3 Expert Tips for Managing Big Emotions in Little Kids
I’d never witnessed a true toddler meltdown until my son schooled me one day in Target. With a shopping cart full of items on (and off) my list, I was down to my last impulse buy before we headed home for lunch — and then it all went down. It was our first tantrum. I stood frozen inside a bubble of shock and awe, wondering if I could’ve been better prepared for the moment.
During the toddler years and into early grade school, emotional outbursts happen — even at Target. (Well … especially at Target.) A deeper understanding of why they occur can create a space to support and help your little one with their big feels. So, we checked in with some experts to hear their take on toddlers and tantrums and receive some tips to navigate those emotional spaces.
What Triggers Tantrums?
Colgan Tyler, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, says, “It’s important to understand that not all tantrums are about the same thing.” The cause behind your child’s outburst can be as changeable as their favorite food. Reasons such as wanting a toy or your attention — and not having that need met — can be a trigger for a big emotional moment. Or how about the times your child attempts a physical task but feels unsuccessful? When trying to understand tantrums, Tyler says it’s important to keep some basic ideas in mind like concepts regarding child development, your kiddo’s physical condition (are they hungry, sleepy, sick, etc.), and how you’ve handled tantrums in the past. This knowledge can help you work through those intense emotional moments.
When it comes to your child’s development, Supatra Tovar, Psy.D, RD., encourages parents and caregivers to remember that most toddlers have tantrums at this age because their cortex hasn’t fully developed. “They’re unable to process and articulate complex emotions or thoughts and this causes frustration,” Tovar says. Tyler uses a car metaphor, explaining that your child's engine of desire is strong and running, but their ability to use the brakes or steer to turn themselves toward better solutions has not developed.
Three Strategies to Support Your Child Through a Tantrum
1Observe and Allow
Tovar says one way to support your toddler through feeling their feels is to “observe and allow” your child their emotions. “Create an environment that allows for emotions and let them feel heard and loved.” If your kindergartener is also in it to win it when it comes to tantruming, this strategy works for those in the 4- to 6-year-old age group as well — but with an added component: “Allow and observe their emotions while reiterating your rules for their behavior,” Tovar says. As an example, she says: “You can say, ‘I know you’re frustrated and this is very upsetting to you, but the rule is, you don’t get to play on your iPad until you clean up your toys.’”
Tyler suggests parents become aware of their own emotional triggers when dealing with tantrum rage. “Kids need a present and reasonably non-stressed adult to help them learn self-regulation,” he says. If you struggle with your own cool when handling your child’s meltdowns, there are tools you can use to support yourself. Tovar explains it can be upsetting for parents and caregivers to see their child lose emotional control, and that’s why it’s essential that adults learn emotional control themselves. “Practicing regulating emotions involves finding ways to calm yourself in the moment,” Tovar says. These tools can look like deep breathing, counting to 10, or (if appropriate) taking a 30-second timeout for yourself. These are proven tactics that can assist you in keeping your cool when your kid is running hot.
3Stay Present and Remain Consistent
It’s of great value for parents and caregivers to focus on staying present when their child is in the throes of a major meltdown. Tyler says remaining composed and calm can provide that safe space (and give time) for kids to regain control on their own. This shifts the goal from always trying to “make the child calm down” to helping your kiddo learn to find a way back to their grounded selves. “Children want to know they can do things older people can do, and in doing this, they will gain confidence in their small successes,” Tyler says.
Tantrums happen. That’s why Tovar reminds us that maintaining consistency is key. “If the rules are flexible and breakable, the child does not feel a sense of security,” she says. By staying consistent, you can keep your child feeling safe when emotions feel big and overwhelming.