When your toddler is having a raging tantrum, it can be extremely unsettling, overwhelming, even exhausting to manage. You want them to calm down and no amount of telling or yelling at them works.
What usually happens is in our bid to calm them down, we lose our own sense of calm and end up raging right alongside them. Our child/ren are looking for us to model how to deal with what they are unable to communicate and manage on their own.
But how do we manage their emotions, if we first haven’t dealt with ours?
The first issue to tackle is, thinking that we have to “manage” their emotions and control the tantrum. The problem is when we attempt to control the tantrum, we send our toddler a clear message that their BIG emotions are not welcome, that it’s not okay or even safe to feel angry or upset. Now, if we learnt early on that our feelings weren’t acceptable, that was because no one helped us to work through them; our job now is to learn how to manage our emotions – it’s the greatest gift we can give ourselves and our children.
To break this cycle of emotional abandonment, instead of managing your toddler’s tantrums, here are 5 ways to regulate your emotions and keep your calm:
Breathe and counting to 10 can seem like a simplistic response but it’s extremely effective. When you focus on deep breathing, you’re doing much more than you realise. 1. Your calming your nervous system, and 2. Your teaching your little one to regulate their emotions too. It’s beautiful in its simplicity because you don’t have to say anything, but they will pick up on your calm and naturally respond in kind. Breathing also helps to ground you, bringing you more aware of being present with what is happening for your child in that precise moment rather than responding to past events.
2. Sit alongside
Don’t stand or walk away – even if they shout and scream for you to go away. As hard as it can be, leaving or ignoring, even getting frustrated and angry when your toddler is in a raging tantrum feels abandoning to them. Sit with them, you don’t have to face them, but be in close enough proximity that they know you’re there. If you won’t get hurt, you can hold them – but that can be exhausting when they’re thrashing about. When you sit alongside them, you communicate that you can handle anything that they’ve got, that you love them through their big emotions. You’re not putting conditions on their behaviour – e.g. they’re only lovable when they’re good.
This is one of the most important things we can learn as parents because we can’t soothe our children until we soothe ourselves. Be bodily aware – your body communicates to you all the time, especially when you’re in a stress response, for example: shaking hands or accelerating heart rate. The more aware you are of what is going on in your body, you bring attention to your needs – if your heart is racing, deep breathe to calm down; if you’re shaking, you can rub your arms or self-hug. When you attend to your own needs, you give yourself the capacity and understanding to attend to your child’s needs. We can’t expect our children to self-soothe on their own, and you can’t teach them what you yourself don’t do. Learn this and you’ll model it – and you give them a skill for life.
4. Feel your feelings
This is one of the things that is never mentioned when it comes to managing your little one’s behaviour: you can control any situation if you control yourself first. You have feelings in response to your child’s BIG emotions – the more you acknowledge and reflect on what you’re feeling, the more insight you have into what your child is feeling. The more you are able to give language to what you’re feeling, the more confident you will be to give language to what your child is feeling – this is how we develop (and model or teach) emotional intelligence. Get compassionately curious about how you feel and you will instinctively become more compassionately curious about how your child is feeling.
Give your little one the time and space to calm down, it may take 5 minutes, it may take 15 minutes. However long it takes you’re sending them a strong message that they and their feelings matter. As hard as this can be in the beginning, perseverance is key. The first few times it will take a while for them to calm down but eventually the tantrums won’t last as long, and be few and far between.
Attempting to manage your child’s behaviour before prioritising your own need to self-regulate usually won’t result in your desire outcome – a calm child! They pick up on our energy and can intuitively feel when our words don’t match our emotions, and they will respond accordingly.
Remember: your feelings matter too.