Toddler emotions can be overwhelming and intense – for both your child and you. Every parent of a toddler has probably experienced those moments when you feel helpless and confused in the face of their child’s emotions – the total meltdown over something that seems like it should be a tiny issue, the rapid switch from happy playing to inconsolable crying, or the angry lashing out to hit or throw something when they’re mad.
Although parents often hope there is some magical method that they can use to keep their toddler calm and well-behaved, the truth is that intense emotions, poor impulse control, and constant limit testing are all normal toddler behaviors.
It’s important to keep in mind that your toddler’s brain is still developing. The emotion centers of the brain are often working on overdrive, while the “rational” parts of the brain that help with self-control, planning, and considering consequences are still developing. (And while these parts of the brain will be a lot stronger by the time your little one is entering kindergarten, keep in mind their brain will still be developing into their early 20s.) When intense feelings are paired with poor self-control, meltdowns and outbursts are inevitable, especially when you consider the experiences of a toddler – often being told no, still learning to communicate, and expected to follow rules that make little sense to them.
What this means for you as a parent is that your goal shouldn’t be to prevent all meltdowns and tantrums. Instead you can work toward providing the appropriate limits and freedoms to help minimize conflicts and meltdowns, while teaching your toddler the tools to understand, express, and manage their emotions.
Here are a few strategies to use with your emotional toddler. However, keep in mind that these strategies do not always have an instantly noticeable impact. In my experience, I have had some wonderful moments when naming my child’s feelings and reflecting back what he seems to want have stopped an emerging tantrum. But my toddler still has plenty of meltdowns, and I have to remind myself that my response as a parent is helping with healthy development and a positive parent-child relationship.
1. Have reasonable expectations of your toddler.
Remember that the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control have barely started to develop in a young toddler. Don’t expect your toddler to be able to remember and follow the rules or to calmly accept disappointments when they don’t get their way. Even an older toddler who can verbally repeat the rules will still struggle with the self-control necessary to actually follow those rules. Instead, minimize the need to say “No” to your toddler by removing as many temptations for misbehavior and opportunities for disappointment as possible. When strong feelings do come out, accept these as a normal part of your toddler’s development, not a problem to be fixed.
2. Label, reflect, and accept your toddler’s feelings.
In the short-term, this helps your child to feel understood and thus begin to calm down. If your child thinks that you aren’t listening or don’t get it, they are likely to escalate to try to get their point across. This strategy also serves an important purpose for your child’s long-term emotional development. You are helping your child to become aware of and understand their emotions, while giving them the vocabulary to communicate those emotions to others. By conveying acceptance of their feelings, you are strengthening your relationship and giving them an important sense of security.
Try this – When your toddler is upset, use phrases like “You look really mad (sad, scared) right now because…” or ask about feelings, like “Are you sad because we have to leave but you still wanted to play?” Remember that you can accept feelings without allowing certain actions. For example, “It’s ok to be mad, but I won’t let you hit anyone.” Be aware of things you may be saying that dismiss or invalidate your child’s feelings, like “You don’t need to cry about that,” “It’s not a big deal,” “You’re fine,” or “You’re just tired.”
3. Start to teach healthy ways of coping.
Even toddlers can start to learn ways to calm down when they are upset. After you have communicated that you understand the problem and the feelings (make sure not to skip that part!), help your child with a way to calm down. Self-soothing is a skill that must be learned, so don’t just send a crying toddler to their room until they calm down; they still need to learn what they can do to help themselves calm down.
Need some ideas for kid-friendly coping skills? Offer a hug, practice deep breaths together, suggest an alternate activity or positive distraction, have your child jump, dance, or punch a pillow to get out the feelings, let them scribble on paper or smash playdough, or practice simple yoga poses. Be careful of using things like candy, snacks, TV shows, or playing on the phone as ways to calm your child down. They may be effective in the moment, but can set up unhealthy patterns for the future.
4. Be aware of your own feelings.
As a parent, your own emotions and the way that you handle them are going to be one of the biggest determinates of your child’s emotional health. When you’re stressed out or angry, your toddler will pick this up from your tone of voice and actions and become more distressed. When you can be calm and in-control, you will help your toddler to feel safe and calm down more quickly. And just like your toddler imitates everything else that they see you do, they will learn to follow your example when it comes to managing emotions. Think about the example you set when you are angry – are you teaching them to yell and lash out or to remain calm and take a break?
Strong feelings and limit-testing are not always easy to handle – even when you know the strategies to use – but keep in mind that these are part of your child’s normal, healthy development. Responding in a loving, consistent manner to your toddler’s feelings will help build a strong parent-child relationship, minimize future behavior problems, and set your child on the path to good emotional health.
Want to learn more?
Come to the PIP parenting workshop on December 7, 2016. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/pip-night-out-and-parenting-workshop-tickets-29183736341
Check out a few of my favorite parenting books*
No Bad Kids – Janet Lansbury
Happiest Toddler on the Block – Harvey Karp, M.D.
The Whole Brain Child – Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk – Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR is a licensed child and family therapist and a registered art therapist with 10 years of experience in working with children and parents. Carolyn is also a PIP alumni and the mom of a toddler. She enjoys making art, reading, and exploring the outdoors with her son. You can learn more about child and family therapy or parent education at www.therapywithcarolyn.com.
*Amazon affiliate links