This article is part of an editorial series, “Discipline Discussion” brought to you by Fort Worth Moms. Join our subscriber list so you don’t miss a moment of “Discipline Discussions” and all Fort Worth Moms has to offer throughout the year.
It needs no introduction, really. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, you know it’s coming. The toddler tantrums. The “terrible twos.” Such big emotions coming out of such a little body.
One moment your toddler is the captain of the ship and the world is smooth sailing. But blink, it can seem as though your toddler has lost sight of the horizon and the waves of emotion come crashing, threatening to sink the ship.
So what are you to do? Do you give in to the commands to settle the waves? Do you retreat and try to wait out the storm? Or do you swim fearlessly against the raging sea of emotion to reach your toddler and help navigate out of the storm together? When we understand the nature of tantrums, we can better equip ourselves to become expert lifeguards in our toddler’s world.
So how do we become the rescuer and swim out to our toddler to help weather this storm? We can follow these steps.
Understand the Buildup
There are different parts of our brain that help determine how we should react to situations. The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is responsible for emotional regulation. The amygdala is a tiny part of the brain, located deeper towards the center, handles both positive and negative information. This is where big emotions, especially the fearful ones (scared, anxious, insecure, weak, rejected, and threatened) are processed.
When our toddler is unsuccessful at expressing needs and when our response falls short of our toddler’s expectations, there is tension. When communication breaks down, it can leave the sender of the message (in this case, our toddler) in a vulnerable state. He or she may think:
- Was I rejected by the person who loves me?
- Is my livelihood threatened because I cannot find the words to express myself?
- What if no one understands me?
- What am I supposed to do now?
This fearful response sounds the alarm in the amygdala and out comes a raging sea of emotions, completely flooding the prefrontal cortex, taking out all logic and reasoning, hence the image of losing sight of the horizon. The sender (our toddler) can easily get swept up in the storm.
Assume the Appropriate Posture and Position
Our body communicates way more than we may think, and our toddlers can be very intuitive on picking up the vibes we’re giving off.
When the sea of emotions have flooded your toddler’s brain, now is not the time to assert yourself as the authority figure. You have to become the rescuer.
Lower yourself below the child’s height, just like how a lifeguard might have to go underwater to then come up behind a drowning victim. Positioning yourself below your toddler’s height can allow your toddler to better hear you and for you to better hear your toddler.
State the Obvious to Name the Feelings
Sometimes naming our own emotions can be difficult. We might be able to recognize the primary feelings (happy, sad, disgust, anger, fear, surprise, and bad), but can we specifically express how we really feel? If it’s hard for us to do, imagine how much harder it is for a toddler who has a limited vocabulary. This is why we have to help our toddler name their feelings. You might say statements like:
- You are angry.
- You are frustrated.
- You are disgusted.
- You are disappointed.
By naming the feelings, we are communicating that we see and hear them. (Read: we are receiving and responding to their communication.) We are validating that it is okay to have and express emotions. When we state the obvious feelings, we are helping them reflect on physical reactions associated with emotional responses.
Helping our toddler name feelings means we are teaching healthy coping skills leading to a life of well-balanced resiliency. This is a floating device that we are pulling him or her onto as we tow out of the emotional storm.
Say Less to Gain More
Oftentimes tantrums come with big physical reactions. My toddler son will sometimes become a boneless body that is completely incapable of holding any position or goes into full plank face down with no regard to the ground’s sanitation status.
To help him regain control of his body, I keep my commands short and say them with a calm, yet firm, voice:
- Stand here. This helps draw him closer to my body instead of further away.
- Look at me. This helps focus his eye movement, therefore calming his brain.
Remember, storms can be loud. The brain is trying to process and search for the calm again. This is not the time for deep philosophical lectures as they will more than likely be drowned out by the internal noise of the storm. Say less to gain more ground.
Repeat Back to Get Respect Back
Once your toddler is calm, you can ask for better understanding from his or her perspective. Some deductive reasoning might be needed here to fully grasp the narrative. Remember to repeat back what was shared to show you understand.
A toddler’s view of the world is quite small comparatively, so where we might see something as a small problem, in his or her world it is a big problem. To help navigate out of the last part of the storm, help your toddler focus on one of these thoughts:
- Visualization: Have your toddler imagine what would happen if he got his way and describe those moments.
- Optimism: Reassure your toddler that she will get to do that activity again. Especially helpful when you have to leave something or someone.
- Gratitude: Help remind your toddler of things he or she already have that are similar to what he or she wants now.
Tantrums will happen. They are a normal part of development. When we understand the nature of the tantrums and how to help navigate or mitigate the storm, tantrums have the capability of looking more like a nice spring shower instead of a full-on category five hurricane. Skilled captains know how to respectfully and safely navigate through a storm because they’ve been through one or a few hundred. Those captains have been taught by experts and trusts that the rescuers are there if needed. If you know, you know. If you didn’t know, now you do.
Be kind. Be safe. Be you.