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Dealing with Tantrums ("Terrible Two's" and "Threenangers")

Hi All - The following information may be helpful for parents of children in the early years. Feel free to share with those that may find it helpful - Dr Rhiarne Pronk-Scholes Clinical Psychologist

The emotional life of 2 and 3 year olds:

There are massive leaps in development for the first 3 years of infant and toddler life. Little ones’ awareness of the world around them and their level of emotionality can surprise many parents.

In the early years, the emotional centre of the brain known as the limbic system commences the flow of many complex emotions. The brain is not yet sophisticated enough to process the reasons for these emotions, or problem solve dilemmas when they occur. The emotional centre of the brain is also not yet linked to the frontal lobe of the brain, which can assist with limiting impulsive or seemingly illogical reactions.

Why the meltdowns?

Children of this age do not yet have the verbal capacity to express some of the big emotions that can occur. What may seem a small trigger to parents can be a huge thing in the life of a toddler.

Two and three year olds become fixed with a mind of their own (known as egocentricity), where they naturally find it difficult to take other people’s perspectives. They want things to be done their way or fixed on a particular end result to occur.

Parents fear the commonly known “terrible twos” but then they are hit with a surprise of what a savvy “threenager” has to offer! But wait until the determined “fournado” arrives in a couple of years too!

Tantrums vary in how they present but try to bear in mind the emotional factors that underlie them. They can range from active tantrums (protesting or social anger tantrums) or passive tantrums (whining/sulking or uncooperative behaviour). What can I do as a parent?

Sometimes finding the right balance of authority and emotional support is key. When your child experiences emotional tantrums, having less authority and greater emotional support can be most helpful.

Things that can be helpful include:

Getting down on your child’s level (both physically and in your perspective) to understand what has triggered their emotions.

Emotion coaching can help your child to learn that situations bring up feelings and you can help to label these feelings for them. Over time this helps to build connections in their brains of how to express and deal with feelings in helpful and appropriate ways.

Emotion coaching is a skill highlighted in John Gottman’s work. You can respond to a child who is having a meltdown or tantrum with a statement such as “Jack I can see you are very frustrated that little boy at the park is still using the swing when you wanted a turn.” You can then work with your child (with some caring physical touch at the same time) as an external problem solver but include them in the process such as – “Jack I’m wondering if there is anything else we can do in the park while we wait for the swing to be free?”. Acknowledging their feelings but avoid jumping in to fix (i.e. “let me tell that boy he needs to get off right now!” or to challenge (e.g. “why would you feel that way that’s silly” is the key.

Often a child simply feeling understood in their emotions, and words put to it, makes a big impact on their little world. They often calm instantly and feel reassured by the empathy from you.

In my clinical work with little ones, and even primary school children, I find that the majority of tantrums and behavioural issues settle when parents get into a supportive emotional groove with their children. As the primary attachment figures, parents can underestimate the skills they can foster in their children. Resources at home such as feelings charts/cards or feelings books can be helpful.

Labelled praise also goes a long way when managing children’s behaviour. Highlight the times your child is doing what you would like to see more of in the future and praise them for exactly what they are doing eg. “Well done for packing away the toys when I said it was time to go, I am so proud of you!”

After focusing on the positive approach of emotion coaching and praise, parents often find there is little need left for negative behaviour discipline strategies. Most certainly little ones need to learn there are consequences for big behaviours that are in the “no-go zone” (such as hitting, biting, running off in a dangerous place). Consequences need to be immediate, concise and logical this could include removal of a toy they have just hit their little sister with or some quiet time in a designated place (preferably not in their bedroom) for a brief time.

It can be most helpful if you can be the strongest and wisest one in the times of little ones having meltdowns, being calm and certain is role-modelling good emotion regulation. We may feel like having a melt down ourselves but save this for your emotional download with your partner or a friend at the end of the day if you can!!

Supportive parenting does pay off. All of a sudden one day your threenager will surprise you with a statement that reflects your emotion coaching such as “I’m so sad that someone is using the swing!” and you know this decreases the need for their emotional outbursts.

Dr Rhiarne Pronk-Scholes is a Clinical Child & Family Psychologist who practices on the Gold Coast, Australia. She is also a proud mother of 3 young children. Besides obtaining a PhD in Psychology, becoming a mother was the biggest training for Dr Rhiarne in her therapeutic work supporting families. Dr Rhiarne is passionate about her work, which focuses on empowering children and their families to function in happy and resilient households.

(c) Dr Rhiarne Pronk-Scholes 2020

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