Tantrum Taming 101

Toddler throwing a tantrum      Is your toddler starting to tantrum at the most inopportune moments?  Have you been feeling that your once angelic baby is turning into some kind of demon?

I remember lamenting my child’s transition to toddlerhood until I found a few amazing parenting tools which now make me feel secure and confident in preventing as well as responding to the inevitable tantrum.

First off, it’s important to remember what is happening in a child’s brain when a tantrum occurs.  The lymbic system, or ground floor of the brain, is its most foundational and primitive part.  The prefrontal cortex, or Director/Thinker of the brain, develops after this more foundational limbic portion, and is dependent for optimal development upon the limbic brain’s needs being met.

What is the biggest need of a child’s limbic, or emotional, brain?  CONNECTION.  When a child feels connected to his or her caregiver, chances are, tantrums will not occur as often or with as much force.  A tantrum is, afterall, just a child’s reaction to a loss of connection, in many ways an attempt to re-establish a strong sense of connection.

What does that mean for parents and caregivers?  Put simply, if you want to prevent or respond appropriately to tantrums, it is all about establishing, maintaining and nurturing a strong connection with your child.

One of the practices I teach in my Parenting by Connection classes, and practice nearly daily with my children, is called Special Time.  I use my phone timer and set it for 10-40 minutes.  I put the phone on a high shelf, out of sight.  We commit to no technology or distractions during this time.  Then I ask my child, “We can do anything (no screens, no sweets) you want to do – what would you like to do for Special Time?”  Then I follow her lead.  She is the one coming up with all the play ideas, and I ask her to tell me what she would like for me to do.  While this Special Time and play is happening, I give her my full attention, warmth, and use this as  a sacred space and time to be completely present, in awe of and loving my child.  If you practice this regularly with your child, and especially before difficult transitions or times of day (like morning routine, meal times, bed times, etc), you will notice more cooperation, ease and emotional regulation with your child.

If after you start using this tool you notice a time when tantrums start happening more and more, I suggest you consider the tantrums to be an indicator that your child needs more connection.  When tantrums do occur, it is best to get low and get close, so that the connection that the limbic brain is searching for is met.  Once the connection is reestablished, Staylisten through big feelings by being sure your child is safe, holding her and allowing her to emote.  While this is not considered to be the easiest way to respond to a tantrum, research and experience shows that it is the most effective for children of any age.  Their brain’s need for connection is maintained and their emotions run their course.  The child returns to clarity and calm once the emotional storm is allowed to pass in safety and security.

Old school methods of responding to tantrums with time outs, punishments, commands to stop crying are increasingly being refuted with brain and emotional research.  When a child tantrums, he or she needs to release the tensions created by connections not remaining strong.  Telling a child to stop it, isolating him in time out or punishing him sends the message that 1)emotions are wrong 2) he can deal with his life and feelings alone and 3)he should be ashamed of what he feels.  Our methods of responding to our children’s biggest feelings really do teach them what those emotions mean and how we value them.

So the next time a tantrum presents itself, try to remember these tips.  A tantrum and is an opportunity to practice understanding, patience, compassion and ultimately, to reestablish and nurture your parent-child connection.

Building Emotional Understanding

I recently took a parenting class called Building Emotional Understanding and will be continuing with certification as an instructor of Parenting by Connection with a non profit organization in Palo Alto called Hand in Hand Parenting.

Being a new parent of an infant is exhausting yet quite straightforward in the sense that if you are sure feed, clothe, bathe, cuddle and put to rest your new infant, he or she will be content and eager to interact, smile, play and learn.

Toddlerhood is a different ball game in that a parent meeting their toddler’s basic needs for food, sleep, cuddling and bathing don’t always compute to calm, angelic behavior (the understatement of the century!).

So what starts to complicate behavior as kids grow? In Building Emotional Understanding, Patty Wipfler, Director of Hand in Hand Parenting, teaches that the limbic system of the brain actually requires consistent, strong, trustworthy emotional connection in order to grow into an optimally functioning, learning system. In other words, the emotional bond is as important as sleep, food and bathing in a growing person’s development and can actually be used in moments of off track behavior to help steer a child back to their calm and reasonable place.

This may seem obvious to many parents and caregivers as they often recognize the positive impact that their strong bond with a child has on that child’s security and behavior, even in toddlerhood.

What is often misunderstood is what a child needs when their behavior goes off track. In our culture, time outs and punishments have become common place responses to a toddler’s off track behavior.

In the Parenting by Connection approach that is taught at Hand in Hand Parenting, a toddler’s tantrum is an opportunity to get closer, create safety, and invite a full session of emotional release from a toddler to create a deeper bond with caregivers so that the brain’s limbic system’s need for closeness is met. A toddler can cycle through a tantrum with an adult coming closer, rather than punishing and rejecting, much more effectively and with trust in themselves and caretakers in tact.

Many busy modern parents believe they don’t have time to use Parenting by Connection techniques in their chaotic lives. The reality is that it doesn’t take more time to implement this approach; it requires more presence. So if parents work on their ability to be present with their toddlers (and older children’s) wide range of emotions, being their close connection and safety as they cycle through and release difficult emotions, they will find their attempts to “discipline” more successful and sustainable and children’s limbic systems’ are fed rather than starved, strengthening their foundations for learning and empathy as they grow.

For more information, see http://www.handinhandparenting.org and contact me at (415) 377-6791 or at kiran@rayoflightcoaching.com if you would like me to provide a demonstration of how to use these parenting and behavioral techniques with children. I give talks at doctor’s offices, Mom’s groups, preschools and provide one on one coaching as well.