Better ways to nip a preschoolers tantrums in the bud 

Better ways to nip a preschoolers tantrums in the bud 

Call them by any name- Tantrums, Meltdowns- they only mean one thing to parents – stress!

Kids between the ages of 18 months to 4 years usually have temper tantrums because they are coping, yes coping, coping with their lack of language skills as they are able to experience and understand their needs but are unable to communicate and articulate them to you. Coping with their emotions, young toddlers lack impulse control and self-regulation skills and so tend to become overcome with emotions. And for some of them it is simply – a power struggle, and the fact that you too are upset and angry helps make it into an ugly tug-o-war.

So is there a way out of these tantrums and meltdowns? Well, you cannot stop them but you can definitely learn ways to minimize them and handle them. Also remember all kids don’t have tantrums or meltdowns, it differs from child to child and family to family, so don’t get upset and start comparing if your friends kid is an angel or your first-born did not throw tantrums.

Here are some pointers on how to reduce or understand why your toddler has a tantrum or meltdown-

  1. From when did these start? A new baby? A change in the family? A new teacher? Too many milestones together? – like toilet training, eating on their own, brushing their teeth, going to daycare. If too many emotionally draining milestones were clubbed together then the toddler will naturally always feel overwhelmed and thus has the meltdown often from stress.
  2. How did you handle the first tantrum and how are you handling it now? Most parents handle the first few tantrums with ease, by either being kind to the toddler or laughing it off, but as the frequency increases they tend to change and it is this change that frustrates the toddler. So be consistent in your way of handling every tantrum and meltdown.
  3. Does he/she throw tantrums everywhere or only at specific places? Find out from the daycare/school teacher, keep a note of the tantrums for a week and list down the situation and the place where it happened. This is important to identify whether it is an emotion or a need that makes the child throw the tantrum, so for example as you start observing you may realize that the toddler throws the tantrum every time she is thirsty or hungry, irrespective of the place whether it is at home or a public place. But some toddlers throw more tantrums in a public place because they are tired or bored and yet others throw more tantrums at home because of lack of power or control on their choices. So identify where the toddler throws the most tantrums and what is the emotion or the need at that time.
  4. Does he/she throw a tantrum with everyone or only with you? This can be because of three reasons- 
  1. You may not be giving her choices and so she wants her way – power struggle. So give some choices, like for choosing clothes to wear, the closet is off limits but put three dresses on the bed and have her choose what to wear, this will help you ‘maintain control’ and also give the toddler the required choice to feel independent and in control.
  2. Mothers usually like to maintain a routine that is good for toddlers but others may not be so strict with her so she perceives you as the ‘only’ person who ‘makes’ her do things. So talk to the other family members to maintain some consistency.
  3. You may unknowingly not be paying her attention when ‘she’ wants. So analyze and work on it. Remember for toddlers even negative attention is good.  
  1. Check how much time you spend with her/him, is it enough? Kids need 20 minutes of our undivided attention (at least 6 times a day!) but sometimes we end up being on the phone or checking mails or cooking when we are supposed to be giving them our undivided attention. 
  2. Do you communicate or instruct? Check your conversations throughout the day are they more instructions and questions? Then you need to give her more time to talk and communicate. And here it is important to remember that growing brains have a huge network of neurons so they tend to take more time to put their thoughts into words and also take time to understand and react to your instructions, so remember the 10 second rule when speaking to toddlers, pause for 10 seconds and give them the required time to respond. 
  3. If you find that nothing works and your toddler is just a ‘drama queen’ or ‘meltdown king’ then refrain from labeling them as such. Because when you call them by these names you are opening them up to ridicule and confusing them, which adds more fuel to their already fragile emotions. 

Important for parents to understand Erik Erikson’s theory of emotional development when their toddlers are going through the tantrum phase-

Age 2 to 3 years according to Erikson is for developing autonomy, so kids want to be more independent, they want things their way, and everything is a power struggle because of this innate need for autonomy. How parents handle them during this stage will lead to either the child achieving positive autonomy and understanding rules about using it or will end up having shame and doubt in their own abilities and decisions because of constant shouting, threats, anger from the parent. 

Age 3 to 5 years according to Erikson is for developing initiative, so they want to choose their own clothes (some want to wear black everyday, go to school in bathroom slippers etc.) choose their own food and brush their own teeth, help you cook etc. because of this innate need for taking initiative. How parents handle them during this stage will ensure whether in future the child becomes a confident individual who takes initiative or someone who wallows in guilt about not being able to please its parents or do anything correctly or live up to the parents’ expectations. 

If all parents have read and understood the above then the choice is clear about understanding that a tantrum or a meltdown is a phase that the toddler is going through but how the toddler is handled during this phase will define the child’s future emotional ability and personality. So having understood the above, do the following when your child is going through a tantrum or a meltdown-

  1. Understand the word ‘meltdown’ it means something is melting and things melt under heat, so when your toddler has a meltdown don’t increase the heat by laughing, or screaming or threatening them. It is like standing in front of a melting candle with a blaze of fire and expecting the meltdown to stop!
  2. Walking away does not help either as it teaches your child that when someone is upset, walk away. 
  3. So during a tantrum or a meltdown just sit there quietly till it wears out, or give your child a tight hug and keep hugging till she quiets down. Say words like, ‘There, there, I understand’ or just a simple ‘hmmm.’ Ensure that your child is not going to hurt herself or others, if you think she will then just hold her tightly from behind, close to your body. 
  4. Reasoning with them during a tantrum is foolish because during a tantrum the pre frontal cortex or the thinking brain has shut down and the primitive brain has taken over which has only 4 responses, fight, flight, flock or freeze. Talk to them and reason with them afterwards or when you are having a happy moment with them.
  5. If your child has the meltdown at a public place then just ride it out with a smile on your face for that irritating passerby who glares at you and shrug your shoulder to mean ‘ Bear with it dear, remember this planet also has kids’. Don’t look embarrassed, as that is the fuel to your toddlers’ public tantrum. 

Remember little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey and was upset when along came a spider and sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away. Find out the ‘spider’ that is upsetting your little Miss Muffet because it is the ‘spider’ that should be blamed and not Miss Muffet for her feelings. 

Dr. Swati Popat Vats
Parenting Mentor and Coach


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