoes pinch. He suspects there are interesting things in the mud to explore. These are all marvelous signs that he is figuring out that he is his own person--separate from his mother--and yet at any given time, we parents might have different priorities.
All the new learning a child is doing is extremely taxing. Think about a time you have traveled someplace new. Perhaps you went somewhere where a different language was spoken. Think how much energy it took to figure out where you wanted to go, how you were going to get there, what you were going to eat--especially, if you didn't even speak the language! That is what a toddler experiences every day. No wonder he is overwhelmed!
On top of that, his body is burning up energy at a ferocious rate. That means that even slight variations in his sleeping and eating can throw him off. The gap between "I'm fine" and "I'm starved; the world is about to end" can feel like a nanosecond to the poor unsuspecting parent.
What can parents do to keep their kids from having tantrums?
Fortunately, there are things you can do to avoid tantrums. Start with good sleeping and eating habits. You know that makes a difference in your own life, and you are an adult with the ability to recognize how a bad night's sleep will affect you. A toddler just knows he feels off. In the same vein, a routine your child can count on helps a great deal. When he sits down to a meal in the same chair at around the same time every day, it makes your child feel secure. So much of his day will be new--new cognitive skills, new social/emotional skills, new motor skills. It is good to start and end his days with routines where he knows exactly what to do.
When a child has a tantrum, it is because he is swamped with feelings he doesn't know how to control. Interestingly, you--yes, you!--are your child's greatest tool when it comes to emotional regulation. Not only will your calm, loving presence help him calm down in the moment, but having had lots of warm, unstructured time with you ahead of time fills up his emotional tank. It literally teaches him how to feel calm. When you spend time with your child where you are just hanging out or playing what he wants to play (not where you have a learning agenda, but where you are really taking your cue from him and being responsive to his cues), you are forming a strong bond and giving him a sense of security. As he learns to regulate himself over time, this feeling of connected security is what he returns to. This concept can be a little hard to grasp, but when your child spends time with you when you are relaxed and present, your child is learning how that feels. Then, when he is upset but you are nearby--calm and solid--he can more easily return to that state himself.
The last way in which you can help your child avoid feeling out of control is by setting kind, firm limits. Even as a child is losing it, another part of him knows that it is not socially acceptable (and therefore not safe) to rant and rave and strike out at others. Therefore, when you set limits (kindly but firmly), you are making him feel safe. Let's say, for example, that he is hitting another child because the child took his toy away. He is mad (and rightly so) and at the same time, those big out-of-control feelings scare him. When you step in and say clearly, "I cannot let you hit someone no matter how upset you are," you save him from his worse self. You give him a chance to calm down and find a solution without having alienated everyone around him. Remember, at our core, we are social creatures who thrive the most when we are in positive relationship with the people around us. This is how we get our needs met. Feeling disconnected is overwhelming. The sooner kids learn to control themselves, the better they feel, and that control is learned from calm, confident parents who model how they control themselves.
What can a parent do to mitigate a tantrum?
Every parent is going to deal with a tantrum at some point, but there is much the parent can do in the moment to help a child deal with it. Because our calm, helps a child calm down, it is important to stay present with a child. So the first step is to get your own emotions under control. Try taking some deep breaths. Practice imagining yourself somewhere very peaceful. If when you are not upset, you develop the habit of closing your eyes and picturing a place--for me it is a sun-warmed bolder by a very still lake--, you will be able to pull up that image at a moments notice. This takes practice! Try setting a reminder every day, so you do it at least once.
Once you have calmed yourself, acknowledge what a hard time your child is having and name his emotions. You might say something like, "I can see how very frustrated you are right now. You are really angry that that boy took your truck away. That did not feel fair. You are so mad you could spit nails." Studies have found that children (and adults, too!) who have a wider emotional vocabulary are better able to regulate their emotions. There is something about being in touch with your feeling and naming it that allows you to recognize it as a temporary state. For that reason, it is also effective to offer your child the reassurance that the state that is overwhelming him will pass. Say, "You are angry right now, but you will feel better soon, and it will get easier and easier to use your words."
If your child will let you, offer physical connection--a hand or a hug or a lap. If he won't, just sit as close as he will allow. If his anger turns physical, keep him from hitting you or another child, but use as light a pressure as you can to restrain him.
The middle of a tantrum is not the time to tell the child how to behave. That takes thinking, and as long as he is angry or upset, your child is in the emotional part of his brain. Once he calms down and cools off, there is time enough to suggest actions for next time.
Reminding yourself that tantrums peak around 4 years old and then taper off might help you stay calm until the storm has passed!
In the meanwhile, if you continue to struggle and want some tips for how to apply this to your family, let's chat. To get on my calendar, go HERE.