One of the most difficult parts of parenting a toddler is figuring out exactly how to deal with their big emotions. Are they acting out for attention? Are they demanding that they get their way – and do I give in? There is a lot of commonly heard advice out there about how to deal with toddlers and tantrums, and it is ultimately up to you to decide what feels right to you – and also figure out what works best for your child’s personality. All kids respond differently to different parenting techniques so there is no one right way.
Toddlers don’t yet have all the words to express their emotions, the understanding of what their feelings mean, or the ability to control them. It’s important to keep all of that in perspective when our toddlers are having a big emotional moment over something we may think is trivial (it’s not, to them!) or even apparently for “no reason”. They have to express themselves in the most primal way possible – and those raw emotions are very real! Help them identify what they are feeling and be a rock of stable support to them while they’re feeling out of control.
When we are feeling really upset, what do we need most? Some of us need some space, some of us need someone calm by our side to just listen and be there for us. Your toddler is the same way! Even if you think they’re mad at YOU, try asking them if they want a hug. Tell them you’re right there for them and will be there when they’re ready to take a deep breath and talk. You might be surprised by how quickly they calm down when you remain calm and offer them affection. If they reject it, you can say “I can see that you need a moment alone. I will be right over here and you can come to me when you’re ready to talk.” You can also step away from them for a minute if you yourself need to take a breath and calm down. It’s perfectly ok, and actually better, to steady your emotions before you try to steady theirs!
Allow them to have their feelings and acknowledge them. If we tell them to stop crying, or minimize the importance of their feelings, we send a really strong message that will last a lifetime! Healthy emotional awareness is an important skill that you can either teach them or you can dampen out. It’s sometimes really difficult as a parent when they’re seemingly out of control. Remember to keep the big picture in mind. If you’re in public, remove them from the situation and help them calm down in private. If you’re at home or with friends and they’re hitting or kicking, you can move them to a safer area. Explain to them exactly what you see. “I see you’re really upset because I said we can not go outside and play right now. I know how much you love playing outside! It’s time for lunch right now.” Try not to talk too much. Say just enough to explain simply what is happening. You can conclude by offering up another activity or alternative that they will enjoy. “It’s time for lunch now. Would you like to help me cut the sandwiches?”
Always offer comfort after a tantrum. They’re often just as scared or stressed by their own emotions as we are by witnessing them. Explain to them what happened, tell them it’s ok to feel that way, and remind them that you’re there for them and always will be. Being consistent and as calm as you can be will help over time as they remember how to calm down and that you will be there when they’re ready.