Dissecting A Tantrum
Good Morning and Happy First Week of 2021!
I hope everyone's new year is off to a good start. Despite the fact that parts of life are still at a bit of a stand still, I hope that abundance, joy, and new perspectives happen for you this year. I've never really been a "New Years Resolution" kind of girl, but with anything new: year, week, month, moon, etc., I believe that setting intentions and goals for yourself is always practical. You get a new chance every morning you wake up. If there were things you didn't like about the day before, you have the opportunity to change or work towards change in a new fresh day. I promised in this new year that I would do my best to be your "toddler guru". I try to observe what is current in your lives. What are the triumphs and struggles of the parents, caretakers, and littles in our Martial Arts Family studio community. Let's always celebrate your victories in our classes, through emails, etc., but if there are things that have proven to be hard, I would like to do my best to offer you resources that will hopefully be helpful and allow you to see things from a different or more supported perspective. I thought that we'd start with the tantrum. Several months back, I wrote about tantrums and the terrible twos but I think many of you are discovering as your strong willed littles continue to grow that "the terrible twos" are lingering into age 3, 4, 5, etc. So, with a little science to help, let's dissect the tantrum.
It's a proven fact that a toddler will engage with you in approximately 57 billion power struggles every day. At least half of those will ensue a major melt down also known as "the tantrum".
I'm sure all of you would agree that no one wants 57 billion power struggles. Rest easy though, as frustrating as it is for you and your little as well, all of this behavior from your little is very appropriate for their development. So, how can we keep calm and keep things in perspective in the midst of a melt down? Because let's be honest, Trader Joes is stressful enough without your little screaming.
We're going to break down this article with phrases that your little might use IF they understood specifically what was happening and how to effectively communicate during a melt down. We'll also talk practical tips.
Please Tell Me Again: If your little could talk, they might say, "It seems that you're frustrated and annoyed when you say, "How many times do I have to tell you?" and I know you've already repeated yourself many times today and in this moment, but I do need you to tell me over and over to really get it." You, as an adult posses "executive function skills", which are cognitive skills that help you remember, focus, and control your impulses but your little doesn't have those yet. Your little has two sides of their brain that are widely separated. One side is the thing they want them to do, the other side is the mom or dad told me not to and I don't like that look when I do it side. You have to build a bridge between these two sides for them. Each time you tell your toddler the same thing or show them, you are building that bridge stronger and stronger but this takes time. "Rome wasn't built in a day" as they say. Experience molds our brain. Even into our old age, our experiences can actually change the physical structure of our brain. Pretty amazing right? Neurons fire in your brain and actually cause it to "rewire". So, what's key here is repetition. Tell your little time and time again even if it feels frustrating in the moment. They are building their brain bridge every time you do.
I Don't Know How To Say What I Need To Say: Your little might say, "I'm feeling a lot right now and the feelings feel big and scary and I don't have words to explain that to you. I am overwhelmed and can't think straight." Your little feels all the same emotions you do. As an adult, we've learned how to work through our negative emotions but even we all struggle with this at times. That part of your brain that allows you to stop and think has not developed for your little. Your little throws a tantrum because that negative emotion consumes them. Your little may become shut down with a feeling of shame or lashing out in anger because they are feeling stuck in this negative down spiral. It will take 20 years for your little's emotion regulating part of their brain to fully develop. So what can you do? Talk about and label your little's emotions.
I Can't Hear You Right Now: Your little, "I know you're trying to help me feel better but the big emotions are too much to handle and I can't understand what you're trying to tell me." When your littles brain is in tantrum mode, it can be almost impossible to reason with them in that particular moment. Most tantrums are caused because your little didn't like the way you did something. To you the tantrum may have seemed to come out of nowhere. What happens seconds before a tantrum is that the "amygdala" (the lower part of the brain) actually hijacks the upper part of the brain (the upper part is responsible for decision making, etc.). As stress related hormones increase and flood your little's body, the upper part of the brain has essentially ceased to function. So, your little is actually incapable of seeing something clear headed in that moment. It is better during a tantrum to not ask questions or cling to logic. Rather focus on validating the way your toddler feels in that moment. Once calm, you can talk to your little about why this happened and why it isn't effective to build connections in their brain.
I'm Not Trying To Be Difficult: Your little, "I'm not trying to make you frustrated, I'm trying to learn something." Examples of this may include, your little wants to pour their own cereal and milk but milk ends up everywhere, your little wants to buckle their own seatbelt but you're already running late and don't have time to wait, your little wants to dress themselves and picks clothes that aren't appropriate for the weather outside, it's time for bed but your little keeps asking a million questions and you're also exhausted. The best way for your little to learn is to do. That may be extremely difficult for you at times but there is no shortcut for learning. Your little is the most curious between the ages of two and five and they are not yet self-conscious about things or judgmental of their actions. As adults, we tend to overcorrect and control this carefree way of attacking life and this sadly can create shame for your little. Also hearing the word "no" over and over in a day can make your little retreat and feel like they don't do anything right. No one wants to have to clean up messes and not be on time, etc. So, what can you do? Pick your battles. Maybe repeat a mantra to yourself that centers around letting your little learn or what is the worst that could really happen. When you step back a little, this eases your frustration and then you can be there for your little when they get frustrated and need your help with the learning process.
I'm Not Ignoring You: Your little might say, "I'm not exactly sure what you want me to do." I remember in the locker room as a little girl when that one girl would say, "Don't look, I'm changing." and without fail every one of us would look right at that girl. This wasn't because we didn't care about her and what she asked but most of the time when we are told don't, we do. When you say "stop" or "don't" to your little, they have to double process what you're asking. If you say to your little, "Don't run." They just hear "Run". They also have to understand what is you're not wanting them to do but translate what it is you do want them to do. That can be very confusing. Rather than using "don't" and "stop", try to be more active in your requests. Instead of "Don't Run!", try "Please walk slowly and maybe pretend you're a turtle." By replacing the negative, your are actively telling your toddler what they should do instead.
I don't believe there is any magical formula for working through new developments and struggles with your little. Every toddler is different, every adult is different, and some things may work and others may not. I do hope this article gives you a new way of seeing things if you have in fact been struggling.
If you're interested in doing some more research and reading, you can check out The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
Happy Brain Developing