The toddler years are tough, to put it lightly!
In lockdown you might notice regressions in your child (sleep, potty training, etc) and your child acting out more than usual. Tantrums when we're stuck at home, mostly indoors, are no fun. We've got a few survival tips to help you keep your head above water.
Tantrums: when do they start?
According to the NHS, tantrums usually start when children are around 18 months old and happen between the ages of one to three. They’re equally common in boys and girls and can happen just once in a while or multiple times a day.
What's behind tantrums?
If you feel that you are struggling to manage your toddler’s behaviour at times, you are not alone.
Think of tantrums as your toddler’s way of telling you they need your help. They need you to help them manage their big (and often scary) emotions. It’s important to remember that your toddler’s challenging behaviour is normal and is an important part of their development.
How to handle your toddler's tantrums
1. Stay calm
It can be easy to feel your own stress levels rising when your toddler is displaying challenging behaviour, especially if you are in a public place.
Toddlers are very adept at reading our emotions and if we aren’t calm then we have little chance of helping them to calm down too.
Take a deep breath and keep your voice calm and steady. Your child will pick up on this, even if not straight away, and it will help them to regulate their feelings (and volume) too.
As long as your toddler isn’t in a dangerous situation, leaving the room is okay. Step out of the situation and allow yourself to calm down. It doesn’t mean you are failing or backing down from the situation, but instead will allow you to gather your thoughts and choose the best approach.
If you are in a public place, keeping calm can feel more of a challenge. Try to remember that no one is judging you and most people will have sympathy for your situation. Forget that there are other people in the vicinity and respond in the same way you would at home.
This consistency will help your toddler to understand that rules and boundaries are always the same, wherever you are.
2. React before escalation
One of the most common reasons that toddlers have tantrums is because they are unable to physically complete a task or verbally express themselves. Getting frustrated is very common and it can often happen in seconds.
One of the ways that you can prevent a meltdown from ever occurring is knowing the things that trigger your child. It might be that they find it difficult to pull up their pants or that they struggle to pick up food with a fork.
Knowing the challenges for your child and offering to help or guide them before they reach a point of no-return is an easy way to ensure everyone stays happy!
Offering help doesn’t have to mean that you are taking away your child’s independence. Rather than stabbing the food onto the fork for them, say, “Remember what I showed you last time? Let’s practice it again.
"Guide them with the action and then offer praise and acknowledge their achievement, saying something like: “You should feel proud of yourself. You kept on trying even when you found it tricky.”
3. Offer an alternative
A fast way to diffuse many tantrums is to offer your child an alternative (aka distract them!). This works especially well if your child is displaying destructive, dangerous or disruptive behaviour.
Look carefully at what your child is doing and take a step back from the situation. Ask yourself, ‘Why are they doing this?’ The answer is often more simple than it first appears.
If your child is throwing things then acknowledge what you see by saying: “I can see you are frustrated and want to throw things.” Then offer an alternative: “Let’s go into the garden and throw this ball instead.”
If your child is screaming because they are annoyed or angry, say: “I can see that you are feeling angry because…”.
Then offer an alternative: “Instead of screaming, let’s show we are angry by stamping our feet/clapping our hands.” This will allow your child to channel their energy in a more constructive way and teaches them a coping mechanism to use next time.
Young children live in a world where they have little control over where they go, what they do and what happens to them.
This lack of independence can quickly lead to your child feeling overwhelmed and angry, especially at a time when they want to do everything themselves!
Try stopping tantrums in their tracks by giving your child choices throughout the day. Make these choices closed (as opposed to open-ended) and do not give too many. Remember that you need to honour whichever choice your child makes.
“Would you like to wear the green top or the red top?”
“Would you like to have pasta or jacket potato for tea?”
“Would you like to play in the garden or the living room?”
“Would you like to brush your teeth or wash your face first?”
“Would you like to put on your coat or your shoes first?”
This will allow your child to feel in control of the situation and give them a level of perceived independence, while making sure that you still have ultimate control over their final decision.
4. Give your attention
Challenging behaviour can often occur when we as parents are distracted or busy doing something else. Whether you’re working from home, preparing a meal or trying to talk on the phone, to our toddlers this can look like we aren’t paying attention to them in their time of need.
While often frustrating, one of the best things you can do to quickly diffuse a situation is to let them know you’re listening.
Stop what you are doing. Kneel down so that you are on the same level as your toddler and say: “I can see that you’re feeling (angry, upset, impatient). I am listening to you. What can we do to make it better?”
Make sure that you set aside one-on-one time with your toddler each day. This could be as simple as 10 minutes at the start and end of every day.
Reading a book together, talking or playing with their favourite toy are brilliant ways to bond and allow your toddler to feel that you are present in the moment.
Switch off your phone or leave it in the other room so that you are not tempted to check on emails or quickly scroll through social media.
5. Give love
“A child needs your love most when he deserves it least” - Erma Bombeck
Toddlers are complex little creatures. They act irrationally, with impulsivity and often seemingly without remorse.
When your child tips their drink all over the floor, refuses to put on their shoes or even hurts a sibling, it can be hard to remember that what they need most in that moment, is love.
Giving your love doesn’t have to mean letting them repeat unwanted behaviour or not letting them know that what they did is wrong. What matters most is the way in which we go about it.
Try saying, in a calm and steady voice:
“When you push your brother, it hurts him. That makes us both feel sad. I can see that you need to burn off energy, why don’t we run outside?”
“Spilling your drink on the floor is not ok. I would like you to clean it up. If you want to spill water, let’s go and play in the bath.”
“We put on shoes so that our feet don’t get cold, wet and dirty outside. You don’t have to put on your shoes but we can’t leave until you do.”
It’s ok to want to shout. It’s ok to lose your temper (you would be unusual if you didn’t feel this way) but try to always bring the moment back to a place of love.
Give your child a hug, explain how you are feeling and why, and then move on with your day: “Mummy felt very frustrated that you wouldn’t listen when I was talking to you. I’m sorry I shouted.”
You may have heard the phrase, ‘Never go to bed on an argument’ and it can be easily applied to life with a toddler. Aim to start and end the day with love, whether it’s a cuddle in bed, playing a game or having a chat. These are the times that your toddler will remember the most and will have the biggest overall impact on their day.
6. Acknowledge feelings
Teaching our children to recognise and manage their emotions is one of the most important skills we can give them. In fact, the better children are at noticing how they feel, the more likely they will be to calm themselves down or adjust their behaviour.
Giving our children these strategies will also have lifelong benefits with studies showing that they will be more likely to manage difficulties and setbacks.
Talking about and naming feelings is a vital part of teaching our children about their emotions. When you recognise that your child is feeling a certain way, name it.
“I can see you are feeling…”
When you are feeling a certain way, name that too. We shouldn’t feel that we need to conceal or mask our emotions from our children, even if they are negative.
The more you talk about emotions with your child, the more they will begin to acknowledge them too. Even children as young as two have been able to actively express how they are feeling.
Once you have acknowledged how your child is feeling, talk about strategies to deal with any negative emotions. You may like to say, “What can we do to make it better?”
Give your child the opportunity to suggest a solution but don’t be afraid to model this, especially if you are just beginning on this journey. Sometimes the answer can be as simple as a hug, or help with a difficult task.
Make sure your toddler is better equipped to deal with the situation the next time it comes along by giving them the tools to help themselves or to ask for help before frustration escalates.
1. “Remember that next time you could say, Mummy can you help me please?”
2. “Remember that next time your jigsaw piece gets stuck, try turning it around.”
7. Acknowledge yourself
It may not feel it at the time, but your toddler’s challenging emotions are actually fuelling their development.
Not only that, but dealing with them together will create a closer bond between you. It may not seem like it, but your toddler wants your help and appreciates your love in their most difficult moments!
Remember to take care of yourself too. Being a toddler parent is incredibly difficult and can feel isolating. Try to remember that all parents of toddlers feel this way and you are doing your very best for your child.
After emotional moments or a difficult day, take time to practise self-care and have five minutes or several hours to yourself. Talk to a friend or your partner, watch your favourite programme on TV, eat some chocolate or even have a cry yourself.
Following all the steps in this article takes practice, but when we manage it, we will not only have happier toddlers but will become more peaceful parents, too.
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