Whether it’s the ‘terrible twos’ or life with a ‘threenager’, dealing with outbursts of anger and frustration from little ones can be really tough. Jenna Farmer chats to an expert to discover how you can tackle tantrums head on, and support your child in expressing their emotions
Being a parent can be difficult at times, especially when trying to convince a young child to listen to you. If you’re a parent to a toddler or preschooler, you’re probably already more than familiar with tantrums. These outbursts, which can include shouting, crying, hitting, or throwing items, are extremely common in young children, and tend to begin at around 18 months, according to the NHS.
Tantrums usually develop because a child struggles to communicate their emotions, not only because they don’t have the language yet, but because figuring out their feelings can be tricky.
“Their developing brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to inhibit these responses, and gets overwhelmed a lot more easily than ours,” says child, adolescent, and adult counsellor Ali Harper.
If you find yourself in tantrum territory, here are some simple things you can do to deal with it with confidence.
1. Take your own emotions out of it.
You’re likely fed up, sleep deprived, and frustrated – but bringing your emotions into the mix isn’t very helpful in this situation.
“It can be easy to jump in with a response that comes from a place of annoyance or exasperation, but this means you suddenly have two very emotional people in the room rather than one,” says Ali.
Instead, focus on keeping calm and showing your toddler alternative ways to express their emotions.
2. Teach your child that it’s OK to be angry.
Feeling all sorts of emotions is completely normal and healthy, so we don’t want children to think it’s wrong to express theirs. How often have you been told to try the naughty step, or to take their toys away when your toddler starts screaming and throwing? The problem with these strategies is that we’re teaching children that showing emotion is wrong, and not actually helping them process it.
“Our own experiences of being parented, or the messages we’ve received from those around us, may also include seeing tantrums as manipulative, and then responding by removing affection, or physically isolating children. These responses not only give children the message that their feelings are not acceptable, but also leaves them without their main source for learning how to regulate themselves – you!” Ali explains.
“Try to get alongside them, and empathise with how overwhelmed they are feeling. Offer a hug or sit next to them – it’s important for children to get the message that their feelings are safe.”
3. Stick to your guns.
Understanding your child’s emotions isn’t the same as giving them everything they want. If you’ve said no sweets before dinner, then stick to the message, however tempting it is to relent.
“Boundaries help children to feel safe,” Ali says. “Once you have said no to something, try to stick to it, both in terms of behaviour (no, you can’t climb the bookshelf/get in the bath with your clothes on), and around how they express their angry feelings (I won’t let you hurt yourself or other people).”
4. Move on quickly.
Sometimes we tackle tantrums like a pro, and other times we just seem to make it worse. However it’s gone, try to move on quickly once the tantrum is over, and don’t keep bringing it up, as most young children live very much in the ‘here and now’. That goes for dwelling on it once they’re tucked up in bed, too.
“Go easy on yourself if you don’t always deal with them exactly how you would have liked to,” says Ali.
5. Play detective.
It’s common for small children to have tantrums every day, and while these might seem to come from nowhere, you may be able to pinpoint things that trigger them. Common tantrum triggers include tiredness and hunger, or frustration, such as over having to share a toy or not wanting to leave the park.
While we can’t eliminate these triggers, it can help us plan accordingly. In younger children, this might require sticking to a proper nap schedule, while older children may benefit from things like countdown timers and visual reminders when transitioning to new places or things. Having healthy snacks readily available is always a good idea, too!
Tantrums are extremely common but, for most children, they do get better as they get more experience in handling their emotions. By being calm, helping your child understand their emotions, and providing firm boundaries, you can tackle tantrums quickly and effectively.
Head to the Counselling Directory to find out more information or to speak to a qualified counsellor.