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Finding CALM in your toddler's tantrums

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 24 February 2022

This morning, I was at the library with my girls. Another mother soon followed with two older children and a toddler in tow. The mother was distracted and working with the librarian and her older children. The toddler began screaming and writhing while strapped in his stroller. 

The mother, wanting to finish her business, ignored the fussing initially but eventually took him our and into her arms. She did not make eye contact or talk with him. He began to fuss even further, protesting loudly and squirming to get out of her grasp. She set him down on the ground, and he ran into the children's area where he began to bounce on the chairs. 

He was gleeful; she was not. She raised her voice and began admonishing him, "Get down from there! We don't jump on furniture at home, so you'd better not jump on furniture at the library! You listen to me: Get off there this instant!" My children were staring at the mother and child, so I tried turning my children's attention to the books at our table. 

Suddenly I heard it: Thwwwwwack! I didn't see where the child was hit, but he was hit hard. At this point, all of the children at our table were staring. "Just look at those kids," the toddler's mother exclaimed. "They're all looking at you, because you're being so naughty!" (Truth be told, I think they were really looking at the angry lady who had hit her son.)

I can relate to how that mom felt: Her attention was divided from the very beginning, and the little boy was expressing strong emotions. I can also relate to how the toddler felt: He was physically restrained, ignored, briefly released, had found away to expend his pent-up energy, and then was admonished. I felt bad for both of them, though I did not agree with how the mother chose to respond. 

Not surprisingly, hitting her son did not change his behavior. He continued to wail and flail. Very quickly, the mother whisked her kicking, screaming son out of the library. I could hear the sounds of his screaming dimming as they made their exit.

Navigating situations that are frustrating or embarrassing can be even more challenging when you feel on-the-spot in public. However, reacting in anger can aggravate a situation, and it models a way of behaving that most people don't want their children to emulate. In contrast, responding in a gentle, consistent way will make the most out of trying experiences for both you and your toddler.

While there are no one-shot wonder cures for navigating the sometimes tumultuous world of young children, making a conscious choice to respond in a way that is respectful to both you and your children will pay off in big dividends later. As far back as Byron Egeland's 1993 longitudinal study, research has demonstrated that the children of emotionally responsive parents are more resilient and able to mitigate challenging circumstances; Elizabeth Gershoff's 2002 study found that, in contrast, children who experienced physical discipline are more aggressive and had higher rates of mental illness.

Sometimes it can be easy to get sucked into the tantrum tornado. Using the acronym CALM has helped to keep me focused on what to do when my children are acting in a way that feels stressful or challenging:

  • Calm - Try to keep your own feelings in check and exert loving, assertive energy. When children are having trouble dealing with their own big feelings, they should not have to deal with your strong emotions as well. Staying cool and collected in the midst of a parenting challenge can be difficult, but it is important to do because your energy will be a calming influence, even if it doesn't feel that way initially.  
  • Age- and emotion-appropriate words - Toddlers' brains, especially while experiencing strong feelings, are not equipped to process complex words and sentences. Keep your words clear and focused on what you want, not what you don't want, and keep the sentences short.
  • Listen and respond lovingly - We all like to feel heard and loved, and children are no exception. Sometimes echoing what you think your child might be feeling is enough to stave off a tantrum. Sitting next to or holding your child can also have a soothing influence. (Remember, though, that not all children like to be held when upset so only hold your child if this is comforting.) Depending upon the circumstances, distraction can be a wonderful technique. Jaak Panksepp's 2004 research showed that distraction ignites the "seeking" part of the brain, which can then override the part that is feeling angry.
  • Move - Try to include motion in your response or modeling. Sometimes even the most loving and carefully chosen words are difficult for a toddler's brain to process while they are experiencing strong feelings. Using motion, such as large gestures, in combination with simple, gentle language can help a toddler tune into you.

Doing the extra work to exude positive energy, acknowledging your child's stressor, and distracting or redirecting that energy may feel like trying to move mountains. You may find it requires considerable practice at first. Don't judge the outcome by how well your child complies or how quickly you can get him or her to transition to another emotion or activity. Evaluate your own responses, not your child's. Seek support from a Certified Attached at the Heart Parenting Educator. Relax, take a deep breath, and stay CALM.

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Stay calm