Ask the Experts is a new monthly article from the education, parenting and pediatric therapy and development experts at Encompass. The education and pediatric therapy staff get many questions about many topics—toddlers being a favorite. Toddlers are adorable and adventurous—and seemingly unpredictable! Educating and supporting parents is just one thing Encompass can help with. Our resident toddler experts, Nikki Slaght (preschool and toddler educator) and Kerry Beymer (parenting education and support manager) are local moms just like you and they tackle your questions about how to control toddler tantrums and provide some guidance for enjoying the toddler stage. Learn more about their roles at Encompass and the programs Encompass provides at the conclusion of this article. They have even teamed up to create a toddler-focused Pinterest board that brings to life many suggestions in this article.
“As a parent educator, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how to control toddler tantrums. Most parents don’t like my response,” Kerry says.
Your Toddler is Not Going Nuts—They Want to Be Taught!
Tantrums—or “teachable moments” as we like to call them—are part of a developmentally-appropriate phase that most children go through from the age of 18 months to 4 years old. These emotional outbursts are a part of a child’s normal development in which he or she is trying to create individuality and autonomy from their caregivers. Your child is showing you that he can think for himself and that he has desires and motivations different from yours (Thompson, 2001).
“When a toddler is having big emotions, I remind myself this child is not trying to push my buttons,” Nikki says. “An 800-day old person simply hasn’t had the time to develop the communication and problem-solving skills to act like an older person. And that is where parents step in – to meet needs (and many times that is to teach the words and model appropriate problem solving and emotions).”
We can’t always predict when these highly-emotional times will occur (any parent could add their list of favorite places for a meltdown), but watching for the signs and taking a few steps may help avoid a five-alarm situation.
Why problem solving and punishment during tantrums don’t work.
“Toddlers are not using the part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that works on reasoning and decision making when they are in that highly-emotional state,” Kerry says. Dr. Phil says it the best, “Farmers don’t plant seeds during tornados.” If your child is experiencing an emotional tornado, the seed you are trying to plant is not going to take root.
What parents can do during tantrums.
Use a tantrum as an opportunity to model calm behavior to guide them through the storm. There is a saying that anxiety is contagious—and so is calm. This is true with children. Often, a toddler’s big emotions scare them and they don’t know how to come back to earth emotionally.
Validate the child’s feelings by saying something like, “I see you’re frustrated.” They need you to stay calm and let them know you are there to help and try to meet their needs. Kerry recommends watching this quick video if you need inspiration.
Easier said than done! But if you can change your perspective on tantrums from seeing it as your child being defiant to realizing they are in an incredibly teachable moment, it’s much easier to take this advice and remain calm. Nikki also recommends HALT especially when toddlers are crabby.
Your Toddlers Love Boundaries—Really!
Children feel calmer with consistent boundaries in place and when they clearly understand expectations. While establishing this can be rough at first and require time and effort (a child’s job is to first test the boundaries—remember, they are wonderfully curious, which is one of Nikki’s most favorite toddler traits!), we urge parents to invest time here and resist feeling guilty about saying no (consider framing boundaries in a way that directs a child towards what she MAY do. For instance, “I need to talk on the phone right now. Please don’t interrupt. You may play with your blocks or color until I’m finished. We can talk then.”). Be firm, patient, direct and fair.
“Set an expectation (please pick up your toys) and then allow them the space to rise to it (resist frustration over how long it takes or that it isn’t perfect),” says Nikki. As you establish routines, children will improve and understand their boundaries—and reward you with more predictable and compliant behavior.
Relationship Building with Toddlers
Another way to potentially head off tantrums is to spend time building a relationship with your child and getting in sync with their emotions. By noticing good behavior, praising and reinforcing it, children will strive to catch your attention doing the right things and you can both bask in the glow of all that great behavior. We recommend using PRIDE skills for this.
Part of relationships is respect—no one is too young to earn and learn it. This can mean speaking with courtesy to children (please and thank you), not interrupting their play or commentary and resisting taking things away from them (this also sounds a lot like modeling what you want from them, doesn’t it?).
Taking Care of Your Family Begins with Taking Care of You
Because so much of this article is about modeling great behavior, let’s talk about you. If you’re feeling stressed and exhausted, it’s hard to model calm behavior. Parents need to take care of themselves to take the best care of their family. Consider taking advantage of local parent nights out as well as enrichment opportunities such as summer camps and drop-off playgroups. Don’t feel guilty! Hopefully the time will give you space to recharge and return to your children refreshed. These are really fun activities for kids, too, with childcare that is trained and thrilled to spend time with them.
More Questions About Your Toddler’s Meltdowns?
If your child seems to have more frequent or severe tantrums that concern you or do not decrease with age, discuss this with your child’s health care provider (Talaris, 2008). Encompass provides several programs to assist parents, including personalized parent coaching, parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) as well as free monthly parenting workshops. Contact Kerry Beymer, the parenting education and support manager, at 425.888.2777 or email@example.com.
Want to See This in Action?
Join Nikki in September at the Encompass preschool in the toddler program (there is a new drop-off program!). Encompass offers programs for children as young as 12 months old to stimulate social skills and brain development through age-appropriate, play-based learning experiences. Toddlers and caregivers make new friends, parents receive education and support as well as consultation and screenings with specialists if needed. Contact Julie at 425.888.2777 or firstname.lastname@example.org for details or a tour.
Are you a parent with a question for the Encompass experts?
We welcome you to email us at AsktheExperts@EncompassNW.org with questions on parenting, development and early learning. Monthly, we aggregate your questions and write an article.
Kerry Beymer is a local parent educator that has been working in the field of early learning and parenting for over 20 years.
Nikki Slaght is a teacher in Classroom 3 at Encompass for our toddler and preschool classes. Toddlers say her Australian accent and crazy hats are “really, really good”.