Whenever I’m asked about toddler tantrums, I have a vivid memory of my aunt standing over my little cousin in the high street and wringing her hands imploring: “Oh Amanda darling, please don’t have a tantrum, not here Amanda, please!” I was only ten at the time, but even I could tell that Amanda, who was going for it big time, had no idea that my aunt was even speaking!
There are more neural pathways from the heart to the head brain than from the head brain to the heart and, although the head is supposed to be the seat of logic and reason, the unconscious mind directs about 90% of our behaviour! It’s not surprising then, that sometimes we are literally flooded with so much feeling that the thinking part of our brains aren’t able to engage and we feel emotionally overwhelmed. This is sometimes scary for adults, so for little ones, who haven’t been through the experience enough times to recognise that their body will eventually recover, the state of sobbing uncontrollably or screaming with anger, being unable to breathe and feeling physically sick, is terrifying.
Renaming "tantrum" to 'panic attack' or 'emotional overload' can be helpful in reminding us to stay compassionate and supportive.
So what can we do to help our children?
It’s impossible to reason with anyone, regardless of age, when in emotional overwhelm. Many training courses for dealing with customer complaints explain this and emphasise the need to acknowledge the customers feelings before attempting to deal with the problem and yet we often try to reason with, offer long winded explanations, or tell toddlers off, when they are completely incapable of listening. It’s not that they are being ‘naughty’ or ‘defiant’, they simply can’t manage the emotional overwhelm which is similar to an adult experiencing a panic attack. Only once we are calmer and feel safe again can we start to think more rationally.
Try: Simply listening or reassuring your toddler for the first few minutes of a panic attack. Once the sobs have begun to subside slightly they will be more able to hear and listen to you.
A supermarket or busy café is not the best place to take on a toddler! Blood curdling screams reverberating around a supermarket or café with everyone turning to stare is a parent’s nightmare. Distraught and embarrassed parents try every trick in the book to stop their child from screaming, invariably giving them want they wanted in the first place.
Try: Involving them in what you’re doing. Hand-eye coordination, motor skills and even basic reading as they recognise the packaging are all learning opportunities in a supermarket.
At home, think of tasks they can help with, cleaning, putting things away, holding socks, pegging things on the line, fetching things. Toddlers love to feel important!
It’s hard for people of any age not to feel criticised when told they are doing things wrong and a toddler’s life is full of “no, don’t, stop, leave it, get off”!
Try telling your toddler what you DO want them to be doing, rather than what you don’t. The brain works in pictures so “stop running” gives them a mental picture of themselves running and it’s hard for them to filter in the ‘stop’. “Walk” sends a picture of them walking and ‘’walk like a spaceman or a tortoise” will have a miraculous effect!
See the learning opportunity in everything they do. Make a cupboard just for them, to pull things in and out of. Fill it with pots, pans, wooden spoons and ‘real’ things. Water play, togged up and using a garden hose, gets a task done with fun. Throwing things is potentially painful, so find some targets or buckets and remember you might have an Olympic champion in a few years time!
Breathing exercises are great to practise with toddlers in calm moments. No matter what age you are, simple breathing techniques can help to lower your heart rate, stress levels and reduce pain, so you have a useful tool when they are panicking
Try: Imagine you are holding a bunch of flowers and sniff them hard, then open your hands as though you were holding a plate with a birthday cake and blow out the candles. Say ‘sniff the flowers, blow out the candles” in a gentle rhythm several times. This helps manage your own feelings at the same time.
Staying in a place of love helps you to support your child. Acknowledge the feelings of rage and despair, sooth, comfort and let them know they are safe.
Try: Offering a cuddle and if met with a rebuff, let them know that, when they are ready, the cuddle is waiting.
Rather than be a disciplinarian, look out for signs that your toddler is becoming anxious so you can remove the trigger. All negative behaviour stems from anxiety about something, the trick is to work out what!
Recommended read: The Language of Love by Gary Chapman talks about the five ways we show our love to others, words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. It’s worth taking the quizzes to see which are your own and your children’s preferred love languages, as clashes can be averted by understanding these.
Remember that all the people in the supermarket or the café are strangers you may never see again, but the distraught, screaming toddler on the floor, is the child whom you love and want to build a positive, lifelong relationship with.
Managing emotions takes a lifetime of learning and expecting a toddler to be able to do it when many of us are still learning is unrealistic.
“Children learn to regulate their emotions through ‘co-regulation’. The better we can
soothe them when agitated and support them when low, the better they can ‘absorb’ how to do this for themselves” Stuart Shanker