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Tears, Tantrums and Toddlers

There comes a day when the cries of infancy transition into the meltdowns and tantrums of toddlerhood.  Ahh toddlerhood. Where one wrong move can change your child’s mood in an instant. Think of toddlerhood as a practice round for the teenage years. Much of what is going on developmentally is the same. 


It’s important to understand a few things about where toddlers are at developmentally before diving into how to respond to tears, tantrums & meltdowns. 


  1. Toddlers are caught in between infancy and the preschool years and while they have a lot more skills than they did as infants, they still aren’t as proficient in tackling some tasks as they think they are which can cause frustration.  They want to be able to do it themselves and get disappointed and frustrated when they have to ask for help. 


  1. Toddlers have reached a point of understanding that they are separate from their primary caregivers and have their own opinions and preferences.  They want to make decisions and have a say in their lives.  This can be quite difficult and upsetting when much of their day is directed by their parents and caregivers. 


  1. Toddlers find security in consistency and predictability. Knowing what to expect is really important to them.

 

  1. Toddler brains are developing rapidly but are still not a match for the fully developed adult brain. Although their skills are being refined each day, we must understand that we cannot expect them to respond to situations, especially overwhelming situations, with grace and poise. Remember, even adults don’t have the capacity to do this all the time. 


  1. Toddlers learn by doing and by observing. Repetition is key. It takes many times for toddlers to do something before they become proficient (including handling disappointment and frustration). Toddlers watch us closely and their brains learn how to respond to situations by observing how we respond. If we want them to be calm and take deep breaths then we need to take a look in the mirror and really think about if we are modeling this the majority of the time. 


Tears, tantrums and meltdowns are RARELY directly related to the incident that triggered the big emotions.  Most often toddlers have a build up of several small upsets that eventually erupt like a volcano at something that seems insignificant, like not getting their preferred plate at the dinner table. When we take these emotional upsets at face value we can quickly find ourselves triggered into a tantrum as well and we try to reason with our children to make the crying and raging stop. The trouble with this approach is that it not only puts a strain on the parent-child relationship, but it also doesn’t address the root cause of the crying, or model how to be upset and then calm back down in a healthy way. 


Responding with Calm, Compassion and Confidence


If a toddler is overwhelmed and needs to release stress, crying is frequently involved.  For many adults, seeing someone cry makes us feel uncomfortable. We are much more at ease when all is well and everyone appears happy and content, and so we try to avoid meltdowns and stop crying and raging as quickly as possible, assuming that if the child is not visibly upset then everything is ok. 


But what does this approach to emotions tell the child? What are they learning about themselves and their feelings? Shutting down young children’s emotions because we are uncomfortable only teaches that having “negative” emotions is unacceptable and they shouldn’t come to us when they are struggling and overwhelmed. 


We all have emotions and feel overwhelmed at times, we’re human, it’s not bad to experience frustration and disappointment. How we respond to infant and toddler displays of emotions matters. It models for them how to self-regulate and how to respond to their own emotions in healthy and appropriate ways. 


If you find yourself easily triggered by your child’s emotional outbursts then it might be a clue that you were responded to in a similar way when you were young and that is the pattern your brain developed. It is absolutely possible to change your response pattern but it takes intentionality and practice to rewire your brain to a new pattern. 


So how can we respond when our babies go from sweet and smiling one minute to a full blown meltdown the next? 

  1. Take some deep breaths and calm yourself down first. Don’t skip this step. Regulating your own emotions first is key to helping your little one regulate theirs. 

  2. Get down at your baby or toddler’s level. Towering over them can feel threatening and make things escalate. 

  3. Check your facial and body expressions. How might you come across to your child? Tense and angry or calm and compassionate?  

  4. Talk less and listen more. Too often we try to talk our little ones out of their emotions to get the crying to stop. We think if we reason with them or distract them everything will be better. Consider how you feel when you are upset about something and need to vent to a close friend or spouse. Even if they have some solid perspective to offer, typically this isn’t what you need at the given moment when your emotions are running high. You just need to get it all off your chest and calm down again before you’re ready to come up with solutions etc. Just being present with your child and available to them is often what they crave and desire the most. Occasionally saying a few quiet words can be helpful to remind them it’s ok to cry and that you’re here with them. 

  5. Remain with your child. “Time out” is a common response to a child who seems out of control, but when our little ones are feeling overwhelmed, they need to know that we are here for them and love them even when they feel their worst. Offering to hold them or cuddle might be received negatively but it’s not uncommon that when they have finished releasing their stress that’s exactly what they need and want. Don’t shut the door to that important act of reconnection. 

  6. Acknowledge your infant or toddler’s feelings but don’t feel the need to try to fix it.


Be reassured that these venting sessions won’t last forever. Sometimes it can help to glance at the clock every once in a while for some perspective. What feels like an hour is often only a few minutes. Being confident that your child can move through this with your loving support will only help the situation. 


Expressing big emotions in early childhood is expected and appropriate but that doesn’t mean certain behaviors that might come along with those emotions are. Gently and firmly setting limits on unacceptable behavior while leaving space for the emotions is key. 


Remember, no matter how quickly they seem to be growing and changing in these first few years, their capacity for handling overwhelm is very low and they are easily overstimulated and frustrated. Crying is a normal and healthy way to release the everyday stress of being little. It will take time for them to learn and develop the skills to self-regulate. For now, they depend on us to be their co-regulators. Sharing our calm and compassion with confidence so one day they too can do the same for others. 


Being with infants and toddlers when they are crying and raging can be challenging, exhausting, frustrating, worrisome, and beautiful. It is often in these difficult moments that the parent-child relationship is strengthened if we can hang in there with calm, compassion and confidence. 


*Sometimes young children’s emotions can cause extreme frustration and anger. Ensuring your child is safe and taking a few minutes to walk away and calm down is sometimes necessary. If you find that you are worried you might harm yourself or your child please reach out for professional help or call 911.





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