Toddler tantrums have quite the reputation. Terrible twos, threenagers etc are just couple of examples of how toddlers are thought of by their exhausted parents. There are plenty of books and social media accounts giving out tips on how to prevent tantrums, how deal with them and eliminate them. I’d suggest that none of that is really necessary. I am a rebel like that.
The thing is, tantrums and meltdowns are completely normal and actually necessary for a healthy development of the child. Around the 18 months mark children start to become truly aware that they are separate beings from their mothers and are individual people with their own minds, desires and autonomy. Of course, they need to then figure what it means, how it works and how to manage it. It’ll take them good twenty years if not a life time, but the first few years are particularly challenging as they are simultaneously learning about their own boundaries and those of others, acquiring empathy and figuring out impulse control as well as experiencing full on emotions in their bodies that they do not understand, have no control over and often lack the tools to express them appropriately. Even as adults we often loose our shit and we certainly have more tools and experience in handling emotions than the average toddler. It is in those overwhelming moments when they are (slowly) learning how to feel their emotions, how and when to express them to others, what is socially acceptable and whether they are safe. What they learn about emotions and how to manage them is up to their primary carers. No pressure then!
There are few channels children learn about emotions from and this learning takes years of repetitive experiences. Modelling by parents is probably the most significant one. They see you and they observe you, all the time. They watch you being joyful, happy, sad, angry, frustrated, grieving, calm, relaxed, confident, loving (and more) and storing your behaviours as their blueprint for social interactions and relationships. They also learn from other figures of authority, peers, TV, books and of course their own experiences.
When it comes to tantrums, the quicker they have the language to express emotions, the less they resolve to crying and wining, preventing getting over tired, overstimulated and too hungry, hot or cold can help too. Meltdowns will go with time as they learn to regulate their emotions, as they occur when an emotion gets too much and gets stuck. All they need to be able to manage their feelings is co-regulation in the early years. That’s where the importance of parents to be able to keep their cool and hold the space for their kids’ disregulation comes in. This is also where our learning and healing takes place.
Unless you were very lucky to have extremely calm and aware parents with high emotional intelligence, if you were born before 2010 when all the research supporting attachment theory and gentle/responsive parenting started to come out, you probably don’t have the tools to regulate your own emotions effectively (unless you’ve coaching or therapy).
Apart from the lack of tools to manage feelings, we also tend to carry triggers from childhood traumas (apart from outright abuse that could mean being left to cry it out, physical punishment, emotional abuse or disconnect, time outs etc), which tend blow up when we feel stressed (easily done as a parent). So not only you are likely to react to your child’s tantrum in the way your parents did (your blueprint), you are likely to get triggered into a trauma response and join your toddler with your own tantrum. In those moments it can feel really scary. You might feel rage, even violence raising up, fear, anxiety or deep discomfort, your fight or flight gets activated and that’s why children get hit or banished from your sight. This is a trauma that has been travelling down the line for generations. It can stop with us.
Each trigger is an opportunity to heal, to change our patterns and rewire our brains. If your child’s tantrums make you feel rage it might be a little harder to manage than if you feel discomfort or frustration, but with some self-awareness, patience and mindfulness it is definitely possible. When you feel the emotions within you rising, make your child safe and then just stop and breathe. Count to 5 on the in and 7 on the out breath. Do this for at least 90 seconds. Observe what thoughts you are thinking, any flashing images and all the feelings in your body, make a mental note of these. Then remind yourself that your child can’t help the tantrum and it is normal, reassure yourself that it will pass and that the more calm and kind you are feeling, the quicker will it end. Plant your feet firm, breathe and remember the love you have for this child. Once it is all done, make a written note of your observations and any additional notes that you feel are relevant. You can show these to your therapist or just contemplate them yourself, when you get the space.
If you struggle with staying calm or feel the urge to use force, do speak to a therapist as some traumas we just can’t resolve by ourselves. The most important thing to remember is that it is not your fault that you feel triggered by tantrums and meltdowns, the combination of exhaustion, stress, having more than one child, juggling too many things all at once as most parents do and the blueprint for your parenting style ingrained in your mind from your childhood is just a lot to handle; being thirsty, hungry, on a period or needing a loo certainly does not help either. It is not your parents’ fault either as they were doing the best with what they had and did not have ready access to the help and advice we do nowadays. Explosions of rage, or losing your shit moments as I called them, often bring on feelings of guilt and shame, triggering more trauma responses, making the whole situation a complete mess and many parents reach to addictive behaviours as coping mechanisms or disconnect and end up with a bout of depression. It is therefore vital to reach out for help as soon as you notice your triggered responses are becoming more frequent and/or more violent.
If therapy is not an option for you, practice mindfulness daily, especially when the moments are good and joyful, just stop, breathe, take it all in and then respond. Practice during washing up or doing the laundry, in the shower, when brushing your teeth, when walking to the shops or before falling asleep. Practice conscious breathing and being aware of your thoughts as well as stopping and redirecting your thoughts when they are not helpful. Practicing these during stable and calm times helps to make positive associations with the technique and it works a bit like combat training does for a soldier, it prepares you for when the hard times come. Once mindfulness becomes your second nature, managing your triggers will becomes much easier. It is not a quick fix though, it takes time and work and it won’t help much with very deep traumas, those need professional assistance.
Also do your best to make sure your cup is being filled, whatever that does for you, do make time and space for it. Choose sleep over watching TV or scrawling down social media. Eat when you are hungry, even if it is just a bread stick. Drink when you are thirsty, always have water bottle on you. Get some fresh air and move daily. All this will help to prevent your tantrums being a response to your child’s one. When your cup is full, you’ll find it much easier to face the storm in their hearts.
The best thing about staying calm when your child is loosing it is that they are learning to accept, validate and appropriately express their emotions. They are learning that they are safe and that it is safe to feel all emotions not just the ‘good’ ones. They are learning that they are loved and heard no matter what they do or feel. They are on a good way to becoming wholesome adults. You will feel more empowered, confident and patient, therefore your days will be easier and much more pleasant for everyone. Just for this, I feel that the bit of work and time that we need to invest into this is absolutely worth it.