How You Manage Your Toddler's Tantrums Today Can Influence How They Manage Their Emotions for Life

Family Matters on 07.02.12
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Have you ever reached for a cupcake when in you felt moody or in a funk? Have you ever gone shopping when upset as a means of distraction? What if I told you that you could help prevent these same behaviors in your children?

How you manage your toddler's tantrums today can help make a difference in how they handle their emotions for life.

If not taught at a young age, it can be very difficult for people to discern what exactly they are feeling and how to develop healthy methods of self-soothing. Showing your child empathy and helping her regulate her emotions and impulses gives her the basis to develop emotional intelligence that will serve her into her adult years.

Here are the steps you can take to calm your child down, stop a tantrum, and help her learn emotional control. Of course, every child is different and depending on your child's age and temperament, your temperament, your consistency and levels of patience, you may have different results.

Step One: Identify the Source of Upset and the Resulting Emotion

When your child goes bonkers, rather than punishing, yelling or ignoring, try to discern what is upsetting your child and what emotion he is feeling. Giving a name to your child's feelings, such as anger, sadness or frustration, will help your child easily identify what he's feeling, a life skill that many people never learn.

Rather than shaming your child for becoming emotional, acknowledge that it's normal to feel negative emotions and that whatever is causing the upset doesn't always need to be fixed. This will help your child learn how to tolerate negative emotions with a peaceful outlook.

Step Two: Mirror Your Child's Emotions to Calm Him Down

Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, explains that if you get down on your child's level, make eye contact, and then repeat back to your child the emotions he is feeling at about 30% of his intensity, it helps him to calm down and identify his feelings.

For example, repeat back to your child, "No, no, noooooo! Jimmy is annnngry! He wants the toy!" Keep going until your child engages with you and is ready to listen. In theory, this method should shorten the duration of the tantrum (perhaps because your child will think you have lost your mind.) But the theory goes that by naming his emotion and taking the time to feel it -- as opposed to either getting stuck in a loop or resisting the feeling -- will help the emotional storm pass naturally.

This exact method didn't work with my daughter, who only gets frustrated when I whine back at her as if I'm making fun of her. Which I kind of am, so she's pretty perceptive. However, when I talk to her about her emotions in a sympathetic manner (rather than mirroring her via imitation like Karp recommends), it calms her down. When she feels heard and understood, rather than resisted or ignored, then she calms down quickly.

You can try this tactic even before your child can talk. Repeat back to your child what emotion he is feeling and why he's upset, such as, "I know you want to play with blocks, but it's time for bed. I can see you're sad that playtime is over." When your child feels understood, he may be better able to soothe himself.

When you show empathy, you acknowledge that strong emotions are an ordinary part of life and that you respect your child's feelings. This makes your child feel safe and supported, and helps him manage disappointments.

Step Three: Use Storytelling to Develop Emotional Understanding

In their book Parenting From the Inside Out, Mary Hartzell and Dr. Daniel Siegel explain how to help your toddler navigate the world of emotions.

Hartzell and Siegel explain that telling your children the story of an incident helps them make sense of both the events and the emotions tied to the experience. This gives them the tools to become insightful, intuitive and perceptive people.

The storytelling technique is quite straightforward. You simply tell your child what just happened by describing the events, like you are telling him a story. Incorporate the emotions your child felt when events occurred.

From the book Parenting From the Inside Out:

When children understand what has happened to them and what may be going to happen to them, their distress is usually greatly reduced.

There may be experiences from your own childhood that you couldn't make sense of at the time, because no caring adult was available to help you understand your experience.

From the beginning of life, the mind attempts to make sense of the world and to regulate its internal emotional state through the relationship of the child with the parent. Parents help children regulate their internal states and bring meaning to experience. As children grow, they develop the capacity to create an autobiographical narrative from these experiences. This ability to tell stories reflects the fundamental way that the child has come to make sense of the world and to regulate his or her emotional states.

My Experience With Soothing via Mirroring and Narration

Alex was standing up while playing with a swivel chair, but she lost her balance as the chair spun. She fell over and hit her head hard on the floor with an alarming thunk. She immediately began to cry hysterically, and I swooped in to pick her up and console her.

After kisses and coos, we sat down together but she was still frantically crying. I said to her, "You fell down and hit your head. That really hurt! Yes, your head hurts." She stopped crying and watched me speak.

I told the story: "You were playing with Daddy's chair and you were having fun. Then you fell down and hit your head, and it hurt!" She cried a little when I said that part. I continued, "Then I picked you up and gave you cuddles and kisses. Do you feel better now? Your head must be feeling a little better now." Our 20 second chat calmed her completely, and she was ready to play some more.

Positive Circumstances Are a Huge Help

When your child is hungry or tired, all bets are off. The most important thing to do in these cases is to make sure your child's basic needs are met as quickly as possible.

As it got close to dinnertime, Alex reached up and grabbed a box of ibuprofen sitting next to me and rattled it. She was enjoying herself, but I took the box away. She immediately got angry and fussy, and she continued to lunge for the box.

I knew that she was tired and hungry. I tried mirroring and narration again, and it worked, but I would say only marginally. She was clearly annoyed. The tantrum didn't last long, but I doubt it would have happened at all if she weren't hungry. So I moved on to distracting her briefly with another toy before transitioning to dinnertime.

Do These Tactics Stand the Test of Time?

I've been using these tactics for about a year now, and Alex is a pretty calm child for a two-year-old. I will admit that lately, when she whines, I'm not always a model of understanding and patience, and I don't usually remember to try these techniques, because whining is the worst sound in the world.

While I usually make it clear that whining isn't a valid form of communication and she needs to use her words, sometimes I ignore her whining instead. I have to admit that when I avoid the process of helping her identify the cause of her frustration, it's not helping her to whine less whatsoever. When I take a minute to find out what's bothering her and speak conclusively with her about what she's feeling and whether we're going to give her what she wants (or not), it diffuses the situation immediately just about every time.

Photo: Beneneuman / Creative Commons

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