Managing toddler tantrums gently and effectively…without losing your mind!
Let’s face it, toddler tantrums can be both triggering and emotionally draining for parents. We know it is a normal developmental stage and it isn’t personal, yet it can still be a real challenge to support our little ones when they are dealing with big emotions.
How can we avoid accidentally escalating the situation? How do we go about managing toddler tantrums both gently and effectively?
Professionals such as Dominique Groenveld (who has a background in psychology and education), have identified that there is a lack of credible and reliable information on how to manage common parenting concerns, such as toddler tantrums.
Dominique started her parenting support business OhBeehave! to empower parents with information, so that they are able to make decisions that suit their family.
She has kindly agreed to share her top tips on managing toddler tantrums gently and effectively.
What are toddler tantrums?
Tantrums are very common and can be thought of as a normal part of development, especially when it comes to the infamous “terrible twos” period.
When it comes to tantrums, it’s important to understand why children have them… which may seem like a baffling concept to understand, but if you think about it from a toddlers point of view, they have recently learnt to walk, they’re starting to talk and the possibilities for exploration are endless!
Which is exactly where the tantrums come in. What a toddler wants to do is look at, touch, and explore…
Every. Single. Thing. They. See.
But unfortunately, what they hear is…
“stop… don’t touch that… no”
or… they get picked up and carted away from whatever they were about to do or explore.
Which is extremely frustrating from their point of view. Can you image someone telling you all day long that you can’t do pretty much every single thing you try?
So of course, they want to let you know they’re not happy about it.
Unfortunately, they haven’t learnt the words to tell you that they are unhappy, so they default to what they know… which is to cry and scream to get what they want.
Crying is essentially an infant’s natural mechanism for communication… so they default to it because it’s what has worked for them in the past, for example when they need feeding, changing, sleep… etc.
So that’s all well and good… but what can you do about the tantrums?
My 3 favourite tips for managing toddler tantrums gently and effectively.
- Identify Triggers
- Remove reinforcers
- Communicate Expectations
Firstly – Identify triggers.
This strategy is about identifying what happens immediately before a tantrum and immediately after. For example, is there a particular day, time, event, experience, place, game, TV show that triggers a tantrum?
You may need to monitor your child’s tantrums over a few days and write down what happens before and after. If you can identify a trigger, it can be easier to work out what strategy will work best in alleviating the tantrums.
Secondly – Remove the reinforcer.
A reinforcer is anything that encourages the tantrums.
A couple of common examples include when a child asks for something, like chocolate at the shops, or to use iPhone, iPad etc, and you say no… and then they have a tantrum. If the tantrum escalates to the stage where it becomes so unbearable that you give them the chocolate, iPhone, iPad… or whatever it is because you just want the tantrum to end, that item becomes the reinforcer. So the child learns that they need to have a tantrum to get what they want.
A reinforcer can also be when the child “gets out of something” they don’t want to do – for example, imagine every time you ask your child to pack their toys away or clean their room or similar and they have a tantrum, you then send them to another room while you do the task instead, that can act as a reinforcer… the child learns that having a tantrum can get them out of doing things they don’t want to do.
Gently holding our boundaries is important in the long term to building resilience and avoiding ongoing tantrums.
Thirdly, and most importantly – Communicating can have a major impact on tantrums.
This includes communication about the tantrum itself and communication about expectations if you have identified a particular time, place, etc that you have identified triggers a tantrum.
For example, going back to the chocolate at the shops scenario, if you have pre-empted that a tantrum is going to happen, talk to your child about the scenario before it happens.
This might sound something like “we’re going to go to the shops after lunch today. You might ask me for a chocolate and I’m going to say no. It is ok if you feel sad or angry, but my answer will still be no.” Adding an additional step to keep the ‘thinking’ rather than ‘feeling’ brain engaged may also be necessary. This includes having your child involved in a shopping list and helping to tick off the items on the list.
In summary, identify triggers, remove reinforcers and communicate expectations to help manage tantrums.
Using different strategies depending on age.
The same strategies can be used for different age groups, but you might alter them depending on age.
If we’re talking about communicating with your child when it comes to tantrums, for an 18-month-old you might say something like “you’re upset because I took the iPad off you” while you comfort the child and distract them with another activity.
Whereas, with an older child, the communication might sound something more like “it’s ok for you to be upset because I said you can’t play with the iPad right now.” Explain why they can’t have the iPad (it might be “Mummy needs to use it for work”) And follow it up with “how about you play with your lego instead” to help the child learn how to re-direct their own attention.
For children who are older again and are having particular difficulties in recovering from their upset or anger, you may even prompt them to use some calming strategies.
For more info about our Calming Cards and a special deal scroll to the bottom of this post.
The important thing to remember is that communicating with your child in general (from as early an age as possible) can help.
There was a really interesting study that found children with larger vocabularies at 24 months showed better behaviour regulation and fewer behavioural problems once they started school (and as a bonus they achieved higher results in maths and english at school too!)
Even a young child can understand a lot more of what you say than you might think! Imagine it’s like when you learn a new language, you can usually understand what is being said before you can speak the language yourself.
How to manage family members who are suggesting strategies that aren’t comfortable, for example, smacking.
When people say a child “just needs a good smack” I like to respond with the question “what do you think a smack will achieve?”
Smacking is one of those strategies that has been used for many years and I think a lot of people still think it holds merit as a behaviour-modification strategy, even though there is really no evidence to suggest that it is effective.
The only good argument I’ve heard for smacking is that it “stops behaviour immediately” which is probably true in most cases, however, the problem with smacking is that it won’t achieve a behavioural change in the long term.
Unfortunately, when a child is smacked, they only learn that certain behaviours should be avoided when their parents are looking, in order to avoid a smack, and they don’t learn the connection between behaviour and logical or natural consequences. It stops them from learning about WHY they should or shouldn’t behave in certain ways.
There are also so many negative follow-on effects from smacking.
You might have heard people saying things like “I was smacked as a kid and I turned out fine.”
The problem with this statement is that there is a really strong relationship between people who were smacked as kids and behaviours that manifest in adulthood such as aggression, the belief that “hitting” is an acceptable way to control the behaviour of others, anti-social behaviours in adolescence (such as underage drinking, smoking, stealing, graffiti etc) and mental health difficulties (anxiety, depression, feelings of “lack of life purpose.”)
The other important thing to remember when it comes to smacking is that just because you aren’t smacking your child, it doesn’t mean there should be a lack of discipline or consequences for behaviour and I think that is probably one of the difficulties some people have with moving away from “smacking” is… what is the alternative?
What we offer at OhBeehave!
The OhBeehave! website features a library full of parenting strategies.
All you need to do is type in a keyword describing the behaviour you are looking to address and a whole heap of strategies will come up.
The trick to using our strategies is to just pick 1 strategy that suits you and your family and use that 1 strategy consistently. It takes time to see a change in behaviour, so pick 1 strategy and use it consistently for about a week to see results.
If you don’t see results after a week, try a different strategy.
For people who prefer an app, we have also released our “Parenting Therapy” app which features the 30 best strategies – the ones that parents most commonly ask for.
For extra support, we also offer in-home consulting. So, if parents feel they need some extra help, we can come to visit them in their home, discuss the behaviour that is concerning them, work with them and their family to create an individualised plan with tools and strategies to meet their specific needs, and support them with phone calls and emails as they work to overcome their behaviour challenges.
CALMING CARDS DEAL FOR YOU
As a special deal for Wholehearted Family Health, we would like to offer 20% off our new range of calming cards. The cards are suitable for ages 3 and up and introduce little ones to calming techniques including – Deep Breathing, Muscle Relaxation, Grounding, Visualisation, Mindfulness and Yoga.
Hurry as this discount expires on the 31/1/2020. To grab your cards at the discounted price with free postage Aus-wide CLICK HERE and use the code WHOLEHEARTED at check-out.
Dominique has a background in psychology, education and is mum to one. Find more about what she offers at Oh Beehave!
Struggling to get your little one to sleep without resorting to sleep training? Grab our gentle sleep strategies guide here.