My son, now 18 months old, has been a passionate boy since day one. When he feels something, he really feels it and everyone around him knows it! His giggles are the best, his hugs are tight, his cries are tragic, and his tantrums are fierce. When he was tiny his complaints centered around basic needs: I’m hungry, I’m dirty, I’m tired. As he grew and became more social, feelings were added into the mix: I’m happy, I’m lonely, I’m scared, I’m overwhelmed. Starting around twelve months some new, and quite powerful emotions entered his repertoire: I’m FRUSTRATED! I’m angry! I’m in love! Yes, with my boy the highs are high, the lows are lows, and things can change on a dime!
I love my son and I know God uniquely crafted his personality. When properly channeled, being a passionate person is a wonderful attribute. Actually my boy comes from a long line of passionate people. Indeed, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree! Yet lately the roller coaster of my toddler’s emotions has this pregnant mama’s head spinning. I’ve had to do some research, a bit of soul searching, and a lot of prayer to keep myself grounded. Rather than listing specific behavioral strategies for responding to tantrums I’m going to share some insights that help me keep my cool when I’m tempted to hop aboard my toddler’s emotional roller coaster.
1. It’s Developmental: All toddlers have tantrums. It’s completely normal. Toddlers are all about discovering the world around them and a part of such discovery is learning that the world is full of frustrations. Yes, gravity works. Yes, a square peg will not fit in a round hole. No, you are not the one in charge. Toddlers do not have the impulse control or cognitive ability to reason when faced with frustrations so frustrations often lead to tantrums.
2. It’s a Communication Thing: While toddlers are capable of strong emotions, their ability to express such emotions is extremely limited. Right now tantrums are simply my boy’s means of expressing disappointment. Yes, I’m working hard to model “using our words” and appropriate ways to express emotions, but we have a long way to go. When I notice my boy building up to a tantrum, it sometimes helps him if I calmly put words to his frustrations. For example, I see you’re angry that your bread is in pieces and won’t go back together, but that’s what happens when we rip apart our food. Sometimes people, even toddlers, just need to know that they are seen and heard. Yes it’ll be awhile before my boy can completely forgo the tantrums and use his words, but positive modeling early on lays an important foundation.
3. Toddlers Do Not Enjoy Throwing Tantrums: Tantrums are unpleasant for everyone involved, even for the toddler who is throwing them. I know sometimes my boy’s tantrums escalate because he is frightened by his own outbursts. Additionally, developmentally speaking toddlers do not yet comprehend that other people have feelings. They are not capable of maliciously intending to offend or hurt by throwing a tantrum. (That said, toddlers are learning about cause and effect so be intensional and consistent when responding to undesirable behavior. This will help you avoid teaching them that they can get whatever they by throwing a big enough fit.) Remembering that my boy is not capable of intensional malice and that tantrums are hard on both of us helps me keep my cool and practice some much needed compassion.
4. You Are Your Child’s Emotional Anchor: Everyone needs a safe place, especially when the world around them is new and their first experiencing such powerful emotions. When my son spirals into a tantrum the last thing he needs is for his mama to hop aboard his emotional roller coaster. Parents are, or at least they should be, their children’s refuge, their safe place, their emotional anchor. I know this is easier said than done. Practically speaking when a tantrum starts I often need to step aside (after assuring that my son is safe), collect myself, and then step in to help him manage his emotions. On weekends, especially after a tiring week, I let my husband step in and give myself time to recharge.
My greatest help in being my son’s emotional anchor is having a rock on which I can hitch my anchor. I need a refuge in the storm. Parenting is hard work. I believe we all need something greater than ourselves to serve as our refuge and compass through the unsteady waters of life.
Personally, my Rock, my “something greater” is Jesus Christ. Last week I was at the end of myself. I had been struggling to mother well and felt like a failure. So when we sang one of my favorite hymns, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” my mama’s heart wept with surrender and joy. I needed to hear the truth that I’m not standing alone and I needn’t rely on my wavering strength. “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Parenting, heck life, has many stormy seasons. Through it all I can be an emotional anchor for my son because Christ is my Rock. When I am weak, He is strong.
What helps you keep your cool when your kiddo has a tantrum?