Are Your Toddler’s Tantrums Getting Out Of Hand?

  • 27 Apr - 03 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly

Here’s how you can help them express anger in a healthier way.

While your toddlers' brains are under construction to gain more control over their anger, you can help in two critical areas: co-regulation and communicating that we are comfortable with anger as long as everyone stays safe.

The Forbidden Feeling
Anger can be our toughest emotion to navigate. Our childhood experiences with adults expressing anger can play out with our own children. Seeing our child's anger may be an emotional trigger for those whose caregivers blew up easily, or unfamiliar territory for those whose caregivers withdrew and went silent when angry, communicating that expressing anger is not permitted. Because anger makes us uncomfortable for a range of reasons, we often convey to our children to express emotions, except anger. If we get more comfortable with anger as a natural human emotion, we help our children embrace their own, eventually without hurting anyone.

Anger and the Young Brain
The young child has the brain parts to feel strong emotions suddenly, but not yet the brain development to harness these emotions. Start with the basics of emotions, like helping them notice how they feel in their bodies, labeling the feelings, and then articulating emotions to eventually replace exploding behaviours. Young children most often do not have the ability to calmly state how they are feeling when angry. It's too complex for their brains – it means noticing, stopping a strong impulse, having insight, and then being able to put words to a highly emotional experience. You probably know so many adults who even struggle with this.

Manage Expectations
There's a very important concept from child development critical for your dilemma: scaffolding. This refers to helping our children build important skills in a way that matches the skills they already have, and their readiness to level up. Because it is probably a high bar for a three-year-old to express anger calmly with words, you can focus on two goals as the next developmental steps: physically regulating strong emotion and becoming comfortable with their anger. Mastering these coping skills ultimately dials down the intensity of anger, and will give them emotional regulation tools to last a lifetime.

Co-Regulation is Key
This may sound a bit fancy, but self-regulation is actually one of our most powerful strategies for emotional health: learning to calm our bodies when in distress. Regulating with your child, called co-regulation, can help then feel how their nervous system shifts from high alert to calm. High alert, which happens when we feel intense emotions like fear and anger, can include a racing heart, heated up body temperature, tense muscles, and rapid breathing.

Take their hand in yours, put it on their chest, and simply say, "feel your heart right now." Toddlers and preschoolers need us to regulate with them. When we stay calm and offer physical comfort like hugging, sitting them on our laps, or holding hands, our calmer nervous systems help their little bodies better regulate those big emotions.

Modeling Anger Acceptance
The next greatest gift you can offer as a parent is modeling that anger is an acceptable emotion. We achieve this by showing that we are comfortable with our children being angry. This means avoiding two common traps: talking them out of their anger, and becoming overwhelmed by it ourselves. Our youngest children's anger can look quite ridiculous on the surface, so it's easy to say, "this is so not a big deal – calm down!" When possible, however, validating "you're angry because you're not getting what you want, and that is really hard" offers empathy that goes a long way.

You might want your kids to just stop being upset, but you need to learn how important it is to stick in there with the distress as often as you can, and to resort less often to shutting down the anger (by your own yelling) or escaping it (tuning out with some Facebook scrolling). Just like when they are sad and you sit next to them rubbing their backs while they cry, you can show them they can feel angry and get through it: "I see you are really angry. I'm here when you're ready to sit in my lap." Note: we accept all emotions, but not all behaviors! While they are angry, we continue supporting safety. "It's fine to be angry, but not to punch me."

Once their bodies are calm, you can then guide dialogue about what made them angry, how it felt, and what helped it pass. This helps children practice self-awareness, identify coping strategies, and build confidence that anger passes, just like the scariest thunderstorms eventually end.