Q: Question of the Quarter:
Our son has just turned two, and is going through a very challenging phase. I would like to understand more about toddler/young child emotional development and/or ‘tantrums’.
One way to think of tantrums is that toddlers go through an emotional growth spurt at around age 2, but they don’t go through a parallel cognitive growth spurt until somewhere between age 5 – 7. So for a few years, they experience these storms of passionate emotions without the cognitive faculties to process them. Hence, they come across as huge outbursts that overwhelm the poor child and temporarily ‘take over’ their otherwise reasonable personalities. Usually children are much more scared by these emotional hurricanes than we adults are. Eventually, you’ll notice that logic and reasoning begin to soften the edges of his outbursts, and then gradually the rational part of the brain catches up and tantrums become a rarity.
I believe the best way to deal with tantrums is to treat them like storms–totally beyond anyone’s control. Never try to reason with a tantruming child–they cannot, and it is insanely frustrating for them to try. Simply stay quiet and wait, close by, holding him if he will let you, or simply nearby if he won’t. When its over, he will need comforting and sympathy, since he will be badly shaken by his own lack of control. Youngsters need to see their parents demonstrating emotional control during these storms, they need to see and feel that we can stay calm and centered even when (or especially when) they cannot. This is how they will learn that strong emotions are okay, and need not be feared, and also that it is possible to remain calm even when having strong feelings.
Tantrums are not a “behaviour”, not intentional, and should never be followed by recriminations. They are a natural stage of development, awkward and inconvenient as they can be. This is when toddlers really learn that they are loved even during their scariest moments. If we respond by yelling, over-reacting or tantruming ourselves, we will be modeling the very behaviour we aim to eventually dissolve.
That being said, it is unwise to allow a tantrum to influence any decisions. Just as it would be unfair to withhold a treat or plan because of a tantrum, it is equally misleading to offer rewards or concessions during one. For example, if a child is flooded with feelings because he does not wish to leave the park, you should not let the tantrum affect your plan. If you do, the child learns to “use” outbursts as a negotiating tactic, which is not good for anyone! Instead, comfort the child through his intense disappointment, be close and calm as he flails/cries/shouts, wait until he starts to calm down, and then offer verbal reflections of his feelings (eg. You are very disappointed because you wish we could stay longer. You really love the park.) with a lot of empathy. Often, the child will be overwhelmed by his own strong emotions, and will need comfort and kindness as he recovers.
You can prevent some tantrums by avoiding potentially stressful situations when your child is tired or hungry (these states can amplify any inabilities to cope). But in the end, keep in mind that you cannot stop tantrums, and nor should you try. When a tantrum starts, just take deep breaths, centre yourself, and trust that it will be over soon. Your son needs you to be calm on his behalf. You are the anchor in your child’s storm.