Tantrums are opportunities to connect

 75197_angryEditor’s note: This post was originally published on Oct. 2, 2008, but offers timely tips to parents of toddlers.

Before I became the mother of a toddler, I remember listening to other parents describe their little one’s behavior with the term “terrible twos.”

To be honest, I had no idea what kind of behavior was meant by the term except that whatever was going on during this stage in a child’s development was somehow “terrible” or at the very least, challenging for the parents.

As my high need baby grows into an almost 2 year old, I am — and believe me, I am not bragging — now the enlightened mother of a child who is going through her terrible twos. My dear Annabelle is, one instant, a cheerful little girl who listens to mom and dad — and likes them — and the next, she is a take-charge, march-to-the-beat-of-her-own-drum rebel who has little patience for her pesky parents.

Since we practice Attachment Parenting, I often turn to other parents in my local API Support Group as well as books on Attachment Parenting. My favorites are those written by the Sears family; right now, The Discipline Book is helping me make sense of those intense “terrible twos” moments with my toddler, who the Sears might describe as a “tantrum-prone child.”

If you are a parent of a toddler who is short-tempered, you may be reading this post, nodding your head in understanding. If not, then consider yourself the lucky parent of a mellow toddler.

Whatever your experiences with your child, I hope you will understand that I love my daughter very much, am attentive to her, hold her, nurse her and do my very best to parent her from my heart. That said, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by her tantrums, and on those days when I am especially sleep-deprived and the world is foggy, I simply don’t know what to do…although I often consider these the best days to rest, lay low and let my little one read books in bed with me.

My own responses to my daughter’s tantrums range from giving in to her demands — for example, when she says “mine,” I passively tell her “okay” — to firmly saying “no,” which I really really dislike saying since it reminds me of own authoritarian father.

At a recent play date where Annabelle insisted on bringing her helium-inflated balloon, I foresaw the balloon triggering a tantrum or perhaps a power struggle with another child and then I observed the accuracy of my intuition when Annabelle pushed her playmate down as the child attempted to touch the balloon. In the past, I simply removed toys that triggered power struggles between children at our playgroups. This time, I apologized to the parent of the child who Annabelle pushed and then asked Annabelle to sign her apology to the child. I then told my daughter that the balloon needed to take a break. Perhaps because of the commotion, Annabelle completely melted down.

In The Discipline Book, the Sears devote an entire chapter to tantrums that they call “Taming Temper Tantrums.” Underlying the advice in this book is the Sears’ ideal that parents encourage “desirable actions” and discourage “undesirable behavior.” Below, I’ve listed several techniques that the Sears recommend for discouraging tantrums and other undesirable behaviors that I’ve found helpful:

  1. Practice Attachment Parenting — By practicing Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting, we can establish a strong bond with our children and stay in tune with their emotions and thoughts.
  2. Identify triggers — As I mentioned earlier, I notice that certain situations will upset my daughter to the point that she feels like she is going to lose control, like sharing a favorite toy or leaving the park when she is having lots of fun. At the same time, I find myself surprised at times that she has become upset or needs some quiet time to herself. The Sears recommend making a behavior chart and noting what kinds of circumstances encourage desirable behavior versus undesirable behavior.
  3. Know yourself — A child who is prone to getting upset may have a parent who is also highly sensitive. By learning healthy ways to respond to a tantruming child, a sensitive parent may avoid making the situation worse by acting quickly. The Sears also suggest that parents who throw tantrums seek professional help so that they may move beyond their own undesirable behavior.

Even the most attentive of parents who are totally in tune with their children may find themselves with a tantrum-throwing child. Since our children are expressing their frustrations by throwing a tantrum, according to the Sears, parents can use these moments as opportunities to connect with their child. The Sears suggest that parents help give a word to what their children may be feeling while tantrumming, to gently hold and talk soothingly to the child, and to reassure the child that things will be okay.

With these approaches for managing tantrums, I feel more confident that I will be prepared to help my daughter the next time she gets upset and overwhelmed by her emotions.

What experiences have you had as the parent of a tantrum-prone toddler? What suggestions do you have for helping a child (and parents) manage overwhelming emotions? Have you found any books on Attachment Parenting to be helpful to you when your child was going through the “terrible” and “terrific” twos?

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24 thoughts on “Tantrums are opportunities to connect”

  1. It’s good to read a post like this Jessica! Littlepixie (23 months) is fond of the “lie on the ground and flail wildly” type of tantrum. Seems myself & hubby also favoured this type of display, so perhaps these are genetic tantrums 🙂

    We try and avoid triggers, or if a tantrum has occurred we usually sit down beside her and if she lets us we will rub her head and when she has finished she usually comes over for a big hug or to rest her head in our laps.

    I think at this age the frustration can quickly become overwhelming for toddlers and they’re only learning how to deal with it, so after she has finished and gets a cuddle, we talk about what happened with her and tell her how much we love her.

    These days, I’m having to change plans quite fluidly to help LP, for instance our mother & toddler group is very busy as the weather is bad, it’s too much for her, too busy & loud. We still go but we arrive late & leave early. She’s moved nap time too, so that’s causing a few overtired issues, but we’ll get there!

  2. Ahhhh, the toddler years. Yes, I do indeed remember these!

    I am usually not one for “gimmicks” or for “formulas” for parenting, but I have not been disappointed with Dr Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block method. It centers around the concept of acknowledging your child’s frustration from his/her point of view. It is a natural extension of what we try to do as AP families. I found the video examples to be helpful just b/c i could see that my kids were pretty reasonable compared to some of the wee ones in the video 🙂

    I also rely heavily on advice from Pam Leo and her book Connection Parenting. The exercises were instrumental in allowing us to parent from a place of love instead of from pre-programmed knee-jerk scripts learned in our own childhoods.

    But ultimately, one of the most important things i have found when it comes to (public) tantrums is to realize that we are not obligated to make the people around us comfortable with our child’s behavior or prove to onlookers that we are going to force our child to behave for their benefit. Throwing away our own fears of being judged in public is so liberating!

  3. Pixie, we too have been more relaxed about attending playgroups. Additionally, I notice that my daughter is less prone to throwing tantrums when I am giving her my attention and am making an effort to reduce excess stimulation (caused by large crowds and lots of noise). One recent change that I made so that I can be more present for her is to cut back on some of “outside” activities that take me away from her (yes, even blogging).

    It is comforting to hear what works for other parents and their children so far as managing undesirable behavior and encouraging desirable actions. I hope you will share more (regarding positive discipline and connecting during tantrums) as Little Pixie journeys into her 3rd year! =)

  4. Two wasn’t bad for me. But three was very difficult. There is a very old book (I forget that author) called “Your Three Year Old: Friend Or Foe?” that was very helpful. He just turned 4. Things are better.

    My second child is getting ready to turn 2 though and she’s always been my easy one. I’m hoping she stays that way.

  5. So far, I’ve found the “terrible twos” not as terrible as I thought but certainly not a piece of cake, either. My toddler turned two in June, and I’m just now really getting a grip of what works to prevent/calm tantrums with her.

    1. Triggers!! I really pay attention to whether my daughter is tired, hungry, or needs a diaper change. She also has asthma, and on bad breathing days or when she has a cold, she’s very prone to tantrums.

    2. Development! My daughter really wants to do what grown-ups do, and she gets frustrated when she can’t. I’ve had to learn when it’s OK to just let her try to do something. Of course, I don’t let her try to slice the apple herself with a knife, but for things that aren’t dangerous to her, I’ve learned not to jump in but to step back and just see what she’ll do…and I’ve been amazed! This morning, she gathered all the toothbrushes, passed them out to me and her baby sister, after putting toothpaste on mine. And tonight, she reached into the silverware drawer, pulled out enough forks and spoons for everyone and passed them out to everyone. And she puts her dishes away in the dishwasher. Not stopping her from trying to be a grownup has prevented a lot of tantrums.

    3. Allow time to cool down! When she does have a tantrum, I ask her to go to her room, not as a time out but as a time to cool down. She’s allowed to come out when she wants, and she always waits now until she’s in a better mood. Then, I’ll take the time to talk with her as a followup (she doesn’t talk much yet, but she does answer questions like “Do you need a diaper change?” or “Were you wanting to pour the milk yourself? Here, you can help me hold the cup.”)

    4. Of course, practice AP. I don’t think you can really do #3 or 4 without knowing your child well and observing her/him.

  6. My own children are now young adults and I have been a preschool teacher for half of my life.
    Tantrums are one of the most challenging things for us to deal with. Young children can not rationalize with us, they are very much present-tense creatures and they haven’t learned the social skills that we (hopefully!) have.
    I have learned to anticipate problems, like you did with the balloon. But stuff happens, no matter how much we prepare. When a child has
    a tantrum, count to 10, taking some slow deep breaths to center yourself…this will pass. I think this is one of the most helpful tools in my toolbox…my breath. We all get mad, and quite frankly, I feel like throwing tantrums myself sometimes…I just have more impulse control than little ones. Stay close and let the feelings be there. If you need to speak, you can say something like…’you feel angry right now’…The more we try to stop the emotion, the more it can escalate because the child is not feeling heard. I have learned not to solve problems in the midst of a tantrum storm. If you were feeling angry and I tried to talk with you, it would be useless until you calmed down. So usually, I stay close or hold a child, while I am breathing to ground myself, until the storm passes. Anger triggers us all, tantrums are children’s ways of saying that something is not right with their world. Most of us have a hard time dealing with our own anger and that complicates the whole deal! After, all is done, I ask how are you feeling now? Usually, it’s…happy. I feel happy. I make sure to stress that feelings change. You were frustrated, now you are happy again. Yup, feelings change!

  7. Christian AP Mama, thank you for sharing your tips for connecting during tantrums. Suggestions #3 reminds me of “time in” as described in the book Connection Parenting. Great ideas.

    Harmony, thank you for reminding us all that emotions come and go (in all of us, including our children) as well as sharing practical strategies for how you’ve helped so many young ones through their expressions of difficult emotions. I want to give my daughter the message that I accept her and all of her emotions, and what I am learning is that in order to do that, I sometimes need to give myself a “time out” so that I may proceed calmly and be the parent she needs me to be.

  8. Thanks for this article. I’m going to have to read the Sears book next. The 2’s have been pretty terrible over here. I try very hard to respond appropriately, but no matter what I do, the tantrums seem endless some days. I think that it’s important to ackowlege that even if you practice AP from birth, some children are just more “high needs” than others and need to outgrow this behavior.

  9. As long-time AP mom (both kids grown) and a devoted follower of Dr. Sears’ recommendations I add that I found it helpful rather than to tell the child what she or he feels, to say, “I’d like to discuss this with you when you are finished screaming and yelling. I’ll wait here until you’re done.” I would discuss my internal screams with a sympathetic friend or my husband. This worked for me.

    I actually did follow up the tantrums with questions about what made the child angry, in an effort to teach them to discuss the feelings perhaps the next time.

  10. All great posts about relationship building. A lot of times toddlers or any child for that matter is calling for love/relationship. Some good books that I have read that help with connection are: “I Love You Rituals” and “Easy To Love Difficult To Discipline” both by Dr. Becky Bailey. She teaches positive discipline and in the “I Love You Ritual boos” she turned some negative nursery rhymes, like “Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe” to “A wonderful Woman Who Lived In A Shoe…” Check them out or check out her website http://www.lovingguidance.com. Her books have helped me out a lot with my family.

  11. Hi, whilst I agree with the majority of what you’re saying, eg anticipating thus avoiding the tantrums, and having an empathetic approach to understanding how your child feels, I really disagree with soothing, stroking and comforting, etc a child whilst they’re having a tantrum. For the simple reason that by doing that, the negative behaviour will be positively reinforced. I would seriously discourage that or you’ll be making a rod for your own back. The time for soothing, stroking and comforting the child comes after when there calmed down, can think rationally and are sorry.

  12. So, Deborah, you withhold love until they are behaving like an adult?? Interesting. I find that a hug oftentimes settles the situation completely.

    1. I agree to always come from a compassionate heart if you can, and this means holding space and teaching boundaries and such. I will tell you though, if I tried to hold my AP’d 22 month old while she was having a tantrum, we might both get hurt! It’s a full body experience! I just tell her that I am here for her & when she is done experiencing that emotion we can talk and if I approach her and she holds her arms out to me, then I pick her up and calm her and nurse her. I think this is all part of learning how to communicate on deeper levels and afterwards, I always learn something essential about her that helps us and seems to prevent further communication fubars. After one such tantrum I learned how to calm her down when she was upset that the cat food dish that had a picture of a cow on it went boom (broke) and she was worried about the cow! When I initially agreed with her that the cow went boom she started to become upset. I realized what was happening because of the one tantrum she had earlier that day. I understood how vivid life must be at that age and such imagination! Once I told her that the cow is totally alright, she calmed down. It doesn’t always make sense to an adult mind, so it’s tricky at times!

  13. Ashley D, if by acting like an adult you mean desired behaviour (because I’m sure we all know adults who don’t have desirable behaviour!) then yes that’s exactly what I mean. I feel that confrontation is not desirable with children or adults, however teaching boundaries and setting guidelines on acceptable behaviour is crucial to survive into adulthood, and as a mother I feel that a have a bigger role than endless love, I believe it’s my job to teach my children to be good adults in society. Its not acceptable for am adult to have a tantrum is it?

  14. Deborah: the parenting style you are talking about is called Authoritarian. You will find lots of info and people who agree with you if you join communities devoted to this parenting style. The thing is, Attachment Parenting AND Authoritarian both have the same goal of helping children grow into balanced and well adjusted adults. They just differ in their approach! Authoritarian stresses imposing your authority on the child with a combination of discipline and positive reinforcement. Followers of Attachment Parenting believe that the same result (well they think you’ll have better results, actually) by having a sensitive and responsive approach with parenting. But it works best if the complete 8 steps of AP are followed, starting as early as possible, setting the stage for a positive approach to be effective.

  15. Deborah, what should a toddler be sorry about? They are only 2 years old? They are new to the world and it is overwhelming at times. Yes, I held my daughter or stoked her and talked kindly to her the few times she was having a melt down. It teaches her to be empathetic with others. I can remember more than 40 years ago when I was a little girl and how a lone and hopeless I felt when I was melting down. I needed reassurance, validation, and love and that is what I want to give to my daughter when she is at her limit. Children have many years to learn to be adults. Why expect them to act like an adult when they are still barely able to understand what the world is and who they are. As my dear mother would have said (she would be 88 years old and I took care of her for many years before becoming a mother – so remember to have patience with your children, because some day they may need to have patience with you when you are elderly and frail) “Don’t put the cart before the horse” and “Don’t cross your bridge before you get to it.”

  16. Its interesting isn’t it that one person can perceive offering affection during a tantrum as demonstrating empathy whilst another parent can perceive it as moving the goalposts and confusing the child. As my children have got older (currently range between newborn and teenagers) I have found that children feel safer and secure when rules and boundaries stay the same. To me as tantrums are not desirable I need to stick to this. However I’m content to read the reasons why other parents might not want to do that as I always welcome other viewpoints!

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