I do love an acronym and this one came to me in my (almost) sleep last night, as do most of my writing ideas (frustratingly!). So I’d like to introduce you to my super easy to use common SENSE (© Ockwell-Smith 2013!) acronym for coping with toddler tantrums, whatever their cause, wherever you are. I hope it helps.
If your toddler has a tantrum, hits, bites or throws the most important thing to think about is safety – their own safety, your own and those around you. Before you do anything else make sure that your toddler is not in immediate danger (away from a busy road etc..) and is not likely to hurt anybody around them (this could mean moving away from others/objects).
Once you have dealt with the immediate safety issues it’s time to empathise with your toddler. WHY are they having these big emotions that they can’t control? What has triggered them? How are they feeling? (usually pretty awful, scared and out of control) – try to understand what is upsetting your toddler and let them know that you are hearing them. Remember they are not acting this way to give you are hard time, they are having a hard time!
Help your toddler to understand what they are feeling by naming their emotions, this will help with the empathy point above and will also help your toddler to learn to understand their emotions and hopefully progress towards verbally communicating their needs as they develop a little more. “I can see you are very angry that the little boy took your toy from you”, “You are sad that it is time for us to leave the park and go home”, “You were scared when the girl ran over and grabbed your hand” and so on.
Your toddler is not yet capable of emotional self regulation, they generate lots of big feelings, yet their brain is not yet sufficiently mature enough to diffuse them, they need your help for that! Most mainstream toddler taming methods, such as the naughty step and time out, mistakenly believe that a toddler has the brain development necessary for emotional self regulation and reflection – they don’t. At best these methods work as a form of conditioning and ‘learned helplessness’ (i.e: the behaviour is eventually – usually temporarily – extinguished because the toddler learns that there is no point in crying, all that will happen is they are left on the step alone, without their needs met).
Drawing on the empathy point above it is your job as a adult, to step in and offer your more mature capabilities of emotional regulation and soothing to help your toddler to calm down. Think of a toddler having a tantrum like a pot of water boiling over with nobody available to turn the gas off. Your role here is too turn the gas off and mop up the ‘mess’ (the tears and stress) when the water stops boiling over.
Some toddlers will appreciate a big hug, others need their space initially – but offer your help “I can see you are having lots of big feeling, I’m here for you when you need me, please let me know if you’d like a hug”. Be ready to support with listening ears and open arms (and forgiving heart) when your toddler is ready.
Exchanging is all about offering alternatives that are more acceptable to you (and society). Offer your toddler a more acceptable choice, exchanging the unacceptable for the acceptable “I can see you want to play with water, we can in the sink instead of pouring water on the floor”, “I know you’re hungry, we can’t eat food in the supermarket before we’ve paid for it, so I can’t let you eat the bread, but I have a banana in my bag for you”. “We don’t bite people, it hurts, but you can bite this teething toy instead”, “We don’t hit people, it hurts, but you can hit your special angry cushion” and so on.
I can’t promise these 5 simple tips will work *instant* magic, but they will have a positive effect in the long term, you will find tantrums easier to deal with and in time they will lessen too.