You know that moment when you’re watching a horror movie and you just know that something bad is about to happen and you want to tell the movie’s hero – stop – don’t go in there! But you’re just glued to your seat, watching and unable to do anything?
Being in the middle of a toddler tantrum can feel that way. You see the signs that your toddler is about to have a tantrum and you wish there were something you can do, but you just can’t stop it. There’s that scrunching of the nose, then the whimpers that go on to become full-blast wailing. Before you know it, if this is a public tantrum, you’re getting those disapproving stares and judgmental tsk tsk noises. As one mom told me, I was so embarrassed and it felt like I just wanted the earth to open up and swallow me and my child!
If that’s you, you’re not alone. Each time I survey my audience, the number one concern that comes up is tantrums. If you’ve been following all the accounts on Instagram that talk about tantrums, but it feels like nothing’s working – and you’re starting to question yourself – “Does this gentle parenting thing really work?” “Am I doing it wrong?” “Why is my child still having tantrums? Am I being a bad parent?” – then you’ll love this.
The ONE Question That Will Help You Deal With Toddler Tantrums
We’ll talk about the ONE thing that’s missing from a lot of the tantrum advice that’s on the internet, and ONE question to ask when your child has a tantrum. Asking this ONE question will help defuse a lot of the things that feel like power struggles, and may even help prevent tantrums in the future.
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If we look at a lot of the tantrum advice on the internet, it mainly falls into these categories:
- Scripts that you can memorize so you can say them to your child during a tantrum. OR
- Advice like “ Just keep calm,” or “Don’t give in.”
Now I completely respect the people in the parenting space who say that. But you can’t get the nuanced approach on a short Instagram post. Sometimes it’s not that simple.
So “just keep calm” or “don’t give in” doesn’t work for you. Your adrenaline is running, it’s hard to think. It’s hard for our kids to think too… When our kids are having a tantrum, their brains are in fight or flight mode. They may simply not absorb anything we’re saying, no matter how nice or well-intentioned you are.
And have you ever felt so stressed and then someone popped in and said, “Hey, chill. Just relax.” Did anything like that ever help you relax?! For me, it never did!
If we look at what these have in common, these strategies focus on what to do during a tantrum. But handling tantrums isn’t just about what we do when there’s a tantrum – but what we do the rest of the time is even more important.
And this is understandable. After all, not just us – but society as a whole – is not comfortable with what we think of as “negative” emotions. As parents, we love our kids deeply and we don’t want to see them unhappy.
But tantrums are part of development. When your child first learned to walk, did your child just get up and start walking perfectly right away? Of course not! Your child kept falling down – over and over until they got it right. The same thing goes for emotional regulation. While our toddlers are still learning emotional regulation, they will keep on falling. These “falling” episodes are their tantrums.
(If you have any worries about your child’s tantrums, speak with a professional about it. This is not to provide a diagnosis; early intervention works best for problems with development or behavior.)
If we keep on focusing only on what happens during a tantrum, we can end up guilty and frustrated and feel like we’re failing. We can end up feeling trapped in a vicious cycle where tantrums escalate and we just feel helpless.
Instead, when faced with a tantrum, try this.
Forget scrambling to say the script you just memorized or rushing to fix things, just observe. (Of course, we need to make sure your child and others around are safe.)
Then when you observe, ask this ONE question – “Is there any demand on my child right now that my child is not equipped to handle?”
Now, this is a huge question and there are so many situations to highlight. However here are two examples of demands that toddlers and young kids aren’t equipped to handle.
Maybe you’re at a toy store, and your child throws a tantrum. She wants one toy, and another, and another. She’s asked for 23 different toys and has thrown a tantrum because you won’t buy the entire toy store and bring it home. You can feel the stares of those strangers whom you feel have labeled your child as “spoiled”.
The phrase “power struggle” is running through your mind. But is it really about your toddler wanting more power? Is it really about your toddler showing she’s more powerful than you because she can get you to buy any toy she wants if only she screams long enough?
Now observe the situation at the toy store. Bright lights. Rows and rows of brightly colored toys. Maybe several toys are making different noises all at once or kids are running all over the place too. Maybe other kids are crying. Maybe your kid is already tired from the shopping trip or it’s nearing lunchtime.
All of these can be too much for your child to handle all at one time – becoming a demand that your child isn’t equipped to handle.
So instead of all the advice running through your head – “Should I give in? Should I ‘show who’s boss’?” – if you ask this question and realize all the things that are going on, it will open up other options. Maybe the best thing to do is to leave the toy store and go to a place that’s less overwhelming.
To prevent the tantrum next time ask yourself ‘should we go into the toy store as the first shop of the trip, or just not at all?’
Here’s another situation. You’re doing a writing worksheet with your four-year-old, where your four-year-old is supposed to copy some words on a sheet of paper. He throws a tantrum. “No! I don’t want to!” – and before you know it, you’re locked in a power struggle.
Again, observe the situation. Is that worksheet a demand that a typical four-year-old is supposed to be able to handle? If you look at the research on the hand skills of preschoolers, their fine motor control hasn’t developed well enough to write all the letters of the alphabet. This is still a struggle for them.
So to prevent the tantrum from happening again in this situation make the task shorter or easier and a positive learning experience.
So instead of constantly trying to stop tantrums when they happen – this is like trying to fix a leaky tap by covering the faucet. Instead, we can and should challenge our kids to learn in ways that are beyond their comfort zone, but not in ways that are actually setting them up to fail.
Like “learning activities” that claim to be “developmentally appropriate” but are actually not.
Or pushing kids to do things at earlier and earlier ages.
If we do this, we’ll work with your child’s brain, not against it.
A lot of advice on helping kids learn requires you to work against your child’s brain. This leads to exhaustion, frustration, feelings of failure, and even depression. Parenting ends up feeling like it’s always an uphill struggle, like we’re carrying a boulder up a mountain.
But if we work with our kids’ brains and respect them where they are now – it will be more like riding a bike on level ground. It won’t be perfect – no child is 100% tantrum-free. But this time, it’s no longer a minute-to-minute struggle. This sets up your child for success and gives them experiences they can learn from, rather than teaching them they can’t measure up no matter how hard they try.
To help you answer this ONE question “Is there any demand on my child right now that my child is not equipped to handle?”, get my free guide Handling Toddler Tantrums.
Inside, there’s a checklist of these demands that developmentally may just be too much for your toddler, so we don’t just fix tantrums when they’ve already blown up. And when they do, there guide also has an easy action plan for you (that does not involve memorizing anything!).
I’d also love to hear how it goes. When your child has a tantrum – ask this ONE question – “Is there any demand on my child right now that my child is not equipped to handle?”. Head over to @discerningparenting and send me a DM on how it changes your perspective as well as the way you approach tantrums.