How To Navigate Tantrums As a New Parent
Welcome to the Colored Organics Community blog series; a collective place to connect, learn, and share about experiences, emotions, hopes and dreams while raising our children and growing our families.
This month, we invited licensed therapist Michelle Tangeman, the creator of Thriving Toddler, to share her best tips and tricks for navigating tantrums.
Navigating Toddler Tantrums
Ever had that moment when instead of an alarm clock you get a tiny neanderthal screaming in your face well before the sun is up? Then, as you stumble toward the light (coffeeeee), you trip on a Lego. While bent over screaming, your toddler skips through the living room dragging a wet diaper. A poopy diaper. Across the white couch. As your soul leaves your body, your partner decides to remind you what a terrible idea the white couch was and GOODNESS: you lose it. Goodbye self-control. The nervous system explodes, and you go full tantrum. Anyone? Just me?
There isn’t much difference between what your toddler is experiencing when they have a meltdown, except for the fact your brain’s emotional regulation had more time to develop. Your little one’s brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex (responsible for emotional regulation and executive function) hasn’t had time to fully develop. This means their lizard brain— the limbic system— is running the show. So why is it crucial to understand all this?
When we teach our young ones how to regulate emotions during a temper tantrum, this supports the development of neural networks across the amygdala, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex. Basically, the parts of the brain that help a child handle stress and disappointment.
For some context, research shows that tantrums are common, occurring in as many as 91% of toddlers. Temper tantrums are most common in children 1 to 4, and on average occur once a day. They vary in intensity and length, but typically last between 1.5 to 5 minutes, peaking around age 3. Bigger, more intense tantrums are less frequent (not every day), and typically last between 2 and 15 minutes. Tantrums peak around age 3.5 but tend to stay under 15 minutes.
If tantrums are exceeding these limits, it’s good to be aware of red flags, as this can be linked to emotional and behavioral disorders.
Red Flags in Tantrums
Hurting a caregiver or damaging an object more than 50% of the time during a tantrum.
Self-injury or hurting themselves during tantrums, like head banging or hitting themselves.
More than five tantrums per day on multiple days per week.
Tantrums that regularly last longer than 25 minutes.
The child is unable to calm themselves down and requires a caregiver to calm them down every time, even with more minor tantrums.
As a note, a child may have one or even several of these “red flags” but do not meet the criteria for an emotional or behavioral disorder. In addition, it’s important to understand that tantrums may be around for a while, while some aspects like communication skills will improve. For example, when a toddlers’ verbal skills improve, they will get less frustrated resulting in fewer tantrums (Manning et al., 2019). Learning how to calmly regulate behavior will take more time. So, what’s the solve? While it isn’t always possible to prevent tantrums, there are ways to help lessen the frequency.
Tips to Calm the Chaos
First, take a deep breath, find your peace, and operate from that demeanor. This is the very best response to help regulate their emotions and convey tantrums are not the method to get what they want.
A tantrum is not the time to reason or teach a skill.
Prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed and possibly triggering another tantrum by creating consistent, predictable routines.
Catch your kid being good and call it out! Increase the frequency of a good behavior by noticing it.
Get curious. Behavior is communication, so by getting curious and reading the environmental cues, you’ll better understand what your child is communicating. This includes understanding the difference between a sensory-related tantrum and a temper tantrum. This is important to quickly reduce tantrums and increase prosocial skills.
Tantrums often arise because children don’t feel like they have any sense of control. They hear “no” a lot. Give them a choice of something that they get to have a sense of control over like “would you like to read or play with blocks before bed?”
Think ahead. For example, if you’re going to the grocery store, you’ll have to wait at the checkout surrounded by mouth-watering treats. Share your behavior expectations in age-appropriate language ahead of time, and bring a small distraction along with you in situations that require waiting. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll both be.
Look at you now! You read the whole thing, cleaned up the couch and are happily on your way to peaceful parenting. Now that you’re armed with extra tools in your pocket, hopefully the frequency of meltdowns will slow down, and in return, you’ll get a little of that sanity back. We can’t guarantee anything about keeping a white couch clean with kids, however. That’s commitment, and salute you.
About the Author
Michelle is the founder of Thriving Toddler, a resource for parents raising toddlers and the challenges that come with toddlerhood. She co-hosts Parenting Understood, a podcast with Dr. Erin O'Connor, the director of Child Development Studies at NYU. Visit Michelle’s website and subscribe to the podcast! You can also find Michelle on Instagram.