One of our good girlfriends recently asked me about tantrums. Her toddler is close in age to Baby A and this prompted me to consider the process we use when he is acting out. Although all toddlers are different and there are many philosophies, ideas, tactics and tricks to working through tantrums, I want to share the revolving process that has worked well for us.
I have come to believe that consistency is the key to being successful with any parenting strategy. Consistent repetition seems to help Baby A’s developing brain learn more quickly. This aspect, alone, has had a huge impact on limiting and lessening the toddler tantrums we cope with. This can be the most exhausting part, as well, because it can mean repeating yourself over and over or teaching the same lesson time and again. We are lucky to have allies at our son’s school and within our own family. They are all willing to share in our strategies which means continuity for Baby A. This helps him to learn more quickly and comfortably as he knows what to expect when he has a melt down.
Once we have been hit with a toddler tantrum, I always make certain to give credit to how our son is feeling. I know he is partly acting out due to his emotional state. So, I say things like, “you sound sad and I can see that you are crying” or, “your face looks angry and I think you are frustrated.” There have been times that this simple acknowledgment has stopped a fit because he was able to express his feelings accurately and felt understood. Additionally, as he is learning about the feelings he is experiencing, this helps to put names to his emotions so he will be able to better articulate himself in the future. Other times this is just the first step in working through a full blown tantrum.
Give Love or Space
I play this part of the process by ear, and I don’t always get it right. It’s simple, though. Our son typically needs one of two things when he is throwing a fit: attention or alone time. Most often, he wants attention, so I pull him to my body and hold him tight. I will sit on the floor or pick him up to make sure we are on the same level. I then firmly wrap my entire upper body around his. I don’t make a sound, I just silently hug. This allows me to give him positive attention which may be all he needs at the time.
If he is thrashing, hitting, kicking, or acting in a way that could hurt me or himself I will give him space. If he needs attention but also the physical release of frustration, anger, helplessness, shame, or sadness, I will silently watch him. If I notice observing is encouraging the tantrum to continue, I walk away and let him finish. (I’m not willing to do this in a public place because of safety.) It usually doesn’t take long before he comes to find me. Sometimes he needs me to validate his feelings, again, or to hold him tight, but it is almost always easier to encourage communication from this point forward.
Once an acceptable level of calmness has returned, I talk to our son. I remind him that I can’t understand him when he is screaming, whining, or crying. I encourage him to use his words which sometimes means I have to help him find them. I also let him show me the problem if he is able. This can take a while because he sometimes doesn’t know or understand why he is crying. Often, however, he knows exactly why he is upset and then we can talk about what is taking place and why. Even if he doesn’t understand every word I say, I still do my best to explain my actions and the reasons behind them. I also tell him how his actions have an impact on me, him, and the situation.
Stand Your Ground but Give Choices
Sticking to my guns when I’m toeing up with our toddler can be incredibly stressful and trying. I choose to do it because as his first teacher I don’t want him to think that kicking, spitting, screaming, crying, yelling, rolling, or hitting is a good way to obtain his desires. Trust me, there are times when it would be MUCH easier to simply allow or fix whatever is causing the tantrum in the first place. I have shared in the humiliation of a public tantrum and tried to work through one when I was so tired I wanted to throw one, myself. However, I always do my best to stay firm with my original decision despite his protest. I also help him find a way to problem solve a better alternative. I do this by giving him two appropriate or “right” choices while we work to find a new solution. It sounds something like this:
“You may not eat a cookie right now but you are welcome to have a snack. Would you like a banana or yogurt?”
“It is time to leave the playground. Would you like to walk or would you like Daddy to carry you?”
Being given choices is empowering. It gives him control over his situation and buy-in to what is taking place. It also gives his brain something else to think about which can help in stopping the final stages of whining or whimpering. Lastly, this helps him develop his problem solving skills in a positive way.
Prepare and Communicate Ahead of Time
Often, when I give my son a time frame and clear expectations I can negate full tantrums. I will set him up for success even though disappointment is coming. I do this by saying things like, “You may watch cartoons for fifteen minutes this afternoon. I will tell you when you have five minutes left of watching time and then we will turn off the TV to go outside and play.” Baby A will still sometimes protest or cry because he has to stop something that is enjoyable. It is fine with me that he expresses dismay, however, it typically doesn’t last as long nor does it reach a level of full rage. Preparing him for what is coming next coupled with clear expectations truly helps diminish fit throwing.
Toddlers Throw Tantrums
I am a huge fan of “Reasons My Son is Crying.” Why? Because it reminds me that toddlers cry. They throw fits. These outbursts could be for any reason from the way their food was cut at dinner to grandma leaving after a visit. (For other reasons and a good laugh, click here. ) There will just be…tantrums. Our toddlers are just working through many new and overwhelming emotions, identifying boundaries and expectations, and learning how to communicate what they feel. As a mom I’m learning to be okay with that. This process has helped me cope better and has kept me from throwing my own mommy tantrums. There are times when I don’t navigate toddler rage as well as I’d like, but overall I have experienced success using this series of actions.
*Featured image by BOKA.