Say the words “temper tantrum” to a parent or childcare provider and it is almost guaranteed to elicit a strong response. Picture this: A toddler wants his favorite Buzz cup for dinner. Instead, he receives the Woody cup and plate. In response, he kicks his feet and pushes his plate of food onto the floor, all the while arching his back, crying, and screaming. It seems like we have all been there at one time or another, and felt frustration in trying to find a response that will not only help the child calm down, but will also help reduce the intensity and frequency of such melt-downs.
Understanding emotional responses (yours and theirs):
Adults often become distressed by a child’s intense emotional reactions and expressions, which in turn causes adults to want to scold, reprimand, lecture, ignore, or consequate such outbursts. The problem is, people of all ages need permission and space to have emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. Young children need to learn how to experience and express all of their emotions. They need a safe, secure, regulated (calm) adult to provide guidance and co-regulation.
Three important components of emotion management:
- In humans, the attachment figure’s internal state also regulates the child’s internal state during most of the first THREE years of life. It is important for the primary caretaker to remain calm, both as a form of modeling, as well as a form of supporting the co-regulation process.
- The health of the bond between child and primary caretaker depends on the caregiver’s attunement, emotional availability, continuity of care, and responsiveness.
- A child forms his primary attachment during times of distress.
Let’s revisit the scenario from the opening paragraph. A young child, age two, is throwing a temper tantrum because he did not receive the cup and plate he wanted for dinner. It is appropriate for the adult caregiver to correct the inappropriate actions, such as kicking, screaming, and throwing food on the floor. However, while correcting the inappropriate actions, the adult caregiver may also inadvertently reprimand the emotion. It is important to remember actions and emotions are two separate and distinct things. Just like you, a child has every right to have emotions, including disappointment, frustration, and anger. And who are we to say what a two-year-old can and cannot feel upset about? (I think not getting his favorite cup at dinner is a perfectly appropriate reason for a two-year old to feel disappointed or angry.) Our job as the adult is to help teach children how to handle such strong feelings.
The following table explains the unintended result caused by common adult responses to young children’s intense emotional outbursts.
|Ignore the behavior Put a young child in time-out||Children rely on their primary attachment figure for needed emotional regulation. Without this option they do the best they can with what they have and know. This explains why so many young children escalate and become even more out-of-control when ignored or left in a corner alone. They truly don’t know what to do or how to calm themselves and become even more anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Children also internalize the belief that not all emotions are acceptable or can be shared with others.|
|Scold, yell, get angry||A dysregulated adult disrupts the child’s internal regulation system, which can lead a child to withdraw or act out more.|
|Lecture, rationalize||When humans experience strong emotions, they are primarily operating in their “emotion” brain and have difficulty accessing or using their “thinking” brain. This is most certainly not the time for words or attempts at logic.In addition, young children are still developmentally “in the moment” and reliant on adult physical support and guidance, not a bunch of words.|
Appropriate responses that provide connection and teaching:
- Validate feelings. “Yeah, I know it’s sad, buddy. You really like the Buzz cup. It’s your favorite.”
- Set boundaries by providing a time-in. “Throwing food is never OK.” Stay close and move whatever is still in close proximity to ensure he does not continue throwing more things on the floor. If he calms and accepts your help, return his food – but stay there to intercept any additional attempts at throwing. Intervening and simply preventing the ongoing misbehavior is the best consequence and strategy for teaching appropriate boundaries and behavior.
- Be real. Children need some ways of expressing feelings; they are not robots. What are you willing to allow? He may continue to whimper. He may continue to resist using the Woody cup. He may sulk or pout for a bit. These reactions are all developmentally appropriate, and a socially acceptable way for a toddler to show strong feelings.
- Teach regulation through co-regulation. If his strong emotions continue and have gotten the best of him, help him out. Pick him up, offer comfort and attunement, and “download” your calm into him. When he is ready, put him back in the highchair, stay close (time-in), and return to mealtime.
Time-in is an incredibly successful behavior management strategy for young children as it provides the co-regulation they need in order to establish their own, internal system of self-regulation. Time-in puts you in a position to model, shape and teach appropriate behaviors (i.e., with you sitting right there, a small child is prevented from continuing to toss his plate, cup, etc. onto the floor).
Discipline and consequences are not synonymous with punishment. Discipline means to teach, and a consequence is simply the result or effect of an action or condition. You do not have to feel as if his wrong-doing needs to be punished. Correcting a young child’s misbehavior by being present and providing guidance is sufficient.
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy with Toddlers: Improving Attachment and Emotion Regulation by Cheryl B. McNeil, Emma I. Girard, Jane R. Kohlhoff, Nancy M. Wallace, and Susan S. J. Morgan
- Managing Emotional Mayhem by Dr. Becky Bailey
- Harvard Center on the Developing Child (website)
CARRIE GOTTCHALK EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD
Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist, Sarah Dankenbring, Amanda Cue, Early Childhood Mental Health Therapist
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