Toddlers are so unpredictable. You never know what is going to set them off.
One day she loves hot dogs and the next day she does NOT like hot dogs.
She doesn’t like the spoon I gave her.
Or the way I have my legs when I’m sitting.
She doesn’t like how the cat is looking at her.
Or the sounds the baby is making. (One day my daughter was sitting in the car next to her baby brother and she sighed loudly and said he was being so annoying. I asked what he was doing to annoy her and she mimicked his happy baby sounds. Wow, that sounds…awful?)
She will want to do something until I smile and say that it’s a great idea and then suddenly she thinks it’s a terrible idea.
So of course, the way you deal with them has to constantly be changing too. I always try the same things to start with because if it works, then great. But when that doesn’t work, I have some backup ideas. I wanted to share them with you because they might be helpful to you, but also for myself because it’s so helpful to have really well thought out backup ideas. When I don’t have ideas ready in my mind, it can be difficult to come up with something that is going to work, especially when I am feeling frustrated and she is getting more and more worked up. If I don’t have any ideas, I get worked up myself and sometimes respond angrily, which definitely doesn’t help.
First…let her know you hear her. Before trying to do or say anything else, if I remember to first say, “do you want ______?” Depending on how upset she is, I might need to talk about it more a little bit. “Oh that sounds fun.” “Mmm, I like that too, those are yummy.” Before trying to move on to saying that we can’t have that thing or will have to wait. It helps. If I just start with a “no”, even if it’s a “not right now, but you can after dinner”, she just hears the “no” and freaks out.
Blowing out the candles. When my toddler is “totally freaking out” (as Peg would say from Peg Plus Cat), we blow out my finger candles. This really helps more than anything I’ve tried to calm her down. We do it regularly so she is familiar with it and actually asks for it sometimes. She takes deep breaths and blows out all five fingers on one hand. If she is resistant I ask her if she wants to blow out her candles instead, which she has chosen to do a few times. Or I say, “ok, I’m going to do it then.” Whenever I start to do it, she almost always says, “no no no, I going to do it!” Once she is calm I can talk to her more easily, but this isn’t guaranteed to end a problem because if I’m saying that yes she does have to take a nap, or no she can’t take that toy from her sister, or no we aren’t going to have popsicles for breakfast, the tantrum may start up again.
Whispering. I haven’t actually had a lot of luck with this. I keep trying it, but she usually just gets mad at me and hits me in the face. Toddlers can be so sweet. But it works for my husband a lot. If he just starts talking super quietly and is saying things like, “you’ll have to be calm to hear what it is I am saying,” she will (for him, anyway) calm down to hear him. I think this is a neat idea to have in your figurative back pocket, even if it doesn’t work, because it’s nice to whisper when what you really feel like doing is yelling.
Singing. Another thing that doesn’t work with my current toddler. Big Sis liked it when I sang. She really liked the Daniel Tiger songs. Like “When you feel so mad, and you want to ROAR, take a deep breath (breathe) and count to four. One. Two. Three. Four.” It worked so well for Big Sis. Little Sis just tends to get more mad and screams at me to stop singing. But every once in a while I will ask her if she wants to pick a song to sing and she’ll scream no and I’ll say, “ok I’ll choose one”, and I hear “no no no, I choose.” Haha. Do you see a pattern starting for what works with my toddler?
Identify triggers and come up with a consistent solution. One of the most common arguments in our house is over a toy. When my toddler wants what her sister has, first I remind her to calmly ask for a turn when her sister is done. That usually makes her pretty happy. Knowing she will get a turn is sometimes enough. But trying to find a great toy to play with in the meantime is helpful too. And as a preventative measure, I try to make sure that there is something for each kid if I am offering it. If Big Sis wants toast and Little Sis doesn’t, I make her some toast anyway because the odds are very good that once she sees her sister with toast, she will change her mind and want some too. Counting to ten rather than just pulling her abruptly away from something.
Choices. This, of course, is a pretty well known method for dealing with kids. Give them the power to choose between two acceptable things. Sit up in bed or lay down for quiet time? Books or toys? Light on or off? Pink or purple bowl? This works really well most of the time. But, you know, nothing works all the time with toddlers. This is a really good preventative strategy. If I am doing a good job of empowering her with choices regularly, we have less tantrums.
Distraction. Sometimes she is angry but hasn’t done anything wrong. Nobody needs an apology. I will just try to redirect. “I am so excited to go to the park when we are done with the store.” “I have a snack ready in the kitchen for girls who are calm.”
Humor. Figure out what makes your kid laugh and incorporate that. For my current toddler, tickling doesn’t work…it makes her more mad. But using words like “poop” or “butt” get her every time. (Yes, I am very proud, and thrilled to be sharing this with you…) So if she won’t calm down I might say, “I would really like to talk about this with you when you are done being a poop butt!” She laughs and starts down the road to being calm much more quickly. Being able to recognize that something is ridiculous and laugh about it is a great skill to have. My toddler is three now so there are times when she does something and I just say,”really?” And we both laugh. Then I talk with her about what she could do instead. I also will act like her sometimes. Pretend screaming. In a silly way, not a mocking, shaming way. This works a lot too. She laughs and laughs and then we talk about what to do instead.
Time in/time out. Call it what you want, but the idea is to remove the angry child from the situation. Whether it means taking the toddler to sit in the car while the rest of the family finishes shopping, sitting in a special time out spot alone until she can become calm, or sitting with a parent in a quiet room and doing breathing exercises, the purpose of time outs should be to become calm and in control (and, I personally think, most often NOT for punishment.) I find this especially useful, although challenging, if we are in a public situation where I have to hold her so she won’t run away or do the thing she shouldn’t be doing, like hurting her sister. When she gets so focused on getting out of my arms (any time I give her the opportunity to get down she starts to take off) I try to find a place to go ASAP so I can let her go but she can’t run away. A room or the car. I often take her out to our van and she calms down so much faster when I’m not forcing her to be in my arms. She will scream for a bit but she can’t get out of the van, and I’m not reacting to her, just waiting for her to be calm…so she calms down quickly and we talk. This works so much better than trying to figure things out while I’m forcing her to be held.
Consistency. Although the methods need to change sometimes, I at least am consistent with letting her know what is or is not acceptable behavior and I always expect her to apologize the same way. Once she is calm enough to apologize, it’s easy because she is used to doing it.
Be calm yourself. Although it is pretty obvious that a parent who yells, stomps, slams doors, etc. is not teaching the toddler to behave any differently, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy for us to keep our cool. What do you need to do to get a hold of your own emotions? Take a little time out in the bathroom. Find something to laugh about. Remember to make time for yourself on a regular basis. Remind yourself that they need to be taught (over and over and over and over….) how to act, how to treat people, how to deal with their emotions. And…
Set realistic expectations. Read up on how children typically see the world at this age. Of course all children are different. But developmentally most toddler just don’t understand certain things, like compassion. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it with them and explain and show how important it is to think about how the things they do affect others…but don’t get too upset if it’s not sinking in very quickly. On the other hand, don’t expect too little of them either. I find that when I empower my kids to talk to each other and try to solve problems on their own, with my guidance, rather than me coming in and telling everyone what to do and how to share, that things go a lot better. They feel better about the situation and about themselves and are more likely to try to do it that way again in the future. With enough help, and with time, they can possibly start to get some things that seem too challenging for them to understand at first.
I will end with that. I took forever to write this post because I kept having more thoughts and, as you might have noticed by now, I can get a little long winded. I struggled with trying to shorten it down to a post people might actually read. But, I didn’t end up shortening it very much. I ended up deciding that the information is there for anyone who wants it. Skim it and read what interests you 🙂
What about you? Do you have a spirited child? 🙂 What do you do to help him/her to deal with big emotions?
Check out my post Life With a Toddler, if you haven’t already for more thoughts on this subject.
Thanks so much for reading!