JJ is now 19 months old and he is forming an opinion which is not always the same as ours. A few times we have had situations where someone has said, “ohh he is having a tantrum”. I can not explain how much I dislike that sentence. He is not having a tantrum! He is having an emotional moment and this is his way of communicating and getting our attention. Some might think that he is not communicating in the right way, but I know that he is communicating in the only way that he knows how to yet.
What is happening
Toddlers are just that, toddlers. They are little humans who have just learned to walk. They still have so much to learn, such as how to deal with intense situations. Tantrums are not bad and neither are the children having them. They are a normal part of a toddlers development. The brain of an adult is able to control their emotions, so that they act in a way which we find socially acceptable. Between the ages of 1-3 children go through big emotional, cognitive and social developments. When a toddler has a emotional moment this is just them trying to deal with their feelings, by using their not very much developed communication skills, whilst also not being able to regulate their emotions.
Emotional moments can happen over anything. With JJ is is typically over putting his coat on or if he finds my phone and I don’t want him to have it. These don’t seem like big things to us adults who know much bigger challenges in life. But I think that the main misunderstanding about tantrums is just this – to a toddler a small issue can be a massive issue, and we need to realise this.
Make them feel safe
It is our task as parents to set a good example of how to tackle intense situations. The best we can do is to tune in and show that we understand, calmly tell them that we see that they are unhappy. By using a calm tone we ourselves will stay calm which is very important. By hugging them we can make them feel safe and let them know that we care even if we don’t agree with their way of behaving. This gives them a safe place to get their emotions out.
Another approach to take is giving the toddler time out, which I personally don’t think that toddlers benefit from. Just like their brain is not developed enough to understand and control their own emotions, they are not developed enough to have mature thought as to what they have done wrong and how they can improve. Yes they might calm down during a time out, but they do this either because they are too tired to keep going and/or because they see that we don’t behave lovingly towards them until they are calm. Think about it, how would you feel if when you were frustrated and sad, your best friend decided to leave you to it. Surely it would make you feel abandoned and thus even more sad. The frustration leaving their body is scary and they will feel safer knowing you are near.
Choose your battles
Your toddler is going get frustrated from time to time, it is a normal and healthy part of a child’s development. What you can do, is to have a plan for when it happens. Have something at the ready to distract your toddler, maybe a little book in your handbag, toys in the changing bag or treats. You might also be able to distract the toddler before they get frustrated, say you are in the supermarket and they got a sight of the sweetie aisle far in the distance (because I am sure that you would not take them near it on purpose 😉 ), try distracting them with something else they like, how about they get to choose their favourite fruit in the fruit aisle or how about letting them push the trolley for a while. The key to distracting them, is that you make the distraction sound exciting and fun. These little ones have a short attention span and they will quickly be distracted.
Look at when the frustrations happen, there might be a pattern. For example the toddler might be hungry or tired. We know ourselves how grumpy we can get when we need sleep or food, with little ones the effect is much more intense.
There might also be certain situations which you as a parent know are gonna be challenging for your toddler. It is important to be able to identify these kind of situations ahead of time and you might be able to avoid an emotional moment by promise your toddler a reward, if they can behave nicely. But the trick here would be to make this promise on your terms and before the toddler starts acting up, rather than half way through a frustration outburst.
Dreaded by many is their child having an emotional moment whilst you are amongst other people, the worst possible place of course being the supermarket! All eyes are on you and your child. What will they think about your parenting abilities, obviously you are no good and have raised a bad child judging by their bad behaviour. In moments like this it can be tempting to give in, give the toddler what they want, just to stop people from staring. However this will teach them that by acting up they will be rewarded, and guess what…they might end up doing it even more. Your best response to an emotional moment in public is to stay calm and pretend to have it all under control (which obviously you do 😉 ). People are much more likely to judge you by your reaction to the toddlers behaviour than judging the toddler by how he/she is behaving.
Talk to your child
During the emotional moment it might not be very efficient to talk to the toddler, but you can try. Tell them that what they are asking for they can not have right now, but don’t stop there. Give them a reason and offer them an alternative. Just saying “no you can’t” is not likely to solve the problem.
When the emotional moment has passed, it is also good to talk to your toddler about what happened. Explain to them that now that they are calmer, you can understand the reason for their anger and explain to them again why you might not agree and how it made you feel. Even if they dont understand everything you are saying in time they will.
I should maybe have started by saying that I am no expert in child behaviour, I am just a mum learning on the job. The most important thing to remember is, that you know your child best and what is good for them when they are having an emotional moment. As parents it is our responsibility to teach them to deal with their emotions instead of ignoring them. Rather try to understand their signals and limits, and teach them to put words on their emotions. This might take months or years, maybe even a lifetime, I guess it is what parenthood is all about.
I do not have any pictures of JJ during emotional moments, grabbing the camera is usually not the first thing on my mind when it happens. These pictures are from a family day out in Portsoy in December.