Can you remember a time when you were told to “cut it out” or “I’ll give you something to cry about”? For most young parents today, discipline from our childhood was rooted in promoting compliant behaviour through a suppression of emotions and frustration.
To be fair, our parents had already made big strides away from the corporal punishment of their childhood, and parented us in a way that felt more positive than the parenting of their upbringing.
However, we now know so much more about childhood development than our parents did. Many parents of toddlers today struggle with finding more responsive solutions to their children’s outbursts than using time outs.
If you’ve ever used time outs before, you know that they are a temporary solution and eventually lose their effectiveness (I’ll get into why I don’t recommend using time outs in a future post). So, what are parents supposed to do when their toddler or kindergartener is having a tantrum, especially if it is for a seemingly mundane reason?
Here are 6 tips to help manage toddler tantrums:
- Identify the type of tantrum: children experience either an ‘upstairs’ tantrum (when a child makes the conscious choice to push buttons and can stop the tantrum immediately if they want to) or a ‘downstairs’ tantrum (a child becomes so upset that they no longer capable of controlling their body and their emotions). In an upstairs tantrum, it is important to stick to your boundaries and be prepared to explain appropriate behaviour. Look for these tantrums as your child gets closer to the age of three and is exerting some independence. In an downstairs tantrum, the goal is to use connection and redirection to calm the child.
- Avoid telling your child to “cut it out”: Tantrums come as a result of frustration, and it is impossible – and I would argue, unhealthy – for children (and often, for adults too) to put a cap on this feeling. Giving a child the space they need to express their emotions will eventually allow them to find the words to match this emotion, so that they can express themselves without the outbursts that come as part of a tantrum.
- Do not use the threat of consequence: When you use consequences or punishments, one of two things happen – either the child becomes even more frustrated and lashes out further, or they comply out of fear of the threat or consequence. The trouble with the former is that is does not resolve the situation, and the trouble with the latter is that it puts the power in the hands of the consequence, and takes it out of the hands of the parent. It is important to hold firm boundaries if there is a risk of harm (i.e. legs are not for kicking, toys are not for throwing etc.), but the goal is to deescalate the situation and help the child to develop self-control and learn to use communicative forms of expression to show their feelings.
- Keep your own emotions in check: Recognizing which behaviours are triggers for you and being cognizant of those can help keep adult emotions out of a child’s tantrum. The job of the parent is to lead the child through their frustration and support their emotion. Having a ‘safe word’ with a partner or other caregiver can help identify when you need to trade out and take a minute to calm your emotions before continuing to help the child.
- Don’t extrapolate the behaviour as part of the child’s personality: If a child is experiencing frustration, it does not mean the frustration defines who they are. Saying things like “good boys don’t hit their brother” conveys to the child that there is something wrong with them, rather than finding fault in the current behaviour. Rather, try saying things like, “I can see your hands needed to hit something because you are upset” to help your child learn to communicate the reasons behind their behaviour.
- Allow your child to experience futility: Being a responsive and respectful parent does not mean we are responsible for ensuring the everlasting happiness of our children, nor does it mean we have to solve their every problem. Many tantrums come as a result of being in a situation where the child is unable to get their way. Supporting the child’s emotions while allowing them to experience the futility of being unable to change the situation can help them to build resilience when a similar situation arises again in the future
And, remember — it’s always okay to seek help. I’m here for you.