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Picture the scene. You’ve been muddling along quite nicely, learning about the world around you, figuring out how everything works and then everything changes. You’re suddenly expected to toddle and feed yourself and do all sorts of new things. Sometimes this is SUPER EXCITING but sometimes it’s really hard work. When it’s hard, you don’t have the words to express those emotions so you lash out. Temper tantrums are the only way to communicate. You kick, you scream, you bite, you hit. Welcome to being a toddler. Welcome to the “Terrible twos”.
Well. This might seem like a really obvious questions. We are all very familiar with temper tantrums. We’ve all seen them and, let’s face it, we’ve all had them (maybe more recently than we’d care to admit). Tantrums are just lots of big difficult feelings that little people, toddlers, preschoolers or even our babies struggle to control because they have an immature underdeveloped brain.
Imagine all the big feelings we have on a daily basis – anger, anxiety, frustration, boredom – all of those feelings are really normal and healthy for us to have. But imagine that you didn’t have the development in your brain to be able to take a deep breath and calm down and count to ten or do some deep breathing or ask for help. All of the coping strategies, emotion regulation skills we’ve learned as adults and that we’ve learned through experience and as our brains have matured help us to control our emotions. They help us to know that it isn’t right to have a screaming meltdown in the middle of the supermarket (as much as we might want to).
There’s no such thing as normal! The reality is that when we frame tantrums in this way of being big and difficult feelings that we don’t necessarily know how to express appropriately, temper tantrums actually start from birth. We just don’t call them tantrums until we get into the “Terrible Twos” or sometimes kind of 18 months old, but children of all ages have big emotions that they struggle to control, even newborns. We start to label these big surges of emotions as “tantrums” or “meltdowns” or “the Terrible Twos” around the two year old mark, but it’s totally typical to have a 10 month old who throws a wobbler too.
It’s quite an old-fashioned view that when kids have a meltdown in the supermarket or when they’re not getting their own way that it’s because they’re trying to manipulate you, or because they think if they misbehave they’ll get you to give into their demands – but that’s just not the case. It all comes back to the way the brain hasn’t quite developed yet. The processes that make you consider the outcome of your actions, how other people might feel and what would happen if you did a, b or c don’t develop until the late teens or early 20s. When your kid acts out, they aren’t thinking “if I scream in front of the Haribo, Mummy will buy me them,” they’re just having some big feelings about really wanting Haribo and don’t quite know how else to express it yet.
They aren’t choosing to manipulate you or wind you up. They aren’t choosing to be naughty. They just cannot help it.
STAY WITH US! While we know this sounds a bit wild, it does make sense. It’s really important that we shouldn’t expect more from our toddlers than we do from ourselves. We are adults with a grown and fully developed adult brain and sometimes we are overwhelmed by our emotions. Imagine how hard it must be for them when their brains aren’t fully developed!
It can be helpful to reframe tantrums through the lens of ability, rather than development. You wouldn’t punish a fish for not being able to ride a bicycle and expecting a toddler to not tantrum, expecting the toddler to always be calm and listen to what you say and do is like expecting a fish to ride a bicycle. It is just physically, utterly impossible. They just can’t do it and actually probably the best thing we can do is to reset our expectations. As soon as we do this, it’s better for them and for us.
Try to not to shout because when we shout at toddlers or teenagers any age is they learn that when somebody’s doing something they don’t like, they should shout at them. They learn that the way to manage big emotions is to shout. We want them to learn that when we have big difficult emotions, we need to take a breath, calm down and stay composed. The best way to teach that? To model the behaviour yourself.
Are they safe? Are you safe? Are people around you safe? Is there any chance they could hurt you, themselves or anyone around you? If not, you might have to physically move your child to somewhere else. This might result in them crying more or, you might find you end up yelling – but safety always needs to be the priority, so forgive yourself for anything you do when you’re trying to keep your kid, yourself and others safe.
Remember your child is having a difficult time, they’re not doing it deliberately and they’re behaving the only way they know how right now. Try to remind yourself it’s nothing personal and it’s as hard for them as it is for you.
Once everyone has calmed down, support your little one in whatever way they need. For some kids a hug is exactly what they need, for others a hug is the last thing on their agenda. But let them know you’re there and you see them and you love them.
Talk through what happened. Explain why what they did was wrong and what they could do better next time. Keep the explanation as concise and straightforward as possible and know that you’ll probably have to teach these lessons again and again. But it’s like muscle memory and the more we do this, the better.
Whatever the reason for your little one’s outbursts, know that chances are, they’d rather not be having it. Even as adults we feel rotten after huge surges of emotion and it’s just the same as kids. Remember that they’d far rather be able to tell you exactly what was going on in a perfectly formed sentence and that they’re not out to get you or make your day/week/month/life more difficult. It’s just sometimes really difficult being a toddler.
For more tips on navigating the Terrible Twos and beyond, check out our workshop with author of ToddlerCalm, Sarah Ockwell Smith below.