Popular parenting wisdom advises dealing with toddler tantrums in one of two ways. Ignore the 'attention seeking behaviour' and reward the toddler when they are good, or discipline the toddler by punishing them through exclusion. The naughty step and time out are commonplace in millions of homes around the world. Do they really work though? Child psychology and neuroscience says otherwise. Here are four reasons why you may want to reconsider your response the next time your toddler has a tantrum.
1. Toddlers can't help tantruming.
Toddlers tantrum for one simple reason, their brains are not like adults. The immature connections in their brain don't afford them the same emotion control as us. Our sophisticated brains allow us to control our impulses, act in a way that we know to be socially acceptable and calm our emotions before we become violent or out of control. Toddlers physically can't do this. When they tantrum they are not being naughty or manipulative, they're just being toddlers struggling with big feelings, poor communication skills and even poorer emotion regulation skills. To us it may seem ridiculous to tantrum over the colour of a cup or the shape sandwiches are cut into, but to a toddler these things are as important as paying our rent or our mortgage is to us. Just because it's not 'big stuff' to us, it doesn't mean it isn't to the toddler.
2. Toddlers can't calm themselves down alone.
Think of a toddler like a pot of water heating on a stove without a lid. Just as the water in the pot, the toddler's big emotions begin to build and bubble away until ultimately, just like an unwatched pot, they will boil and spill over. The toddler has no way to turn off the gas, as an adult can, they only stop when they boil dry, exhausted. Adults can regulate their own emotional thermostat, they can turn down the gas and put a lid on. Toddlers can't do this, they need us to help. Toddlers need an adult to contain the overspill, turn down the gas and put a lid on. Or in other words they need your help to calm down. They need calm words and hugs, patience and support. Sitting them in time out or on the naughty step alone is akin to letting them 'boil dry'. They don't think about what they did wrong, or how they can behave better next time, they don't have the brain capacity for such sophisticated thought. They don't purposefully calm down, they do so for two reasons only - because they become exhausted and because they learn that you won't act like you love them again until they do. Using these methods you simply teach them to conceal their emotions. Is it any wonder so many adults find it hard to be emotionally open if this is what we encourage in childhood?
3. Toddlers feel just as bad as us when they tantrum.
Being the parent of a toddler having a tantrum is really tough. It can often feel like the toddler is doing things deliberately to 'wind you up'. They always pick the worst time, when you're tired, ill or out in public. You feel ashamed, embarrassed, angry, helpless, even out of control. The thing is your toddler feels exactly the same things. They don't enjoy having a tantrum. Imagine how awful it must feel to be so out of control and have the person you love and trust most in the world completely ignore you when you really need them. As hard as it is to parent a toddler having a tantrum, it is infinitely harder to BE the toddler having a tantrum!
4. Toddlers often tantrum because they feel a disconnect with us.
One of the top reasons for tantrums is when the toddler feels a lack of connection with their parent. Common causes include the arrival of a new sibling, starting nursery or the mother returning to work. In each case the toddler feel less connected. This lack of connection leaves the toddler feeling highly vulnerable, confused and scared. Imagine your partner coming home tonight and saying "Hi honey, this is my new girlfriend, she's going to be living with us. I love her very much and I love you just as much as before and in time you will love her too". Sounds ridiculous? Effectively this is exactly what happens when you introduce your toddler to a new baby sibling. Imagine how unsettled they feel, is it any wonder they tantrum? The best way to cope here is not to cause even more disconnect by ignoring them, or excluding them from you in time out, but in helping them to understand you still love them just as much as before, by showing them with your actions and understanding. You need to connect more, not less.
For tips to cope with child behaviour in a more respectful and effective way check out 'The Gentle Parenting Book'.