How Do You Stop Tantrums? Understanding Your Toddler
What is tantrum behaviour?
Many parents ask “How do you stop tantrums?” Well, tantrums are a normal process in the body. This process is a response to the brain sensing a threat. So although it may look to us that there is no threat, our children’s physiological system is telling them that there is.
When a child is having a tantrum, two parts of the brain are activated. The amygdala is involved in emotion and the hypothalamus is involved in functions such as temperature and heart rate.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, such as planning, thinking of consequences, problem-solving, and controlling impulses. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until early adulthood. However, from ages 0-2, it has a period of developing rapidly. Exposure to negatively harmful environments at this time disrupts the prefrontal circuits in the brain. The prefrontal cortex is most sensitive to the effects of stress. This is why the toddler years are a very important time for parents to help children to learn how to regulate their nervous systems. This will lead to strong emotional well-being and brain development.
Tantrums are a sign to parents that their child is struggling. Whether this is because of a particular unmet need (such as tiredness, or the need for connection) or whether it is because they need help learning how to cope with feelings. Emotions are important because they help us know what we need to thrive.
How do you stop tantrums
We never want to teach our children to suppress their emotions, and nor do we want them to learn to take them out on others. Research tells us toddlers’ brains reach 80% of their volume by age 3, and synapsis are formed at a faster rate in these years than at any other time. Because of this, they need the right environment to explore so they can learn. The confidence to explore comes from a feeling of security. This is built by having a caregiver who is warm and responsive to their needs. A lot happens in their day that they don’t yet have the brain development to express. Therefore we won’t always understand the reason for their tantrums so need to approach them with open-mindedness and the willingness to try to understand.
Tantrums being labeled as “naughty” behaviour have done more damage than good. Challenging behaviour is really just a cry out for help, a need for safety, a need for guidance, and a need to be seen and understood.
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Why tantrums are not “naughty”
The sympathetic nervous system is designed for fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is designed for safety and connection within ourselves. When our children are having a tantrum, their sympathetic nervous system is activated. This can not simply be turned off by ineffective methods such as punishments and threats. The child is needing to feel safe so that they can learn this is not a fight or flight situation. A child who stops having a tantrum because of harsh methods is not a child who has learned emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is a skill that needs to be taught and takes time.
The parasympathetic nervous system has two parts that cause two different responses. The dorsal vagal nerve network, which is activated when your body can’t resolve a threat through escaping or socially connecting (e.g. dissociation). And the central vagal nerve network is activated when we sense a threat and then our efforts to connect with someone or ourselves are successful, it triggers a sense of safety and calm. This is what we help our children activate when we coregulate with them, and they eventually learn to regulate themselves by us teaching them.
Dr Stephen Porges, the author of The Polyvagal Theory, proposes that when we feel safe within our experience, we are operating from within our social engagement system.
Activating the ventral vagus nerve also activates the prefrontal cortex. Therefore calming the body allows us to think clearly!
“How do you stop tantrums” begins with you
Many of us didn’t have emotional regulation modeled to us when we were children. This is NOT your fault, and you need to give yourself compassion. This is usually because our own parents didn’t have the knowledge to help us with this. To stop this from being passed on to our children, we need to be kind to ourselves and learn how to regulate ourselves before helping our toddlers. Being self-compassionate is one of the best ways to activate the ventral vagal nerve network. (the one which connects us to ourselves to help us regulate).
Mindful deep breathing where you exhale longer than you inhale also activates the ventral vagal nerve network. This causes your body to go back into a connected regulated state.
What helps me is to picture myself as someone who I would go to when I needed to feel comforted and supported. Then I embody that feeling in myself to share with my toddler.
Change the way you view the situation because this will affect how stress-fuelled your reaction will be. Understanding our toddler’s brain development helps with our reactions.
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Don’t fight the tantrum
How do you stop tantrums by allowing it? People believe you need to either ignore a tantrum, punish it, or give in to it. These are far ends of the spectrum, and as we know with most things in life. Being healthy is having a balance. We need to stop resisting tantrums and accept they are normal, the less we try to do something about them the less added stress there will be. Your child will have tantrums and it is nothing about you or your parenting, and all about normal human development. You do not need to add fuel to the fire, instead you need to share your calm to reduce it.
As discussed above, during a tantrum your child’s nervous system is in dysregulation and so the priority should be to coregulate back to regulation. Research findings suggest parent-child coregulation processes play a meaningful role in children’s typical regulatory development. This is where you are going to be wiring your child’s nervous system to know that they are safe and show them how to regulate.
Ways to coregulate are:
- Come down to their level
- Soften your voice to be loving and soothing
- Relax your body language
- The tone of your voice can send the message that they are seen and understood
- Allow time and be patient, your child needs time to realise everything is safe
- Connect with your child, make eye contact, read their body language- do they want a hug? Reassurance?
- Touch, do they like having their back rubbed? their hair stroked?
- Sing- some children like being sung to
- Move to another room or a quieter space with less stimulation
- Do they like to have something to fiddle with?
- Model deep breathing
When babies grow up with co-regulation during moments of stress, such as when they are struggling with strong feelings, they begin to internalize and conceptualize strategies for self-regulation and self-soothing—in their brains and in their minds. (National Institute For Children’s Health Quality)
Our behaviour is based on how we feel, and how we feel is based on our nervous system. By co-regulating, you are sending the message to their nervous system that they are safe. By repeating coregulation over and over, you are teaching your toddler how to regulate themselves- which will lead to fewer tantrums.
Questions to ask yourself
What is my child communicating?
First, we need to think about what our toddler is communicating. Toddlers haven’t yet developed their full vocabulary, so you can only imagine how frustrating it is to not be able to express what is in your mind. If we can think about how things might be from their perspective then we might be able to help reduce the tantrums by helping them communicate.
- “You wanted to go outside? And now you are feeling frustrated because we can’t”
- “You are hungry and you need a snack”
- “You are tired and you need a hug”
- “You were playing with that toy and that child took it from you? You feel sad and angry about it”
What is your child trying to do?
Toddlers’ brains are very busy! so we need to check if are we providing an environment that supports their exploration. Are we having reasonable expectations? For example, a child who keeps pulling everything out of a container isn’t being “naughty”. This is actually part of the developmental stage where repetitive patterns are helping their brain grow. They are being clever! (even if it is frustrating constantly picking up after them).
Stopping this behaviour would probably result in a tantrum. But knowing what your child is really doing, lets you see that they have every right to feel frustrated when they are being stopped from normal and clever learning tasks! we just need to acknowledge their intent and redirect them to a way that they can perform it. For example, could they help you take the washing out of the machine? or can you line up their toys on the side of the bath for them to pull down? By doing this you are enabling your child’s development and you will reduce tantrums.
Does the situation require action?
This may be a situation where your child needs you to teach them how to stand up for themselves. Did someone take a toy off them that they were playing with? You can model this by saying “I think *** was playing with that, may she have that back, please?”
If that’s not an option then acknowledging your child’s upset is the alternative. This is important because it can teach our children that even if they can’t do anything about the situation, the way it made them feel is always valid.
We don’t want to raise entitled children, but we also don’t want to raise children who allow others to walk all over them. Therefore validating their emotions and seeking to find out the reason for the tantrum is important.
Does the situation require no action?
Is your child having a tantrum because they wanted strawberries but you only have raspberries in the fridge? This is a perfect moment to use coregulation to help them learn that we can’t always control our environment. Our children haven’t learned that yet. They don’t know. But we can help them learn this without it causing stress for them by acknowledging. Try something like, “You’re sad because you wanted strawberries. I know, it’s frustrating when we can’t have what we want” empathise and know that your warmth and love in these moments are helping your child learn important life lessons. In these situations we don’t need to fix anything, we need to allow their emotions to be while holding our boundaries at the same time.
Do you need to put a boundary in place?
Is your child using hitting when they are frustrated? We need to hold firm boundaries for our children. Stopping them from hitting, and removing them from the situation if we have to is likely to trigger a tantrum. That’s okay. This is more important than ever a time to maintain that boundary and show your children that we are not going to be moved by their anger or other strong emotion.
Children need to feel that their parents can handle the situation. This makes them feel safe. They need us to show them that these negative emotions are normal and it is safe to process them. Hold the boundary while remaining compassionate towards the way they feel. This will prevent uncomfortable emotions from being stored in their body, and teach them healthy ways to process their emotions. Remember that although this is extremely tiring and hard work, you are giving them tools for life, and not only them but future generations too.
When we are consistent with our boundaries, we are providing stability and predictability, this will reduce tantrums in the long run and also teaches children how we shouldn’t allow others to walk on our boundaries.
How do you stop tantrums by allowing autonomy? Nurturing autonomy supports your toddler to develop a healthy sense of sense and self-regulation. It is important to empower toddlers to be able to do as much for themselves as suitable. Sometimes their behaviour can be a result of wanting to be independent. We can help reduce tantrums by giving them as many choices as possible. Allow them to pick out their shoes, or pick which book to read. Allow them to decide whether they brush their teeth first or put their pajamas on first for example. We can help to create an environment where toddlers can be as independent as possible. This can also make them more compliant when we need to make decisions and less likely for tantrums to happen.
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Research shows many long-term benefits of developing delayed gratification. There will be times when your child’s request is not appropriate, in these moments holding the boundary is important and we can use techniques to help. Such as picture cards showing what we will be doing now, and what we will be doing after. This helps toddlers develop delayed gratification. It may sometimes bring on tantrums in the short term but will reduce them in the long run. Your child will be learning that not now, doesn’t mean not ever. They’ll also learn there is a difference between their wants and their needs.
Emotions are there to help guide us, not control us, this is a skill a lot of adults haven’t actually mastered so expecting it from toddlers is unreasonable. Punishing or isolating our children for showing their emotions may appear to stop a tantrum. However, we are going to be disconnecting them from themselves in order for their survival need to be accepted by their loved ones. We need to keep them connected to themselves by loving them unconditionally through their emotions. We need to guide them into healthier ways to manage and express themselves. This is how they stay connected to themselves and grow to feel loved and accepted for being their authentic selves.
Remember that researchers found that babies learned their mothers were providing a secure base when mothers responded properly at least 50 percent of the time to their needs. So don’t put pressure on yourself to get it right 100% of the time. This isn’t possible and you need to take care of yourself too.
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