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Sooner or later tantrums come to every healthy toddler. Parents need help in knowing how to deal with them effectively, but not all ‘effective’ solutions are really healthy in the long run.
Toddlers are not merely ‘behaving’ but also learning. When tackling tantrums we need to think about what the toddler is learning about emotional management, rather than merely trying to make our own lives more convenient.
Why Toddlers Have Tantrums.
It is a common myth that toddlers have tantrums in order to manipulate adults. While there may be the occasional older child ‘taught’ to a tantrum by parents who reward tantrums with sweets or toys, for younger children just the opposite is true.
The brain of a two-year-old is simply not developed enough to plan and execute such a manipulation. In truth, toddler tantrums are an overflow of feelings that the child is too young to control. Whether caused by frustration, fatigue, disappointment or sensory overload, tantrums are no fun for your child, who needs your help and support to learn how to cope.
How NOT to deal with Tantrums.
Here are three of the most common ‘solutions’ parents are offered, and some of the reasons not to use them.
- DO NOT ignore your child – a toddler who is already frightened by the power of their own uncontrollable feelings now feels even more frightened by the loss of parental attention and love. If you do this repeatedly you might indeed scare them into biting back their feelings, but this can cause later problems such as nightmares, anxiety, stress-related illnesses and poor capacity for successful relationships as an adult.
- DO NOT send your toddler into ‘time out’ alone – a toddler who is overwhelmed by feelings they don’t even know how to name needs your help in learning to cope in a positive way. Making them deal with it alone can make them feel abandoned, ‘bad’ and unloved. It does not give them any help in developing positive coping skills. As adults, they may feel that the only way to deal with stress or conflict is to walk out, deny, or avoid it.
- DO NOT shout at, threaten, or spank your child for having a tantrum – your toddler’s sense of trust and safety can be badly damaged, leaving them less likely to ever find a healthy way of dealing with big feelings. You will be teaching them that rage and violence are appropriate ways to meet difficult experiences. Expect ‘tantrums’ as an adult, which could take many forms including ‘road rage’ spousal abuse and addictive or self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and even suicide.
- DO prevent– most tantrums occur when toddlers are tired, hungry, bored, or feel invisible, scared or insecure. Be realistic about what your toddler needs, understands, and can cope with. A minute for a toddler is like an hour for an adult – they do not yet have the ability for patience. Every time your toddler has a tantrum figure out why then sit down and plan how to do things differently next time so that it is less likely to happen again.
- DO take time out together – even with the best preventive planning, some tantrums will happen. Use these opportunities to help your toddler learn healthy emotional management, by modeling what to do. Give them just what you would want from a loved one if you were extremely upset: a private space if possible, and a loving shoulder to cry on. Research shows us that the stress hormone cortisol is ‘flushed’ from the body through tears and that crying with loving support can leave us relaxed, calm, and healthier than if we ‘bottle it up’. Parents who have the courage to let their toddler cry in arms till truly done, (instead of ‘distracting’ them as soon as possible), are often pleasantly surprised to find that the happy gaps between tantrums widen.
- DO educate – once the flood has subsided, give words to what happened. State what happened: “you wanted…”, “you didn’t like it when…” Name the feeling – was it frustration, anger, being startled? Were they tired, hungry, overwhelmed? By talking through each time, your toddler gradually learns to understand what is happening, and so do you. Both of you will become more insightful, and begin to come up with better preventive solutions. Many of us grew up without this kind of education, and being the parent of a tantrumming toddler can be a great opportunity to turn our own emotional management around.
Many parents find that once toddlers learn that they can tantrum ‘safely’ with their parents, they gradually begin to save their stress release for private moments at home – a big plus for preventing public embarrassment.
By dealing with tantrums positively you give your child the tools they need to handle life’s most intense ups and downs in an empowered and healthy way.
This reduces the likelihood that they will one day need the coping mechanisms so many of us take for granted: such as prescription drugs for depression, nicotine and alcohol, compulsive spending, overeating, unfulfilling relationships and more. Instead, you will be equipping them for an even happier and more successful life than you have managed – just what every parent wishes to bestow.
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