Earlier today, my 2 year old was exuberantly happy. Then, without warning, he was upset. No, not upset, he was devastated. Fortunately, he told me how he was feeling: he screamed, shouted, threw his milk, cried, held me close, pushed me away, yelled, sobbed, grabbed his milk, then threw it again.
My toddler was upset.
Meltdowns or tantrums can build slowly or erupt without warning; either way, they are unavoidable.
- What is wrong?
- Am I a bad parent?
- Is my child a bad child?
- What am I doing wrong?
- Why? Why? Why?
- How do I make it stop?
THE BAD NEWS: There is no way to stop emotion.
THE GOOD NEWS: All tantrums end. Eventually.
THE BEST NEWS: There is one simple way to tame a tantrum.*
DISCLAIMER: This strategy works best when the grown up is not on the verge of a meltdown too. So, if needed, get some space, take a few deep breaths, then dive in.
Tame the tantrum
Young children are learning to understand a world that doesn’t understand them. How stressful and frustrating that must be. Seemingly small events (the ball has snow on it) can trigger huge emotions and it falls to us to help our children navigate them.
When in the presence of an erupting child, we are witnessing one side of a conversation. We can either participate in the conversation or reject it.
Imagine: you are talking to a trusted friend or family member about a struggle or difficulty you are going through, but they do not have time to deal with your problems. They reject you or yell at you. They tell you to be quiet. Perhaps they suggest you sit alone to think about it.
How would you feel?
Join the conversation
- Children are humans.
- Humans have emotions.
- To escalate emotion, ignore or reject attempts at communication.
- Be present
Sometimes, we need to cuddle. Sometimes, we need to give space (and be close). A small, gentle touch will often help. Mostly, we need to be there. Be quiet. Listen (yes, listen to the crying). Crying is talking. We can soothe, nod, agree, and participate in the conversation without dispensing advice.
- Take turns
Just like in conversation. When there is a pause, it is our turn to speak. It may be a two word phrase, or maybe we can say a little more. Follow the rhythm of the conversation. When a person is upset, they are vulnerable. Let them control the flow (this does not mean they control what we say, that is always up to us).
Children, like most humans, listen when we are talking with them; not at them. Identify how the child is feeling, and narrate it. This simple act shows the child that we understand. It will also help to develop the language skills they will need in the future.
The sign of a good conversation is one where everyone has been heard. To show we have listened, summarize the conversation. Encourage the child to show they have listened by asking a couple of questions:
We don’t need to tame our toddlers, we need to transform the tantrum.
Child: NOOOOOOOOO!!! Aaaagh! (sobs, screams, kicks, stamps, throws self on floor, picks up a block, throws it, etc…)
Adult: (Calmly intercepts the chaos. Holds child and listens to crying). You were so mad that the blocks wouldn’t line up you threw one! Do we throw blocks?
Child: No (sobbing and sniffing).
Adult: That’s right. Because they are hard. They can hurt someone. Can you think of something we can throw?
Adult: Yes, that’s right. Soft balls. Would you like to play with a ball or your blocks?
Child: Green ball.
Adult: OK. Let’s clean up the blocks. Can you help me?
Child: (helps put blocks away)
Adult: Here’s the green ball. I love you.
Child: (bounces ball and laughs)
A tantrum is a one-sided, emotional conversation. We don’t need to tame our toddlers, we need to transform the tantrum.
Oh, and if this seems like a lot of effort, it is so much easier than a prolonged and stressful screaming match.
* There is not only one strategy to fit all circumstances; this is merely my first response as a teacher, caregiver, and parent. It’s simple. It works. AND, as a bonus, each time we choose to listen instead of scold, we reinforce a healthy relationship with the child. It also becomes progressively easier to set and stick to boundaries.