News & Media

How to Manage Toddler Tantrums

26 Jun 17

Being a parent can be hard work. We all know this. Each age and each developmental phase brings a new set of challenges that can have us on our knees grasping for answers as to how to deal with our child without strangling them or at the very least scarring them for life, rendering them a damaged adult with mummy/daddy issues.

The most infamous, most talked about troublesome age would have to be the “terrible twos” which has now been extended to include the modern “three-nager” – both of which can be formidable. As a mother of 3 kids I can tell you that each one of my offspring went through a period of seemingly relentless tantrums somewhere between 18 months – 3 ½ years old. Some of my children were worse than others, and each child as well as each tantrum required differing levels of intervention.

I formed a hurricane-style grading system over the years which I would joke about with my husband, who missed most of these storm systems by default because he was at work. How very convenient for him. Category 1 – 3 are your average, run of the mill tantrums that every parent experiences, but if you’ve ever been hit by a Category 4 tantrum then you know to batten down the hatches and prepare to be knocked about. Your sweet baby is now causing a scene and you’re sufficiently mortified. You end up buying them the god-forsaken lollypop because this is your local Woolworths and you have to show your face here again. Possibly tomorrow because you had to leave the store so fast that you forgot to buy those extra nappies you needed. Alternatively you can drag them by their tiny arm out of the store but this is a tried and tested way to bring about an elbow or shoulder dislocation – just ask any triage nurse.

Category 5 is every parent’s nightmare. You might experience a category 5 once, maybe twice, in your parenting career and honestly there is nothing you can really do to be prepared for its damage and destruction. It usually occurs after several late nights in a row or precedes an impending illness. Your child has lost their tiny little mind, they are acting severely psychotic, and whilst you may want to evacuate you can’t as apparently leaving a demented child unsupervised is not only dangerous to their safety but a criminal offence, so you must sit and ride out the storm as there is no rationalising, no negotiating, no soothing or supporting sentiments available to you here. God’s speed to all fellow parents battling this storm front. When experiencing this level of tantrum-ing it’s not uncommon for the neighbours to wonder if you are murdering your child. For real, I once had a neighbour knock on my door to check if everything was OK because my son had been standing in the backyard screaming like a wounded animal for close to an hour.

As funny as it can be, some days leave you feeling completely broken by the constant fights and tantrums and it can be really hard to be the patient, understanding parent that you want to be. So what can be learned from all the poor parents that have blazed this well-worn trail before you? I wouldn’t have the foggiest, so I asked clinical psychologist Dr Felicity if she can shed some light on how to appropriately manage toddler tantrums. Here’s what she had to say…..

Toddler tantrums happen because the part of their brain that is the centre for emotional reactivity, the Amygdala, perceives some form of threat or danger (and missing out on a toy or a treat, or leaving that park, or seeing you leave can all be situations they can perceive as a threat). If a toddler perceives a situation to be dangerous or threatening, the Amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, and so quickly that the logical brain does not have a chance to be activated. This is sometimes called a state of “Amygdala attack”. It’s an immediate and overwhelming response in which the toddler can explode with rage or freeze with fear or run away.

It’s important to know that this response involves the rapid release of powerful hormones which can produce an attack and it can take on average 17 minutes to settle. The raised hormone levels can take 3-4 hours to settle. During the amygdala attack the toddler is on auto-pilot and can lose their capacity to communicate effectively or behave rationally. Stress, hunger, dehydration and tiredness as well as overstimulation will exacerbate the attack.

1) Firstly, try to understand what’s happening in your toddler’s brain. It feels just the same as you feel when someone cuts dangerously in front of your car or your toddler runs towards a road. Remind yourself that the toddler is not acting deliberately- in fact quite the opposite. Your toddler’s brain has been hijacked by the Amygdala and they are in no fit state for learning any lessons in behaviour.

2) Stay calm yourself and use self-talk to ensure you don’t react in a way that will further escalate your toddler’s perception of danger and threat. Your toddler won’t settle down in 17 minutes if their Amygdala keeps being activated.

3) Help your toddler to oxygenate- help them to pay attention to their breath. This keeps the smart brain engaged and helps restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood which helps settle the Amygdala. Teach them to put one hand on their heart and one on their belly button and get them to imagine blowing up a balloon, sending the breath all the way to their belly button. Each breath (in and out) should take 5 seconds. Count with them. If you practice this regularly during non-tantrum periods, they will learn this more easily.

4) Activate one of their favourite senses- touch, taste, sound, sight, smell- this is called grounding. Try to get your toddler to touch something that they normally find soothing- or sing to
them a favourite song or sit down at their level and let them touch you, or pass them a water bottle.

5) Be proactive. Try and understand the patterns of their tantrums. What are the triggers? What are the high risk situations and times? What are the early warning signs? Adapt your activities to ensure that your toddler is not too hungry, too thirsty, too tired or too overstimulated. Bright lights, crowds and loud noises can only be tolerated for very short periods.

6) Lastly remember that the tantrum will pass if you wait for it! Post-tantrum, try and help your toddler describe what happened and how they felt. There are lots of awesome picture cards that can help your toddler identify and describe their feelings. The more we teach them about emotions and the more we practice emotion regulation skills with them, the better equipped they will be to avoid the Amygdala attack.