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When your tot’s emotions eclipse her ability to communicate, it’s only natural for things to erupt. With some know-how, says clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma, you can help her figure things out – and avoid meltdowns.
It is truly exciting when toddlers start to develop their own will. It’s a period of growing independence, a sign of healthy development, and (often frustatingly for all concerned) a very challenging time for parents. Temper tantrums and outbursts of anger are all too common in toddlerhood – and they can all be put down to the wondrous process of growing up.
What’s going on?
In 1950, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson identified a total of eight psychosocial stages through which humans develop. The second psychosocial stage, which starts at around 18 months and ends at around three years, explains a toddler’s mindset perfectly. During this phase, toddlers are becoming aware that they are separate individuals from their parents and the other important people in their world. This means that they are eager to assert themselves and communicate their likes and dislikes. At the same time, they still have limited self-control and are just beginning to learn important skills like waiting, turn-taking, sharing, understanding their own emotions and building a vocabulary.
Triggers for toddler anger
Most toddlers are only just beginning to use words to communicate, so they rely heavily on their actions to “tell” us what they are thinking and feeling. If we understand their needs, they often feel satisfied in believing that their environment can fulfil their needs and that they have asserted their own will. It is not always that easy to understand toddlers, so when your little one becomes angry, frustrated, tired or overwhelmed, she may use actions such as hitting, pushing, slapping, grabbing, kicking or biting to tell you: “I’m mad!”, “Get away!”, “I need a break,” or “I want what you have!” It is really hard for little children to deal with their emotions in any other way.
Feeling hungry, tired, sick, bored, overstimulated – or any combination thereof – can quickly send a toddler over the edge. Making sure these basic needs are met can help prevent angry outbursts. Other triggers can include changes to a fixed routine, moving house, introducing a new addition to the family (even a pet), or starting playschool. All of these are real curve balls for a little person to deal with when she is also trying to develop her own will.
Sensory issues could be another possible trigger. If you find that bright lights, noise, a change in scenery, tight clothes or even certain fabrics irritate your toddler, often to the point of a meltdown, it’s best to consult a professional.
In the heat of the moment
Try to help your tot find her way through the jumble of emotions that led to a tantrum in the first place. Stay calm – getting as worked up as your toddler and fighting her to settle down is not going to work. Rather take a deep breath and a step back. Acknowledge the emotion and the need behind her anger verbally, for example, “You are angry because your sister refused to play the way you wanted.” Then set the limit: “But you cannot hit your sister.” Lastly, remove her from the situation. It’s impossible to reason with a child in the midst of their anger. Let her cool down in a quiet spot, then sit down and talk about what happened and how to handle such situations in the future. Talk about healthy alternatives. “You can ask her nicely next time,” or, “You can come and ask mommy to help you.” Even better, do a bit of role playing with her on how to act next time.
Of course, it’s entirely dependent on your child’s age and temperament how this plays out. Some children will allow you to direct them to another room to calm down, while others will keep fighting and shouting. In such cases, it is better to hug your tot tightly, sit down with her and whisper that you can see how angry she is and that you will hold her tight until she feels better.
Top tips to restrain the rage
- Educate yourself. When you know your toddler’s temper triggers, you can work to avoid them. For example, do not go to the shops with a hungry child, or call off the playdate if your child is feeling tired.
- Educate your child. Talk to your toddler about her emotions. Teach her the words that will explain how she feels, and talk on her behalf if she is still too small to voice her own needs. “I think you are very tired and everything just feels like it’s too much to handle. We can play again after a nap.” Talking about emotions can restore a peaceful atmosphere.
- Figure out what works. Each child has her own temperament. While it may work very well for some to go to their favourite quiet place (like a tent inside their room) and read a book, or play with lavender-scented playdough, others might need to run fast outdoors, yell into a pillow, or jump on the trampoline. The reality is that children need a healthy alternative to vent their frustrations – and parents need to teach them how. It is not good enough to just tell them to stop shouting, hitting or yelling. It is better to teach them ways to deal with their frustration.
- Don’t let tension build up. Teach your child from a young age to get rid of pent-up energy before things explode. Exercise, special family time (such as eating dinners together), alone-time (such as paging through a book or colouring in) as well as relaxation activities (such as breathing deeply or watching the clouds move in the sky) and enough healthy physical contact (tickles, rough and tumble play) are all ways to do this.
- Praise her efforts. Let your toddler know you’ll always be there for her; praise her little successes. If you see your toddler sharing without asking, let her know that you have seen it and tell her how proud you are.
- Choose tasks where she can experience success.Remember that she is in the phase in her development where she will learn to develop her own will. Choose tasks with that in mind and let her experience some power and feelings of control. Let her pour in the bubble bath or choose her own pyjamas. Small experiences of control lessen frustration levels and makes her feel independent.
- Let her know you love her unconditionally.