Tantrum Taming 101

Toddler throwing a tantrum

Is your toddler starting to tantrum at the most inopportune moments?  Have you been feeling that your once angelic baby is turning into some kind of demon? I remember lamenting my child's transition to toddlerhood until I found a few amazing parenting tools which now make me feel secure and confident in preventing as well as responding to the inevitable tantrum.

First off, it's important to remember what is happening in a child's brain when a tantrum occurs.  The lymbic system, or ground floor of the brain, is its most foundational and primitive part.  The prefrontal cortex, or Director/Thinker of the brain, develops after this more foundational limbic portion, and is dependent for optimal development upon the limbic brain's needs being met.

What is the biggest need of a child's limbic, or emotional, brain?  CONNECTION.  When a child feels connected to his or her caregiver, chances are, tantrums will not occur as often or with as much force.  A tantrum is, afterall, just a child's reaction to a loss of connection, in many ways an attempt to re-establish a strong sense of connection.

What does that mean for parents and caregivers?  Put simply, if you want to prevent or respond appropriately to tantrums, it is all about establishing, maintaining and nurturing a strong connection with your child.

One of the practices I teach in my Parenting by Connection classes, and practice nearly daily with my children, is called Special Time.  I use my phone timer and set it for 10-40 minutes.  I put the phone on a high shelf, out of sight.  We commit to no technology or distractions during this time.  Then I ask my child, "We can do anything (no screens, no sweets) you want to do - what would you like to do for Special Time?"  Then I follow her lead.  She is the one coming up with all the play ideas, and I ask her to tell me what she would like for me to do.  While this Special Time and play is happening, I give her my full attention, warmth, and use this as  a sacred space and time to be completely present, in awe of and loving my child.  If you practice this regularly with your child, and especially before difficult transitions or times of day (like morning routine, meal times, bed times, etc), you will notice more cooperation, ease and emotional regulation with your child.

If after you start using this tool you notice a time when tantrums start happening more and more, I suggest you consider the tantrums to be an indicator that your child needs more connection.  When tantrums do occur, it is best to get low and get close, so that the connection that the limbic brain is searching for is met.  Once the connection is reestablished, Staylisten through big feelings by being sure your child is safe, holding her and allowing her to emote.  While this is not considered to be the easiest way to respond to a tantrum, research and experience shows that it is the most effective for children of any age.  Their brain's need for connection is maintained and their emotions run their course.  The child returns to clarity and calm once the emotional storm is allowed to pass in safety and security.

Old school methods of responding to tantrums with time outs, punishments, commands to stop crying are increasingly being refuted with brain and emotional research.  When a child tantrums, he or she needs to release the tensions created by connections not remaining strong.  Telling a child to stop it, isolating him in time out or punishing him sends the message that 1)emotions are wrong 2) he can deal with his life and feelings alone and 3)he should be ashamed of what he feels.  Our methods of responding to our children's biggest feelings really do teach them what those emotions mean and how we value them.

So the next time a tantrum presents itself, try to remember these tips.  A tantrum and is an opportunity to practice understanding, patience, compassion and ultimately, to reestablish and nurture your parent-child connection.