Why we Need to be More Tolerant of Toddler Tantrums

Think back to a time your toddler (or, then toddler) had an epic tantrum. How did you feel?

  • Embarrassed
  • Distressed
  • Angry
  • Anxious
  • Helpless
  • Sad
  • Stressed
  • Out of control

Now imagine how your toddler felt at the time……………the chances are the list is pretty similar to yours. That’s because toddlers don’t tantrum on purpose, they simply can’t help it. Just as you are desperate to stop the tantrum they are probably eager for a sense of equilibrium too.

So why do toddlers tantrum so much? Quite simply because their brains are incredibly immature. On top of an immature brain they also live in a confusing world and most importantly a world that they have no control of. Imagine how it must feel to have no idea what you’re doing today, no idea where you’re going, when you will get to eat or drink and when you’ll be coming home. Imagine being two foot tall and being towered over by hundreds of pairs of legs. Imagine the lighting and noises of a shopping centre viewed from that height and how stressful that may be, especially when you have no idea where you are or when you’re going home. Imagine being paraded past rows upon rows of objects that you covet – designer handbags, diamond jewellery, sports cars – and not even being allowed to touch their beautiful glory, let alone take one home. Life for a toddler is full of forbidden fruit, day after day. Life for a toddler is full of sensory overload and life for a toddler is full of a complete lack of autonomy.

Now imagine all of that happening in your life, but not having the brain development to put the brakes on and control your responses. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, social regulation, emotion regulation and analytical and hypothetical thought (the bit that allows you to think “what would happen if I did that?”) are just not developed in toddlers. Imagine how it feels to be overwhelmed, out of control and surrounded by forbidden fruit when you simply cannot control your response. Now, to make it even worse once a toddler starts to tantrum those huge overwhelming feelings consume them to a point that they simply cannot calm themselves down, they don’t have the same emotion regulation skills as you do. When a toddler is mid tantrum they need us to help them to calm down. There is a certain irony here that the point when we really do not like being around them is the point they need us to be with them the most.

A good analogy for a toddler tantrum is a pot full of water on a stove. The gas is on full and the water soon begins to boil. The gas continues on full and soon the water is boiling over, spilling down the sides of the pot. It will continue in this manner until the pot boils dry and it’s source of water exhausted. That’s a toddler tantrum. Left to their own devices, perhaps in ‘time out’ or on a ‘naughty step’ that pot is just going to continue to boil over until the source is exhausted – or until the toddler exhausts themselves so much that they are ’empty’. Some may think time out and naughty steps, or any other ‘discipline’ method where the tantrum is ignored (under the false belief that this will stop it happening again) is effective. How can the toddler learn anything (which is the true goal of discipline) if they are left to ‘boil dry’?

So, if conventional behavioural control methods don’t work, what do you do? Here we go back to the pot analogy. Your ‘baby pot’ is boiling over with the gas on full. Here you step in and 1. turn the gas down, 2. put a lid on the pot and 3. mop up the spilled water. You first help to keep the toddler safe and attempt to diffuse the situation, you allow them their emotions, but you help them to express them in a more positive and calm way and you ‘mop up’ their pain and sorrow, perhaps with a big hug or some gentle words. I’ve written more HERE on how to cope with tantrums ‘in the moment’. In psychological terms this is a concept known as containment. You as the adult contain your toddlers big emotions, because their container is not big enough to do so without overflowing. Of course this is only possible if your container is not too full. Worries and stress about money, family situations or work, lack of support or not making time for ‘self care’ can all leave parents too full up to act as an overflow container for their toddlers. The answer here is to ‘offload’ some of your own ‘stuff’ – perhaps through a good chat with like-minded friends, yoga, mindfulness, exercise, a long indulgent bath or a hobby.

Does this approach mean that you are being permissive and letting your toddler “get away with anything”? Far from it. This approach doesn’t mean that you have to ‘give in’ to the toddler over whatever caused the initial tantrum. It just means that you support them through their big feelings that result. I’ve written more HERE on how to cope in the moment without being permissive and HERE about why gentle parenting isn’t permissive.

As adults we should expect toddlers to tantrum. Responding to them respectfully and supportively doesn’t mean that they will stop. As I said right at the beginning tantrums and toddlerhood are inseparable. What stops the tantrums ultimately? Brain development. When the child is old enough to control their impulses and emotions. Interestingly research has shown that the best way to grow the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation is via maternal nurturance. Science agrees with the idea of supporting, rather than punishing, todlders when they tantrum.

Ultimately what has to change though is society’s expectations and views of toddlers. Toddlerhood is viewed so negatively with phrases such as “the terrible twos” and “the threenage years”. Most people still view toddlers as ‘naughty’ when they tantrum and have no clue that they cannot help it due to their immature brains. In some cultures they understand this more and are more supportive of children. Western culture is incredibly childist and intolerant though. As illustrated by the recent story of a mother being asked to leave a large department store because her toddler was having a tantrum. This needs to change. All parents should be made aware of basic neuroscience in antenetal or postnatal classes and at the very least all health professionals who come into contact with young families should have a good knowledge of brain development and age appropriate behavioural expectations. Sadly, we’re not there yet……..


p.s: if this post has piqued your interest in ‘gentle’ parenting, check out my new book for more on child brain development, behaviour and how to cope with it in a calmer, more mindful way.


Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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