Anyone else feel like their toddler’s tantrums have gotten more frequent, and more intense during the pandemic? We’re not sure if it’s all the extra time at home, less time at preschool or Mom’s fuse being shorter these days, but we’re hearing from a lot of friends that tantrums are getting real. So we turned to the toddler expert—Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block—and asked him why they’re happening and how to stop them. Here’s what he said:
First of all, why do toddlers tantrum?
- Their brains are out of balance. The part of their brain that’s good at language and logic is maturing at a crawl, and the part that’s emotional and impulsive is skipping ahead.
- They’re not great talkers yet. Wouldn’t you get frustrated if you lived somewhere you couldn’t speak the language? Toddlers get irritated when they can’t communicate, leading them to other forms of communication, like screaming and foot-stomping!
- Our world is both too stimulating…and too boring for them, at the same time! Your toddler’s growing brain may get overloaded by noisy TV, videos…but at the same time, kids get bored sitting at home. Don’t forget, for thousands of years toddlers spent all day frolicking outdoors!
- Tantrums work! When we give in to outbursts (or pay too much attention to them), our kids learn that shrieking gets them what they want.
- And, of course they can get wild when they feel off balance from: hunger, thirst, fatigue, cooped up, getting sick, too much caffeine/decongestant/dark chocolate.
Somehow it feels like tantrums are becoming more frequent and intense during the pandemic—why?
Toddlers are sort of little uncivilized members of the family. In fact, our job is to teach little kids the rules of civilization (to wait, take turns, etc). Our uncivilized little friends don’t want to live in a small apartment – or even a house – they want to run around outside…from dawn to dusk. So, tantrums —a totally normal way our tykes to express strong negative emotions— only get worse when our little cave kids are cooped up…like they’ve been for the past year. Boredom and the inevitable limitations of your living space during lockdown are an explosive combo.
Parents are also under extraordinary pressure, right now. They’re juggling being Mom or Dad, teachers, cook, and playmates…in between Zoom calls. The everyday battles (picky eating, getting dressed, getting out the door on time…) can make parents feel like failures. And, for parents who are already feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and starved of support, they can completely snap.
Yes, unfortunately, that all sounds all too familiar! Okay, so what’s the best way to defuse a toddler tantrum?
When a toddler is upset, the rowdy, right side of the brain takes the wheel…shutting down the more patient and verbal left side. That’s why your calm, loving words may not seem to reach your little friend during a fury.
The best way to defuse a tantrum is to use a two-step approach to perfectly reflect an upset toddler’s feelings: 1) the Fast Food Rule and 2) Toddler-ese.
First, the Fast Food Rule basically says that when your toddler is angry or frustrated, you repeat back what they’re feeling before you try to calm them down or offer any kind of distraction or explanation.
Second, to be fluent in your tot’s native language, Toddler-ese, you only need to do 3 simple steps: 1) Use short, 1- to 3-word phrases. 2) Repeat, a lot! You might need to say the same thing 5 to 10 times just to get through! And, 3) When reflecting feelings, mirror only about 1/3 of your tot’s emotional intensity with your tone of voice, expression, and gestures. It might feel a little weird at first, but Toddler-ese helps toddlers feel understood. And, besides, it’s actually pretty similar to how you might talk to your child when they are very happy!
Kind of like “talking Toddler as a second language”…great tip! Is there a point when tantrums are so often/intense they could be a sign of a developmental issue, or anxiety that needs to be addressed?
For the most part, tantrums are totally normal part of healthy toddler development, but occasionally they can be a red flag of something deeper going on (a behavioral or mood disorder, for example). Talk to your pediatrician of your toddler has tantrums that are very intense and aggressive (regularly involving kicking, hitting, biting or self-harm), frequent (occurring multiple times a day), and often out-of-the-blue—especially if your child is 5 or older.
What should you never say to a kid throwing a fit?
The Fast-Food Rule (described above) is a wonderful building block of communication and cooperation because it conveys your sincere respect. On the other hand, when we don’t follow this rule and “cut in line” to deliver our message before we listen, we dismiss our kids’ feelings. A few bad habits parents fall into—and need to break—are:
- criticizing with hurtful words (“You’re such a whiner!” Don’t be so stubborn!”)
- threatening (“Stop crying or you won’t get dessert!”)
- shaming: (“How dare you throw your car—what’s wrong with you?”)
- making unfair comparisons (“Your sister is such a good girl at bedtime, why can’t you be more like her!”)
- using rude distractions (telling a tearful, red-faced kiddo to “look at the fuzzy teddy bear!” is like telling a friend who is pouring her heart out about a breakup to “look at my cool new shoes!”)
- rushing to make it all better (this elbows aside your child’s feelings without acknowledging and validating them first)
As a parent, what is the best way to stay calm? And why is staying calm so important—even if it’s very difficult?
Turn away for 30 seconds and take some deep breaths (this is a wonderful calming skill to teach children, too!). Or, as long as your child is in a safe place, excuse yourself, go into another room, and calm yourself….or, scream into a pillow and punch the mattress, if that makes you feel better. Toddlers’ brains are like sponges, soaking up everything they see or hear. A toddler will reflect a parent’s shows of love and joy…but they’ll also mirror our demonstrations of disrespect and aggression. If kids see us keep ourselves calm when we’re angry and frustrated, they can learn to regulate themselves too.
If you lose your temper (hey, it happens, and we’re in a pandemic…), what should you do?
When you do lose your temper in front of your child, use it as a chance to show your child what it looks like to calm down and apologize (“I’m sorry I yelled. I know it made you scared. The next time Mommy feels mad, she’ll take a little break in her room to calm down”).