How to Deal with Tantrums in Toddlers
You have known your child now for one or two years. You have settled in as a mom, established a routine with your little one and you know all the tips and tricks on how to smoothly manage everyday life with your child. However, around the age of 18 months, you suddenly notice a change in your child. Your lovely, affectionate, charming child turns red, throws himself on the floor, screams, and wriggles wildly in the most impossible situations for the apparently most trivial reasons. You get disapproving looks from the people around you. Just when you decide to pick up your child and carry it away from this situation, your child hits you.
You are unsure of how to deal with these aggressions. When a child is angry, screams, bangs, scratches, or bites, alarm bells ring quickly. When you talk to people around you, there is often a hidden accusation against you as a mother that you have no control over your child or that you have raised your child badly.
The following article will tell you why your child has tantrums, how to avoid them, and how to respond to them.
Tantrums in toddlers are natural.
Toddlers are not yet able to regulate their emotions the same way as adults do and therefore react subconsciously and intuitively to frustrations. Through tantrums, your child is able to process its emotions, like anger. Tantrums in toddlers are therefore completely natural and correspond to your child's development. Small children still have to learn to regulate emotions and therefore need the caring support from a caregiver. It is therefore important not to judge the child for their tantrum or aggression, but rather to remain calm and show understanding. Tantrums are usually triggered when the child's physical or emotional boundaries are violated. Knowledge of the basic psychological needs and brain development in toddlers can help us understand our children better, which enables us to respond more sensitively to our childrens emotional needs.
WITH THE PURSUIT OF AUTONOMY, TODDLERS ASPIRE INDEPENDENCE FROM THEIR PARENTS.
In the first years of life, children are to a high degree self-centered in their feelings, their perception and their thinking. Piaget speaks of an age of egocentrism. The child experiences itself as the center, but also as part of this world. At around 18 months of age, your child takes a significant step in their development: Self-awareness. The child recognizes themselves in the mirror and becomes aware of themselves. This self-image goes hand in hand with the differentiation from other people. As toddlers strive of autonomy, they gradually break free of their dependency from their parents. This is part of their natural evolution, which also includes tantrums, as exhausting as they are.
A TODDLER'S BRAIN IS NOT YET MATURE.
But why do toddlers have tantrums while adults are (mostly) able to regulate their emotions?
If we look at the brain development of a child at the age of 2, we will find that toddlers may not even be able to regulate their emotions like adults. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control and regulation of emotions. It is modulated by experience and does not mature until around the age of 25. The part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control and emotion regulation is not yet mature at the age of two, which is why toddlers often react less rationally and instead react unconsciously and intuitively.
Toddlers don't want to hurt or provoke. They just can't help but behave unfiltered and emotionally. In addition, they do not yet have the language skills to express the strong emotions they are experiencing at this moment through words. And so they live out the emotions unfiltered and vent their displeasure through a tantrum, which can sometimes cause quite violent behavior. Hitting, kicking, screaming and biting are therefore all age-appropriate behaviors that are appropriate to your child's development.
BASIC PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS ACCORDING TO RYAN & DECI INCLUDE COMPETENCE, AUTONOMY AND ATTACHMENT.
Sometimes it seems like toddlers explode out of nowhere and it can be difficult for us parents to understand the tantrum because we do not understand the reason behind it or because we consider the severity of the child's reaction to be inappropriate. However, there is always a reason for tantrums in toddlers and the severity of the outburst corresponds to the emotional state of the child. The physical or emotional boundaries of your child have been violated in some way and that is obviously serious for the child at this moment, otherwise they would not react this way.
In order to understand where the bounderies of our children lie, it can help to look at the basic psychological needs according to Ryan & Deci: Competence, autonomy and attachment. Competence means the feeling of being able to work effectively in order to achieve the desired results. Autonomy describes the feeling of voluntary behavior and self-determined interaction with the environment, and attachment stands for the need to experience oneself as capable of loving and lovable. When any of these three basic needs are violated, the child becomes frustrated, which can lead to tantrums. Here are examples of a violation regarding each basic need:
The child wants to put their shoes on and gets angry if you help them.
The mother pulls the t-shirt over the child's head against their will.
The child sleeps alone in their bed at night and will not be comforted when they cry because they feel lonely.
Only when the basic needs for competence, autonomy and attachment are sufficiently satisfied according to the child’s development, the child can actively deal with their environment and complete age-appropriate development tasks.
WE MUST RESPECT OUR CHILDREN'S BOUNDARIES AND LEARN THAT AGGRESSION IS AN IMPORTANT WARNING SIGNAL.
Infants and young children are completely dependent on the satisfaction of their basic needs from their social environment. If we do not respect our children's personal boundaries, they too will not respect their own boundaries, as well as those of others. Furthermore, it damages their self-esteem if we ignore their boundaries and do not take them seriously.
If the emotional or physical boundaries of your child have been violated and your child is frustrated and reacts emotionally or aggressively, it is important to respond to the child with empathy and not to ignore them, to shame them or to portray them as being bad.
Most of us have learned that aggression or anger is bad. In our society there is a taboo against aggression. In truth, aggression is an important warning signal that shows us what is important to us and where our boundaries lie.
What can I do to reduce toddler tantrums?
The reason for toddler tantrums is the violation of an emotional or physical boundary. Therefore, always try to respect the emotional and physical limits of your child. Think of the three basic psychological needs according to Ryan & Deci; attachment, competence and autonomy. Here are some examples:
Communicate with your child eye-to-eye and be emotionally available. (Attachment)
Give your child choices. (Autonomy)
"Would you like to wear the striped or the plaid pants?"
Do not always forbid everything and encourage them when they behave cooperatively. (Autonomy)
Give your child the freedom to discover the world by themselves and to make mistakes. (Competence)
Prepare your child for the next situation. (Autonomy)
"We'll go inside and then take off our shoes.", Or: "I want to go home in 15 minutes, I'm cold"
Young children in particular find it difficult to deal with changes in their usual routine. A fixed daily routine provides security and orientation in everyday life. (Autonomy)
Communicate your feelings and your child's feelings if they are not already able to do so by themselves. (Attachment)
Everyone makes mistakes, including parents. Apologize to your child if you made a mistake or reacted incorrectly. (Attachment)
Trust in your child's abilities. (Competence)
How do I react to toddler tantrums?
- If your child is in a situation where they are putting themselves or others at risk, remove them from that situation and go with them to a quiet place.
- Keep calm, take a deep breath.
- Establish contact with your child through non-verbal communication (e.g. hugging and caressing). If physical contact is not possible, because e.g. it does not want to be touched, make empathic sounds. Give your child the message: You are not alone, I feel you!
- What emotion(s) is the child experiencing at the moment? Why? Name these feelings.
"You're angry because I took the chocolate ice cream away from you."
- When the child has calmed down: Offer a compromise or suggest another way out.
Here is an example:
Before going to bed, my two-year-old opens the freezer and finds a chocolate ice cream. I don't want to give him this chocolate ice cream because his teeth are already brushed, it's unhealthy, and I don't want the child to eat chocolate before going to bed. So I take the chocolate ice cream out of his hand and put it back in the freezer. The child is furious, screams, cries and hits me. The wish to be able to eat the chocolate ice cream may seem banal to me, but for my child it is urgent and important at this moment, otherwise he would not react so emotionally. I crossed an important boundary of my child and violated his need for autonomy by taking the chocolate ice cream away from him. Here is how I try to react:
I carry the child out of the kitchen where he could get injured and sit down with the child on the sofa or on the living room carpet.
I take a deep breath and prepare myself for the outburst of anger and for accompanying the child through these emotions.
I'm by his side, caressing him and trying to comfort him.
I name his emotions: "You are angry because I took the chocolate ice cream away from you."
When he calmed down, I offer a compromise: "You can eat the chocolate ice cream tomorrow."
If, in this situation, I were to try to arouse understanding in the child by explaining that, for example, the teeth have already been brushed, and that therefore I do not want them to eat ice cream now or that it hurt me when the child hits me, then my efforts will be of little use. Because to gain this insight and understanding, the child's brain structure is simply not yet mature enough and the child's development is not yet at this level. Non-verbal communication, on the other hand, like hugging, releases the stress-relieving hormone oxytocin and the child calms down. The child is then more willing to compromise.
PARENTS ARE ROLE MODELS.
The experiences in the first years of a child’s life play an essential role in how the child will deal with their own emotions, as well as the emotions of other people in the future and depends to a large extent on their role models. If parents are sensitive to the child’s needs and respect the child's feelings and bounderies, the child will treat other people the same way.
But if the child experiences that their feelings and boundaries are disregarded, they will disregard the feelings and boundaries of others the same way.
The same is true regarding the boundaries of the parents themselves: If the child experiences that parents disregard their own boundaries or do not express them clearly, the child will not learn to respect their own boundaries or to be able to express them clearly.
“Upbringing is example and love - nothing else.”
Friedrich Fröbel, educator and inventor of the Kindergarten
At around 18 months of age, your child takes an important developmental step: Self-awareness, which is accompanied by the differentiation from the self and other people. This developmental stage oftenen comes with tantrums, especially when the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and attachment have been violated.
Dealing with your toddlers tatrum is not easy. Try to stay calm, hug your child and feel with your child. Name their feelings and offer a compromise, if possible. Remind yourself that you are an important role model for your child. As you deal with your feelings and those of your child, so too will your child learn to deal with their feelings and the feelings of others.
Your next step:
If you would like guidance and support when integrating the tips mentioned in this article into your mom's everyday life, then register now for a free initial consultation with Anna Hase Psychology. Anna Hase supports you in the challenges of being a mom.
Find a friend in the Mamatomo-Network.
'Mamatomo' is Japanese and means something like 'befriended mothers'. Mamatomo is an online network that helps you to connect with other mothers. Fill out this form and I will find a Mamatomo for you!