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Toddler Tantrums

Although tantrums can be frustrating to parents, tantrums are natural behaviors. In the moment, you might ask yourself, “Why me? Why now?” You might compare your children to others in your community or within your family. But know that you are not alone; your child is not bad, nor are you a bad parent. Tantrums are very common in early childhood. In fact, 84% of families with children between the ages of 18 and 24 months reported that they displayed tantrums. 91% of families with children aged 30-36 months had tantrums. As children got older, however, tantrums decreased to 59% of children between 42 and 48 months old. 

Most tantrums occur when children need help from adults and they are frustrated; either because they lack the fine or gross motor skills to accomplish what they want or because they lack the vocabulary to express themselves. This explains why tantrums decrease as children get older as they further develop their motor skills and expand their vocabularies to better express themselves.

From a developmental perspective tantrums are desirable. Tantrums provide opportunities to sculpt the brain by creating more neural synapses, which are connections between brain cells. These synapses teach emotional regulation by creating memories of adaptive skills that children can draw on later in the face of adversity. The emotional regulation that is learned from tantrums has been linked to academic success, social competence, resilience, and even popularity in children later in life. 

To cope with tantrums, you should try to focus on preventing them in the first place. Check for HALT (hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness). Try to understand your child’s triggers and anticipate their needs. If a tantrum is already in progress, the key to taming it is getting the child’s thinking brain to kick in to replace the emotional brain that is causing the stormy behavior. Offering a distraction or simple choices between two acceptable options can also be a quick way to tame a tantrum in its beginning phase. Once a tantrum has begun, reasoning with them isn’t likely to work as they are too emotional, and in some cases too young, to rationalize. You need to restore emotional balance which can come from offering a hug or other physical touch. Even the simple act of acknowledging their feelings can help a child feel understood and help them calm their body. This also teaches them the vocabulary to express themselves.  You can narrate what is happening or label the emotions they are feeling.

Even though it can be challenging, parents and caregivers should remain calm and positive; negative emotions are contagious. If you are too frustrated in the moment, take a break for yourself so that you can help your child navigate his or her own emotions. This is a great opportunity to model emotional expression for your child by telling your child how you feel. If your child is not responding to you, you can give them a few moments to work through it themselves before offering a hug or some encouraging words again. Just as an adult would not like their spouse or loved ones to ignore them if they were having a rough time, a child doesn’t want to be abandoned by his or her parents when they are in the midst of emotional turmoil. Never underestimate the power of a loving touch or kind words!

At Bert and Ernie’s, we want to foster a child’s development in every aspect. This means that we not only respect a child’s physical development, but their emotional development as well. We acknowledge that tantrums are a part of early childhood and we allow children the space to feel their emotions. We help children through a tantrum to help them build neural connections rather than squelching their feelings. 

We utilize various methods to help children learn emotional regulation and help them work through a tantrum. One method is the 4 Rs; remove, replace, refocus, redirect. We intervene when two or more children want the same toy or space. For example, we can replace the toy with another alternative or refocus the child to another activity. This can prevent undesirable behaviors such as hitting or biting. If a child has lost a privilege from playing in an unsafe manner, he or she may have a tantrum because they are not getting their way. We use this as an opportunity to discuss how they are feeling (disappointed, frustrated, angry, sad) and give them acceptable options of what they CAN do (play in another area, try again in a few minutes). We can also offer a hug or cuddle to help them restore their emotional being. This nurtures the child’s emotional development without giving in to the tantrum and giving them what they want.

 Another method we utilize to prevent tantrums is giving the children warnings when we are about to transition from one activity to another and set a timer to give them a visual cue. This allows them to anticipate the change and prepare for it. As a last resort, when a child is being a physical threat to themselves or others, we will place them on a safe mat so that they can have some space to calm their bodies without them being a threat to others.

Above all, we practice modeling positive and appropriate behavior. We get down at the child’s level when we need to talk with them. We demonstrate good table manners at meal times. We identify our emotions if we are feeling frustrated with a child or sad when they have made an undesirable choice. We offer positive statements about what children CAN do, instead of what they are not allowed to do. This helps children feel empowered to make good choices in the present and in the future. Helping a child through a tantrum is different from giving in to them. When you help them identify their emotions and problem solve, you are nurturing the child, and helping them grow in every aspect of their being. 

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