When it comes to emotions, toddlers are often unpredictable. Like their grown-up counterparts, a toddler’s emotional expressions are unique and difficult to categorize. One of these expressions many parents dread is known colloquially as a “temper tantrum.” What we do as parents to help guide our children through these difficult moments has the possibility to shape how their emotional expression looks for the rest of their lives.
For a variety of reasons, emotionally intelligent parents are equipped to deal with temper tantrums and use them as moments of teaching. They’re more tuned-in to their toddler’s emotions to start with, they won’t lose their own temper as a response, and they know calming strategies that work. But that’s just scratching the surface of what emotionally intelligent parents do (and don’t do) during a temper tantrum. It turns out, there’s actually a lot more to how to deal with temper tantrums with emotional intelligence than you may think!
One great thing about emotionally intelligent parents is their ability to effectively communicate how they’re feeling. It’s one of the 4 characteristics of emotionally intelligent people. The ability to identify your own emotions and implement the best strategies to regulate them is fundamental to EI. It also makes a huge difference when it comes to communication during a temper tantrum.
Toddlers are notoriously difficult to communicate with because of their limited vocabulary and this can become especially apparent during a temper tantrum. Often, parents are left guessing about the reason for a particular outburst. Could it be something simple like an expression of hunger or anger? Or could it be a sign of something more serious like a toothache or earache? Parents with high EI are better equipped to navigate these holes in communication and don’t lose their temper as a result of miscommunication. Toddlers rarely have the vocabulary to express why they do what they do or feel what they feel so it’s up to their parents to be the interpreters.
To guide your child with compassion during a temper tantrum, you need to keep several things in mind. First and foremost, tap into what you know about your child. Read the cues, both verbal and nonverbal, your child is prone to. Use gestures and whatever works best to communicate calming, empathetic, and understanding messages. For a toddler in the middle of a meltdown, it makes a huge difference knowing that a parent is nearby and ready to help at a moment’s notice.
Another great thing you can do for a child is reading to them consistently. Check out last week’s article on best children’s books for building EI. I’ve found reading to be one of the best places to start building that emotional vocabulary and vocabulary in general and ensuring better communication. It’s a process and not going to happen overnight but think of each tantrum as a step on the road towards better self-expression.
L.E.S.S. is More
Another great strategy is the L.E.S.S. method from Amelia Kibbie writing for mom.com. It puts into practice everything we’ve talked about so far and then some. L.E.S.S. stands for Listen, Empathize, State the emotion, and Stop there. Listen to why your child is having a meltdown, or as we’ve discussed, make your best guess. Empathize with their reason, no matter how silly it may seem, by saying something like, “I understand it’s frustrating that you can’t have that toy you want.” State the emotion they’re feeling based on what they tell you (you don’t want to tell your children what they should or shouldn’t be feeling.) And finally, stop there; you’ve done all you can do.
It’s an easy way to remember the steps you can take to deal with a tantrum when they happen. It can be incredibly difficult to go through all these steps in the moment, especially when a tantrum happens in public. But keep these methods in mind and give it a try, it may not work the first time or the second, but it will connect your child to their emotions in a way that will surely make a difference.
One of the most important roles of a parent is making your child feel safe and secure. This has a huge emotional component to it. Parents who acknowledge and listen to their child’s emotions are telling their children that emotions are an important part of life. Parents with high EI know that tantrums are temporary and often just need to burn themselves out. They know that as they continue helping their child work on emotional recognition, body awareness, communication, and emotion regulation, these tantrums will decrease in intensity until one day they will be gone entirely.
Along with building your child’s emotion vocabulary through books and toys, be sure to name your own emotions when they come up in context. When you’re feeling angry, sad, or happy, take opportunities to talk to your child about it, naming those emotions and explaining how body awareness (fast heartbeat, tight fists, holding your breath, warm face) helps you know you’re feeling that way. Children learn firsthand from these experiences.
The Science Behind Temper Tantrums
While these techniques may help us be better prepared for dealing with our child’s next temper tantrum, it would also be helpful to know some of the science behind what’s really happening during a temper tantrum. This New York Times article goes in-depth on the brain activity that accounts for these emotional episodes.
Essentially, we see that these tantrums happen when the brain misinterprets its own signals as something threatening. This supports my claim that emotional recognition is key to understanding why these episodes happen and how to best respond to them. Because the part of the brain that controls impulse control (the prefrontal cortex) is undeveloped in toddlers and not fully developed until adulthood, parents who try to reason with their children during a tantrum may find themselves being ignored. This isn’t a sign that something’s wrong, it just means your toddler doesn’t understand how to regulate their emotions. A temper tantrum is not a time to reason but after dealing with the temper tantrum, meaningful emotionally intelligent conversation about what happened is very useful.
One important step towards teaching emotional regulation is managing your own emotions during a meltdown. It is so easy to lapse into aggression or dismissal if you’re not careful. When we’re confronted by intense displays of emotion, empathetic people will feel those emotions themselves. The phenomenon of what are called “mirror neurons” is so fascinating and proves this theory. These are brain cells that fire in response to people’s behaviors, thereby mirroring the brain activity of other people. So even though you may not be angry with your child, their display of anger may be influencing your behavior on some level. That is why techniques like the L.E.S.S. method and calming techniques like deep breathing exercises are so important, especially in the moment. Instead of trying to calm your child during a temper tantrum, calm yourself. When they see calmness being role modeled, they are likely to mirror it.
Every child is different, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies you can try out. It’s recommended that you crouch down to a child’s level and speak softly to let them know you’re there with them. Even if you need to keep some physical distance between you in order to not get whacked, they will feel listened to and that you care about what it is that they’re experiencing. This is different than condoning it. And it might only be for a moment preceding distancing from the child or cuddling the child with a secure hug. Some children will appreciate a soft hand on their back, but others may need their space. Getting to know your child and finding what works best is part of the process towards healthy growth and development. Let me know in the comments what has and hasn’t worked for you during a tantrum, we can all stand to learn from each other’s experiences on how to deal with temper tantrums with emotional intelligence.