Though tantrums in toddlers are common during the early childhood years, they can sometimes happen even with older children, especially if they’re really emotionally overwhelmed or overstimulated by someone or something.
In this article:
- What is a Tantrum behaviour?
- What happens when a child throws tantrums?
- What to do when your toddler throws a tantrum?
- 6 effective ways to deal with tantrums in toddlers?
What is a Tantrum Behaviour?
A tantrum usually begins when a child is feeling overwhelmed or is emotionally triggered. This could be due to frustration, anger, fear, disappointment, or even hunger and tiredness.
Until the age of two, children do not have the ability to control or regulate their emotions. The part of the brain that can control emotions is the same part that controls logic, language and learning; which is only just beginning to develop and will be wired up across the toddler years.
This is why when emotions become too intense, the logical part of the brain can go off balance, and your child can become overwhelmed by all the uncontained feelings, which causes tantrums.
What Happens When a Child Throws Tantrums?
When your child is having a tantrum, they are not going to be rational, logical and will hardly communicate. In other words, when your child has tantrums, you’re not dealing with a rational and communicative human being. Rather, you’re dealing with an individual who is emotionally overloaded and completely dysregulated.
During tantrums, the part of your child’s brain that can think about what they’re doing, saying, or understand what you are saying is just not available to them. This means there is very little consciousness to what they do, say or hear.
That’s the reason why you might see them rolling on the floor, kicking in the air or things, screaming, or doing all sorts of crazy and illogical things over what may actually be a small or insignificant provocation.
What To Do When Your Toddler Throws a Tantrum?
The really tricky part for you being a parent, teacher or caregiver who is dealing with a child in a state of tantrum, is that it can be really trigger emotions in you too. When your child throws a tantrum at you and they’ve completely lost control of their emotions, it’s going to be really challenging for you to be in control of your emotions.
This means, we’ve got a situation where there are two individuals who’ve lost their emotional balance and clashing with each other, which is the perfect recipe for things to spiral out of control. Unfortunately for your child, this may often make you yell and say things like “Stop doing that right now. Or else …”, which instead of bring things under control may actually make your child interpret as a threat from you.
This perceived threat can trigger what is called the ‘fight-or-flight’ or ‘fall asleep’ responses from your child, which means they might end up punching, kicking, running away or even hiding under things.
Once it gets to this point, needless to mention, it becomes almost impossible for both of you to calm down, self-regulate and return back to one’s senses anytime soon.
All this therefore boils down to one question: “How to deal with tantrums in toddlers?”
6 Effective Ways to Deal with Tantrums in Toddlers
The following are 6 effective ways to deal with tantrums in toddlers. Together, they can be looked at as a technique to manage temper tantrums.
1. Be Calm & Self-Regulated
The first thing you need to do is to consciously make the effort to get your grip back on your rational and logical thinking ways. The very act of acknowledging to yourself that you can feel you’re about to go emotionally off balance is a perfect way to begin with.
If case you find it too challenging and is beyond you (which is okay), then the least you should do is just step away from the situation for a minute or two, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Why? Well, if it is for you, it is up to you.
After all, only if you put yourself in a position to help yourself to calm down first, will you be able to give yourself any chance of helping your little one to calm down too.
2. Make an Emotional Connection
Now that you have calmed yourself down, try to make an emotional connection with your child. Having said, be careful that you’re not going too big or too loud in your approach. Just make it subtle (subtlety is an art to be practiced). Get down low to the level of your child – physically and emotionally. The lower, the better. Once you have, go it slow and quiet as you try and make this connection.
Remember however, that making this emotional connection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make a physical connection with them, as it might be too early at this stage.
Chances are, your child may not be ready for you to be sitting too close to them, as yet, let alone touching or hugging them. If you can sense with their body language or with their (toddler) words that they want some space, then you should give them adequate space.
If your child is into kicking or hitting at this point, it’s really important that you set the boundary by saying things like:
“This is not okay Anna. I am NOT for hitting and punching things.”
Make sure you say it firmly and assertively – never aggressively.
And if you can divert their attention to something that is reasonable and acceptable, you may say:
“Anna, I can see that you’re so angry that you want to hit or punch something. But I am NOT for hitting or punching. If you really need to, you can go hit and punch that cushion over there. But only there and only on the cushion.”
3. Empathise With Your Child
Empathising is a highly potent way to handle tantrums and meltdowns in toddlers. Once you’ve made the emotional connection, empathise and help them feel that they are loved and understood. If you know the gist of what has triggered the tantrum, help them to understand by talking about what you’ve seen and heard.
You may say something like:
“I can see that you’re really upset right now, because you wanted your sandwich cut into triangles, but I cut it into squares. And I know you feel disappointed because I didn’t do it the way that you wanted me to.”
This way, you give them the words that they don’t have themselves to understand or express exactly what they’re feeling in that moment. It’s a very important skill and needs effort to be practised.
And if you can indeed practise and get the hang of it, then it’s really worth the weight in gold, because the feeling of that neither do we understand ourselves nor do others understand us, is what really leads to a tantrum.
4. Try to Get Close to Your Child
It is now time to connect with your child using empathetic words, just a few words. Not too many. If you can, try to get close to them and mirror your body to theirs. Just copy exactly what they’re doing with their body.
Even if they won’t be able to understand what you’re saying as their brain isn’t ready yet, they will still be able to see that you’re making the efforts to try and understand them. This way, you’re trying to see the situation and things from their world-view.
If they’ll let you, then you can give your child a warm and gentle hug. And once they are able to find their words and use them, repeat their words or clarify what they are saying by asking simple questions, so that they understand you’re indeed listening to what they have to say.
5. Tell Them What Happened
Once they calm down and return to have a grip on themselves, only then should you begin to talk more and try to paint a picture of what actually happened.
It is important to note that it is pretty common that children, after a period of dys-regulation, actually don’t remember what’s happened. This is because (as already discussed) the logical part of the brain, which is the same part of the brain that stores short-term memory, will usually be out of action during the tantrum period.
A great way to begin the process of understanding, is to tell what happened in the form of a story, to begin with, after which you can have a conversation around it. You can start off the story by saying what happened from your world-view, like:
“So I was making a sandwich and I thought I would make it into squares, because that’s what you had wanted yesterday. But instead of asking if you wanted squares or triangles today, I just presumed you will want only squares. But when you saw your sandwich and it was in triangles today, it made you feel really disappointed.”
After saying this, you can have a conversation by making sure that you provide some space for your child to contribute to their experiences. This way, you get the opportunity to correct your guesses about what they’re feeling or what specifically triggered the tantrum in the first place.
Remember however, that the conversation doesn’t have to last long at all, as even just a couple minutes might do the trick.
Without these kinds of conversational debriefs, it’s really easy for your child to walk away with a bit of an emotional hangover, because they’ve just been through this avalanche of feelings and they can’t make sense of them or understand why they arose. Having the conversation, in fact, gives a closure both for you and your child.
Most of all, through the conversation, you help your child to breakdown the who scenario into a logical and sequential order in their brain, which will in turn help them not only to stay in control but also feel ‘settled’. Most of all, it helps them learn from the experience!
6. Talk About Behaviour & Consequences
Once the conversation is over and they’ve understood what happened, you can then talk to them about what if they repeat their behavior again and what the consequences would be – if it happens again the next time (and it most likely will).
You can say something like:
“Tantrums are not good for you at all Anna, and it’s not at all good for mama too. So please don’t do that again. And remember that I am NOT for hitting and punching things, and you know that from today. Okay Anna? Have I made myself clear? …. Good girl.”
Always Remember …
Tantrum behaviour in toddlers, in most cases, happens if they haven’t slept well or if they are feeling hungry – mostly the latter.
While we have been discussing about young children here, tantrum behaviour can happen in anyone, at any age, and can manifest in different ways.
The more you support children with love, care and understanding during their early developmental years, the better you will be able to deal with tantrums in toddlers. Make sure you provide them the words to understand their thoughts, feelings and experiences, so that they are confident you have understood them.
As regards you as a parent or caregiver, hopefully after some practise, you will get to a place where you can sense that you’re about to cross the line and therefore pull yourself back consciously. This way, it will be all over even before it starts.