Last updated on August 27, 2021.
As part of our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) series, Gordon Parenting provides exclusive tips and advice on handling toddler tantrums.
Tantrums are one of the most challenging issues parents face in early childhood. Emotions often run high in our little ones and are expressed as kicking and screaming. We spoke to the experts at Gordon Parenting for some tips on how to approach tantrums in toddlers.
I think most parents know what they are, but let’s start with defining tantrums.
Strictly speaking, a tantrum is your child’s form of protest because he feels he is not heard. This is the definition offered by Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in children and family. Whenever a parent interferes with their child’s desire to have something, do something or go where he wants to go, he gets mad. Essentially the underlying conflict is that the child wants something and the parent is not complying.
Tantrums are usually first linked to the toddler years of development, from 0-3 years old. At this stage of development, young children lack the words they need to express themselves, so they communicate with their body, instead of with words. Tantrums evolve to whining (long, high-pitched cries) as children get older.
Why is it important for parents to have strategies in place to address tantrums when children are young?
We are asked a lot about tantrums during our parenting courses (Parent Effectiveness Training or P.E.T.) and in our workshops and talks. We hear the struggles parents go through when their kids start acting out. They say they have tried everything – from letting them cry it out, to walking away from a tantruming child, staying with them, shouting and commanding them to stop, threatening punishment, and finally, to actually punishing the child.
The short answer is that parents see a tantruming child as a symptom of a problem. They want to help the child solve their problem. Parents also need help to be able to handle the situation and make it less stressful. And they need a strategy to avoid tantrums altogether.
What is the best strategy to address a tantrum?
We tell parents to work on their own feelings first, so that they can truly be compassionate with their child. It is hard to be compassionate when they try to hit their sibling or are being mean to the dog or to you. So, you need a chance to “off-load” or manage your own feelings and worries about your child’s difficult behaviour, and your own reactions to it.
A child who is crying is in trouble and needs your help. He is overwhelmed by strong emotions, feels helpless and alone and does not know how to calm himself down. Crying, whining and throwing tantrums — all of those things are ways for a child to meet their needs and solve their problems. They wouldn’t do any of those things if they weren’t experiencing a problem.
Dr. Thomas Gordon, three-time Nobel Prize nominee and multi-awarded psychologist, recommends parents employ helping skills when the child owns the problem. Be present, attend to the child and listen. Just listen. Get close to the child, get down to their level and look them in the eye. Give them your full attention and empathize. Check back on what you see and what you think the child might be feeling. This allows the child who is so distressed you can’t understand their words to be soothed enough to talk, and importantly, it also allows the child to hear their thoughts out loud and think through them more clearly. It also helps them get to the underlying reason of why they’re really upset. This leads to self-awareness. In Dr. Gordon’s P.E.T., this process is called Active Listening. Active Listening equips parents with skills that will comfort their child and help them work through their feelings.
When you listen, experts agree that it is important to accept, rather than dismiss your child’s feelings – even if they are hard to take. “We live in an emotion-dismissing culture,” says John Gottman, Ph.D., “but if you would like an awareness about your child’s emotions and your own, particularly an awareness of smaller emotions, then it may not be necessary for emotions to escalate.”
Tantrums often begin when toddlers are not yet verbal. How can parents communicate empathetically with pre-verbal toddlers?
Pre-verbal kids respond well to verbal tones, facial expressions, gestures and actual words. Parents need to employ those when they Active Listen to a pre-verbal child. Parents may also verbalize what they think the pre-verbal child is feeling and what might be the solution. This can be delivered in a soothing tone coupled with gentle touch to show empathy.
How can we prevent tantrums before they begin?
Tantrums, whining, acting out, and flat-out refusal to do what you ask are behaviors exhibited by children when they feel disconnected from you; the benefits of having a strong connection to your child are evident.
But when life is busy, finding time to connect can feel overwhelming. It can become another task on the to-do list instead of something cherished and enjoyed.
If connection has become a chore, or if you feel like you could use a little refresher on connecting with your kids, focus on the items below. These are based on recommendations from Dr. Aletha Solter, PhD, a developmental psychologist and parenting expert, and Dr. Thomas Gordon.
- Understand your child — Become a student of your child. Notice times during the day when they seem most open to connection – do they like to snuggle in the morning or night? Do they like to tell you about their day right after school or right before bed? Notice which interactions they seem to enjoy most – do they like being active or calm? Do they like to be silly or serious? With time, you may begin to realize when things are a little off, when something might be wrong, and when they need a little more attention from you.
- One-to-one time with your child — Make connection a priority. If your child is giving you signals that they need more connection from you, be ready. Kids often make this request in subtle and indirect ways – whining, crying, arguing, or tantrums. Try to do something which you both enjoy and will lead to growth and nourishment of your relationship.
- Attend to your child, be genuine — Your kids want you. They don’t need super mom to “fix” everything. They don’t need you to say the right thing or do something magical. They just need to know that they are loved by you in a way that speaks to them. This might mean that you get it wrong sometimes – you misinterpret their emotion, you are silly when they wanted to be serious, you downplay something important – and that’s ok. Relationships are a constant work in progress. Apologize. And try again.
Responses were based on this article.