The “terrible twos” is a phrase that has become part of our culture. It describes a development stage notorious for plenty of crying and screaming over things that may seem trivial to adults. While this behavior is often challenging for parents, it doesn’t mean that your child is actually terrible for throwing tantrums. Believe it or not, temper tantrums are a very normal part of your child’s development.
Why tantrums happen
It’s hard for young children to hold strong feelings inside. During the toddler years, there is a change in how children process information. They suddenly become more aware that their world can change. They realize they won’t always get what they expect or want. Their young minds are easily overwhelmed, and they don’t know how to cope with change or how to deal with their emotions when they feel frustrated or angry. So, they tend to cry, scream, or stomp up and down.
These physical actions are often because of an underdeveloped and dysregulated impulse control center in the brain. This is combined with an obvious communication barrier, as they’re still learning verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Tantrums usually begin around 12 to 18 months of age, get worse between 2 and 3 years of age, and taper off after that once children are better able to use words to communicate their wants and needs.
It’s very important to remember that though many children have a lot in common around these ages, not every child hits every stage the same way or at the same time. Basic personality traits, home environment, parenting styles, and social interactions will have a strong influence on the way your child responds, processes, and reacts to new situations and information. So, what to do in the presence of “terrible tantrums”? How can we avoid them or use them as teaching opportunities?
How to respond
A child’s tantrum can be a very powerful weapon if they find that their parents will do almost anything they want, just to make it stop. The very best thing we can do when our child is feeling dysregulated, is to teach them that their tantrum is not going to gain them anything. This means we respond to the child, but we do not respond to the behavior.
- Allow the child to tantrum (safely)
- Provide a verbal “feeling” to what they’re expressing
- Give reassurance
For example, “Jackson, I see you’re very frustrated right now. It’s okay to be frustrated.”
With this approach, you’re feeding the child’s dysregulated brain with an emotional connection, addressing the child, and providing them with a learning opportunity to recognize what emotion they’re feeling; while at the same time, not giving any positive or negative attention to their behaviors. Once the tantrum has ended, it is then time to reflect, comfort, and teach. “Wow, Jackson, you were so frustrated because we didn’t have the blue shoes. It’s okay to be frustrated. But it’s not okay to kick mommy when we are frustrated. When you’re feeling frustrated try *insert desired calming practice here*.”
Of course, the very best technique by far is to prevent tantrums before they start, if you can!
Tantrum taming techniques
Here are some techniques to try:
1. Give choices (but not too many)
This gives the child the feeling that they are making the decision themselves; like they’re doing what THEY want, not what YOU want.
2. Ask questions (avoiding yes-or-no questions)
Asking questions to get desired tasks completed makes it feel like a game to the developing brain (e.g. “Where does your jacket go?”, instead of, “Put your jacket in the closet”).
3. Give chances
When given two choices and your child does not make a choice, give them another opportunity to make the decision on their own, but add a more time-sensitive approach. For example, “Do you want the blue shoes or red shoes?” *No response from toddler*. “If you don’t choose, I get to choose. Do you want the blue shoes or the red shoes?” With this approach you have given the child another opportunity to be “in control”. If they fail to choose, it’s important that you carry through with your action to make the choice (even if the child chooses last minute after you’ve chosen for them.)
Things to remember
- Avoid any expectation that all daily routines will go smoothly and that your child won’t tantrum occasionally. Even if you do your best, your child is learning, and tantrums are normal!
- Avoid questions that can be answered in “No!” (Though don’t be surprised if they still answer with “No!”)
- Do not give choices when it matters.
- Don’t overcomplicate choices and chances if your child is overly tired.
Remember, tantrums are normal up to a certain age, personalities differ, parenting types differ. What techniques work well for one may not work well for all. If your child does tantrum (and it is very likely that they will) these normal responses do not define you as a parent, and do not define your successes or failures! If your child continues to have tantrums similar to the reactions of that of a 2-year-old after the age of 4, you may consider bringing these behavioral concerns to the attention of your pediatrician.