Toddlers are an amazing bunch. That very first ‘toddle’ is a step towards physical growth and maturity, while at the same time their brains are also undergoing massive developmental changes.
Because we can see the physical changes taking place, we can understand when development hasn’t quite caught up with the task at hand. Fine motor skills, for instance, take time to master. As parents we understand that it can take quite a long time for a toddler to collect a handful of buttons accidentally tipped from a jar.
But what about brain development? Mastery of ‘higher thinking’ – of self-regulation and social skills and language – also takes time. Unfortunately for parents, sometimes a major spill of emotional buttons can happen – those ‘big feelings’ we often hear about. Without the ‘fine brain skills’ to take charge, the emotions can spill without any regulation into a fully blown toddler tantrum.
What are big feelings (tantrums)?
Before the ‘thinking brain’ (the prefrontal cortex) is fully formed, a child’s emotions (which arise from the limbic system, or the ‘feeling brain’) can bubble up and overwhelm them without a ‘rational’ means of release – hence a tantrum. It’s important to know that this spill of big emotions is outside a toddler’s control. The spill is scary and confusing and your toddler doesn’t yet have the emotional regulation to cope with it. This can be manifested externally by any or all of those things we as parents find hard to cope with – screaming, crying, thrashing around and even hitting or biting.
Big feeling triggers
When big feelings start coming to town, we can also start to see what might be triggering them. (So, keep an eye out!)
Hunger and tiredness – These two can bring on the dreaded ‘hangrys’ in the best of us, so are 100 times harder for your toddler to cope with.
Over-stimulation – Is there too much going on? Have too many people visited today? Are you somewhere loud or busy?
Frustration – This can be where a lack of language skills can really come to the fore. Not being able to be understood or not being able to communicate needs can be terribly difficult for your toddler.
Confusion – Consistency is key with toddlers. If caregivers are reacting differently to big feelings as they arise, this can make a child’s task in dealing with them even harder.
Physically ill – When we’re not at our best, neither are our brains, and a temperature or a sore tummy can cause havoc with a toddler’s emotions.
Dealing with big feelings
Strangely enough, each toddler tantrum is an opportunity for emotional development. Our role as parents is to support our children, and helping our toddlers regulate their emotions is one of our most important jobs. As parents and caregivers, we can become co-regulators – we can help pick up the spilt emotional buttons and, in the process, show how the task can be done.
- If you can see big feelings starting to bubble up, use simple choices or distractions to excite the ‘thinking brain’. We want the prefrontal cortex to start firing so that it can step up and calm the ‘feeling brain’. A silly song, a choice between a plate or a bowl for dinner, a toy that they haven’t seen for a while retrieved from a cupboard: these simple distractions may help stamp out a tantrum before it starts.
- If those big feelings do start to take over, first, give yourself a moment to self-regulate. Take a deep breath. Remember that tantrums aren’t manipulations but moments of being overwhelmed – you need to be the grown-up in the room and stay calm.
- Give your toddler words to understand what is going on. Naming your toddler’s emotions is part of building up their emotional vocabulary. ‘You seem so sad right now.’ ‘I can see you’re angry.’ ‘It must be frustrating that you’re tired but still want to keep climbing.’
- Be with your child through the big feelings – give them a hug if they’ll allow it and show them that you can acknowledge emotions and remain peaceful in the face of their loss of control.
- Remember – the firestorm of a tantrum is not the time for rationalisations or logic – connect on an emotional level first, then you can problem-solve together when the storm has passed.
- Avoid giving into demands and make sure that your toddler knows that their emotions are absolutely okay – that it’s okay to be angry or sad or frustrated – but that some behaviours are never okay – hurting other people or damaging things, for instance.
When to seek help
Remember – big feelings are normal and healthy – they are indicators that your toddler’s brain is developing. If we can deal with them positively, they are an opportunity for us to connect and strengthen our bonds with our children. Sometimes, though, it can feel like our toddler’s big feelings are bigger than they should be – or bigger than we can cope with.
Firstly, speak to your doctor if tantrums are getting worse or more frequent after age four, or if your child has nightmares, headaches or stomach aches – something else could be going on, and seeking advice is important.
If you are having trouble with your toddler’s big feelings it’s also important to seek advice for yourself. Tantrums are not a reflection on you or your parenting, but responding to tantrums with calmness and empathy can be incredibly difficult. Our experienced psychologists can equip you with the tools and understanding you need to make this period a positive and enriching time for you and your toddler.
We can provide psychology and counselling services from the convenience of your own home via Telehealth or face-to-face in our Ocean Grove office.