Does your child scream, cry, kick, and hit when they don't get what they want? The solution may be simpler, and gentler, than you think.
Daniel J. Siegel is a researcher and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine as well as the executive director of the Mindsight Institute. He has written numerous books about the development of the brain in early childhood, including The Whole-Brain Child, The Developing Mind, and Play and Creativity in Psychotherapy.
Much of Siegel’s work promotes an emotionally intelligent approach to raising children. One of the primary areas he addresses is handling tantrums in young children. The following strategies are backed by his research of the cognitive capacity of young children.
A tantrum is an uncontrollable outburst of emotion.
Tantrums can include, but are not limited to:
If your child is having a temper tantrum, it means they are struggling with a difficult emotion. Young children do not yet know how to communicate their feelings or cope with them. This results in the outbursts we define as tantrums.
Siegel uses the metaphor of a house to describe a young child's brain. The "downstairs brain" controls emotion and basic decision-making. The "upstairs brain" controls logic and impulse control. When a child has a tantrum, the downstairs brain is in control. Therefore, your child may engage in behaviors that you find unreasonable.
Threatening your child will only cause them more stress. If this works for you, your child will only obey you out of fear, not clarity.
Threatening also teaches your child to submit to people bigger and stronger than them. This will make them more vulnerable to controlling relationships later in life.
Distracting your child with bribes teaches them to run away from their feelings. They do not learn how to name and process their emotions with this strategy. This need for distractions can also grow into unhealthy escapisms later in life.
Your child will not understand why they are being punished. Logical reasoning is not active during a tantrum. The logical part of the brain doesn’t even fully develop until age 25. That's quite a bit away!
Your child is lashing out because they feel vulnerable and frustrated. They will learn to stop expressing themselves to you over time if you make them feel more threatened. You must be a safe space for your child’s emotions if you want to develop trust and understanding.
Hovering over your child is threatening to their primitive emotional brain. It is important to lower down to their level and make eye contact to reduce feelings of danger.
It is important to give your child physical autonomy when there is no immediate danger. However, it is appropriate to use firm but gentle restraint when a child is having a violent outburst.
Use phrases like "I won't allow you to hit" or "I won't allow you to bang your head" to communicate the safety issue. Make sure your words are coming from a place of concern and care, not anger.
Focus on your child's emotion, not their behavior. Reflect the root cause of their feelings back to them so they know you understand. This will also help them learn to verbalize their problems.
This can sound like "I see you want to go outside, but it's raining" or "Oh no, the dog ate your cookie?" Then, validate their feelings by saying, "I see why you're upset. That must be so frustrating. I'm so sorry that happened to you." Make sure to model empathy through your tone of voice and facial expression.
Positive physical touch reduces stress hormones and increases feel-good hormones. Offering to rub your child's back, hold their hand, or give them a hug assures them that they are safe. This will de-escalate their physical stress response and help them regain self-control.
It is important to give your child options and let them determine their fate. This nurtures their budding independence. It also shows them that there are alternatives to the thing that they want that are satisfying. This makes the situation less devastating.
You can tell your child, "Do you want to play with your blocks?" If the child says no, you can say "How about in two minutes?" If the child says no again, you can say "How about we read a book?" The conversation can go on this way until the child has found a way to move forward that is pleasing to them.
It is important to wait until your child is calm to apply this step. If your child is still worked up, try suggesting calming activities first.
For example, you can ask your child "Would you like to take some deep breaths with me, or drink some water?" Encourage them to take the lead in their own emotional regulation.
Remember, the goal is to help the child move forward after processing their feelings. We do not want to distract from their emotions as they will become pent up over time. As Siegel’s research supports, tantrums are a cry for help. Your child is not trying to make your life miserable. They just need you to help them deal with their big and complicated feelings.
Unwanted behaviors will not stop until you meet the need that is driving them. Approach your toddler's temper tantrums with emotional sensitivity and watch your relationship transform.
Here at Dr. Messina and Associates, our compassionate team of professionals are qualified to help you at our Flower Mound, Texas, and Southlake, Texas, offices. Our Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Counselors specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychological testing, and medication management for a variety of emotional and behavioral health needs. All services are available in-person and online (telehealth). If you or a loved one are seeking help with mental health, we are here to help.