You’re in line to checkout out at HEB after an hour of attempting the difficult task of shopping for groceries while not losing your toddler in the dairy aisle, when she decides that she wants a bag of skittles. You know that Skittles have an appalling amount of sugar, and will undoubtedly lead to a period of unbridled energy followed by an emotional and physical crash. Your obvious conclusion is to tell her “no”. She is unhappy hearing this word and goes into full-on tantrum mode as she throws herself on the ground and cries dramatically, her screams echoing off the cement floors.
If you’ve ever experienced this, you are not alone. You know this because you’ve witnessed the dreaded meltdown happen countless times to other parents in the HEB checkout line. However, knowing this doesn’t make it any less painful when it happens to you. You may ask yourself: Why is my child acting like this? What should I do when she is having a tantrum or meltdown? These are questions that all parents will face at some point in their child’s toddlerhood. The answers lie inside your child’s brain.
The Toddler’s Developing Brain
During toddlerhood, there is a rapid development of language, motor skills, and social skills. It is a period of intense emotional reactions as they are learning to manage new and overwhelming feelings. Your child may appear impulsive, stubborn, and intensely sensitive. You might begin to notice physical aggression, temper tantrums, and anger or frustration when they have difficulty doing something. Although these behaviors are difficult, they are also completely normal in this phase of development. However, if your child continues to have frequent tantrums beyond this stage of development, there may be an underlying cause that should be discussed with a mental health professional.
“Although these behaviors are difficult, they are also completely normal in this phase of development”
When your child is in the midst of a tantrum, meltdown or outburst it is an obvious sign that they are struggling with emotions they can’t manage. A young child’s brain has not yet made the connections necessary to understand why adults make the decisions we do. Your daughter (or son) can’t understand your reasons for not buying her the candy, so she becomes distressed when her expectation is not met.
The Fight or Flight Response in Kids
One reason your child’s behavior seems so dramatic is because of the fight or flight response. This is a human instinct that is triggered when our survival is threatened. Inside the brain is a horseshoe-shaped fold called the hippocampus, which releases adrenaline that provides the energy needed to face or run from a life-threatening situation. A young child’s brain can’t differentiate between a true danger and a harmless, but unfamiliar feeling. To your child, this situation which seems minor to you feels threatening. Even though they are completely safe, all of this extra adrenaline needs to be used. When your preschooler hurls her body dramatically on the floor and emits a blood-curdling scream, she is simply making use of a survival behavior.
Self-Regulation in Children
As a child develops, they are learning to sense and respond to the needs of their body and environment and to tolerate distress when a need doesn’t get met. This is the essence of self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotions, thoughts, attention, and actions. During the preschool years, children make significant progress in their ability to self-regulate and most are able to use some coping skills to regulate basic emotions before they reach kindergarten. This process is natural and a sign of healthy development, but it cannot happen without an emotional connection with their caregiver(s).
Parent-Child Connection: The Secret to Changing Behavior
The development of self-regulation begins at birth. When babies are born, they are unable to regulate their emotions on their own. All new feelings are overwhelming and they need a caregiver to pick them up, hold them, and soothe them. A baby learns to regulate their own emotions when their caregiver is consistently aware of the his distress and consistently responds to his emotions. When the caregiver such as a parent, grandparent, foster parent or even a babysitter picks him up, connects with him by making eye contact, and soothes him, they are reinforcing that he is safe, cared for, and that emotions don’t have to be scary. Over time, the baby will learn to soothe himself.
A common example of this happens when a baby is hungry. He feels the sensation of hunger in his body which causes him discomfort and distress. He begins crying. Mom or dad respond by soothing and feeding him. He learns that his needs will be met by an adult. This connection between the baby and the parent is so vital that, when done consistently, it literally changes the baby’s brain. This process of connection is what must take place in order for the child to have healthy and secure relationships throughout his or her life. These connections can be strengthened throughout your child’s life and is something we incorporate into our work with children and families. Visit our Child Therapy Page to learn more.
No More Drama
When your toddler is in tantrum mode, it may be challenging to feel connected to them. It might also be tempting to go directly into disciplining. However, this will likely be ineffective in getting the behavior to stop. Connection is the most essential step you can take to change behavior, especially during discipline.
In No Drama Discipline, Siegel and Payne Bryson explain that the most effective way to discipline is to connect first, then redirect. By connecting first, you shift the child from an emotionally out-of-control mode to a rational mode that allows them to listen. It also helps in developing the area of the brain that controls those essential self-regulation skills and helps develop a deeper relationship between you and your child.
You may ask yourself “how do I connect with my child when she is in tantrum mode?” First, stop thinking about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future and look for what’s happening behind her behavior right now. Begin by asking yourself: “What is she trying to communicate?” Then, Comfort, Validate, & Redirect.
Comforting your young child
- Get on her eye level
- Give her a loving touch
- Look at her in a caring, empathetic way
Validate your child’s emotions
- Acknowledge, name and normalize her feelings
- Listen to your child’s worries and wants, don’t lecture
- Reflect back what you hear, letting her know you heard her
Redirect your child’s behavior
- After she has felt heard and you have helped her regulate her emotions, you can redirect the behavior.
Avoiding & Coping with Future Tantrums, Outbursts & Meltdowns
The next time you are in HEB and your child throws herself on the floor, you won’t freak out. You will have a new tool at your disposal. You will get on her level, make eye contact, give her a loving touch, say “I know you really wanted that candy and it makes you really mad that you can’t have it”, and listen and validate when she talks. This will calm her down and will give you an opportunity to teach her that behaving that way isn’t acceptable. For more information on responding to tantrums with Autistic children check out this article; Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression in Autism Parents Magazine.
Child & Family Counseling Services in Houston, TX
Would you like more personalized help addressing your child’s behavior? Maybe you are unsure what discipline should look like for a 2 year old and want a professional’s opinion about how to address things. Or perhaps your young child’s tantrums have gotten so big that you need a child behavior specialist.
If you have concerns about behaviors that don’t seem to improve despite your best efforts, call us for a free phone mental health consultation to determine how we can help you and your family. As a Houston, TX child & family therapy clinic, Brittani Persha Counseling offers several different mental health services to help reduce tantrums and support both you and your child. Visit our Parent Therapy Page for more information about how we can best support you as the parent so you can feel confident in your parenting decisions. We can also work one on one with your child. Even children as young as two can benefit from play therapy with a trained play therapist. The staff at Brittani Persha Counseling are child behavior specialists and want to help you and your family restore peace. Whether your family is looking for child therapy, parent coaching or family therapy services, we are here to help. If you’d like to learn more, visit our Resources Page for some great book recommendations.