Toddlers & Tantrums

The terrific two's (better known as the terrible two's or three's) is a tough time for the parent-child relationship. There is plenty of room for misunderstanding at this stage as children hunt for their boundaries and parents learn to set them. The biggest issues plaguing this relationship are the dreaded tantrums (especially in public) and how to diffuse them.

It is safe to say that every situation has it's differences, due to the fact that each parent-child relationship is unique. There are however, fundamental details about what is taking place in a child's brain that I believe is the magic information every parent deserves to know. Breaking down the actual portions of the brain in control of things like emotions, instincts and logic allow parents to better understand:

a) where a tantrum is coming from and,

b) better equips them with the tools to connect with their child and support them through the intense feeling.

The Brain (in a nutshell):

The Executive Centre (upstairs brain): Where things like logic, reasoning and self-regulation happen. Research proves that this part of the brain is not fully developed until approximately 21 years old.

The Survival Centre (downstairs brain): Where things like breathing, heart rate and instincts happen. This is developed at birth.

The Emotional Centre: Where an understanding of emotions and feelings happen. Majority of development happens by 5 years old.


Imagine you are two years old:

Your logical brain is far from developed

Your survival brain is fully developed

Your emotions are unclear

You have a general grasp on language

You are playing with your favourite toys: trains and tracks.

You line them up biggest to smallest and start putting the tracks together to make a circle. All of the sudden someone picks you up and takes you away from your trains and tracks.

Instantly your survival brain engages: your stomach feels like it could burst, your heart and mind are racing and you can't seem to keep your legs or arms still. You scream to let the person know that you are unhappy because the words are not there, yelling doesn't seem to help and you keep getting further from your trains. Now they're holding your arms and yelling something at you but you can't make out the words (underdeveloped executive centre).

As a parent, this probably sounds avoidable, right?

- Even if you were running late, you could simply bend down and tell your two year old that it's time to go before you pick them up and take them away from their trains.

- Or, take it a step further and even give a 2-minute warning.

*Sometimes, the warnings and the words do not matter. A child's focus cannot always be reached with logic, especially if their more developed brain is engaged with the moment of wanting to play. It certainly can never be reached when all of the blood is rushing to the survival/emotional centres, trying to get back to what they wanted to be doing.

So what do we do? How do we win?

1. You can't win against a tantrum. They are natural and most children will experience one in their lifetime. Some more than others and that's okay. Each person is born with their quirks, and just like you or I we have different thresholds of when our survival centre activates. Learning your child's triggers will be very important in managing their number of tantrums.

2. Learn your child's reactive habits. Tantrums tend to be on a spectrum of severity. Some children have full-blown, body jolting, voice screaming and even teeth biting tantrums, while others can refer to them as more of a meltdown with lots of crying. What is most important about learning how your child tantrums is wether or not you should give them the space to release the BIG feeling, or hold them tight while they let it all out. This is their survival centre that we are dealing with. In the heat of the moment NO logic is being engaged, and it is important to not force yourself into your child's space if you do not want to get hit. I am not condoning hitting. I am saying that hitting is a natural survival instinct for most people, so if your child tantrums with lots of arm and leg movement you might want to keep a two foot buffer between the two of you until they are more calm.

3. Calm the emotional and survival centres. Connect and support them. This is never done by logic and only done with physical affection such as hugging or kisses (if your child does not tend to need their personal space). In order to support a tantrum it is important to keep your energy calm and your voice loving, slow and concise. It is best to model techniques such as deep breaths with loud inhales and extended out breaths. You might say things like: I see you are having a BIG feeling, would you like a hug? or I can see you are very angry right now, would you like to stomp your feet or scream into this pillow? There is no need to demand answers. The most effective connection here is your undivided attention and your respect for their space and their current BIG feeling.

*If you are in public, it is a good idea to take your child outside or somewhere a little more private (if possible). If you cannot remove yourselves from the place then the most important thing is to focus on your child. Anyone with children can relate to what is happening and the nay-sayers do not matter.

It's so easy as adults to look at the reasons a toddler might throw a tantrum and have us quickly deem it unworthy of that kind of emotional response. Things like wanting the chocolate bar at the store, to the new toy at the mall to not wanting to go to bed, might sound like silly reasons to throw yourself onto the floor, but who are we to decide? A child is their own person with their own quirks and that is for us to learn, not change or replace.

If we are ever going to begin to understand what happens during a strong emotional feeling, we need to first accept that ALL feelings have a place and a reason within each and everyone of us, and it is never our job to decide if there is a valid reason for someone else's feelings. Society tends to nominate feelings such as anger, frustration or worry as negative and something to dispute. If we shift our perspective we can begin to see feelings as having a necessary space within us. As we begin to understand them as they are we begin to learn about ourselves and each other.

Let's talk it out! If you have any questions or ideas how you might offer guidance in the subject of tantrums let us know by sharing them in the comments below. Support each other in parenthood.

Show love, grow love

Happy Living Parents