7 Ways to Help Our Tiny Humans with BIG Emotions

If there is one thing that most parents are painfully aware of, it’s the emotional volatility of a child under the age of 4 or 5 years old.  There’s a reason that there are entire websites dedicated to parents sharing photos of their tantruming toddlers, offering of a sense of solidarity from parent to parent. If you are one of the lucky few who’s wee-one seems to have their emotions in check, my hat’s off to you!  For the rest of us who are struggling to understand how to intervene when our kid is having a meltdown because their grilled cheese was cut into triangles instead of squares, let’s talk about what to do. First Thing’s First: Get yourself in the right frame of mind before you even act.  Whether you react immediately, or take 30 seconds to take a deep breath, you are walking into the same situation.  This is a time in which you cannot fight fire with fire. Take a second, take a deep breath, and remember that your job is to TEACH. Second: Remember that your toddler is experiencing the same emotions that you are, but without the ability to articulate how they are feeling or cope with those experiences.  They also have little to no control over anything, which is frustrating in and of itself.  Try and empathize – during that few seconds you take to relax before you respond, think about how you would feel if you were completely overwhelmed with anger (or sadness, or fear… or any emotion), but then couldn’t communicate that to anyone around you, nor control your environment to make yourself feel better. Third: Don’t take it personally.  Toddlers DO NOT CARE if you are late for work, or if you’re exhausted.  They don’t care that you just got out of a really bad phone call, or aren’t sure how that medical bill that’s sitting on the counter is going to be paid.  Remember that a tantrum is not a personal attack on you.  Rather, it is nothing more than an inability to reconcile their wants with what is actually available to them.  We can all relate to the feeling of wanting something we can’t have… Fourth: Accept the situation… I know… It’s HORRIBLE timing… It’s really easy to get angry at your child for making you late, or for putting you into a situation that you are not properly caffeinated to handle.  Accept the fact that you can either intervene effectively, which requires patience, or you lose the opportunity to do so.  Some days, you won’t have much of a choice other than to scoop up your kicking and screaming kid and get them to daycare.  But when you can, really try and take the time.  These are really frustrating moments, but also great opportunities to teach them ESSENTIAL and CORE skills that they will use FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.  It’s worth it to take a few minutes, I promise.  

You’ll notice much of this happens BEFORE you’ve even approached the tantruming toddler… there’s a reason for that…. Remember your job is to teach? Part of what we teach our children is how to enter situations.  One of my favorite statistics is that 96% of our conversations/interactions end the same way that they start.  Teach your children that by showing them.

Now you’re ready to approach your toddler….

Step Five: Help them de-escalate a little bit so that they can communicate a little bit better.  This will vary from kid to kid – some kids need time and space to work it out, some kids need a hug, some kids need you to help them take a couple of deep breaths. Treat a tantrum like you would a skinned-knee – you have to help them feel a little bit better before you are able to put the band-aide on… Step Six: Help them articulate what’s bothering them, and to label how they feel. Remember that their problems are real to them.  It may be completely trivial and seem ridiculous to us, but it’s REALLY IMPORTANT to them.  Validate that it’s okay to feel how they feel (and ideally, let them know that you feel that way sometimes too).  Then ask them if they want help learning how to feel better. For Example: “It really stinks when you can’t have what you want.  I don’t like it either.  Do you want me to help you learn how to feel better?” Step Seven: Teach them how to calm down, and walk them through it.  You might be using some of the same skills you used in step five, but instead of you just guiding them through it, you’re teaching them to do it independently.  There are a million things that can be done to help us humans regulate our emotions (do a google search of “coping skills,” and you’ll be shocked at the number of creative ways people have found to relax). Help your child learn ways to calm down – some quick (and ideal for meltdowns when one is late for work…, like taking deep breaths), some that take more time (yoga, taking a bath), some that require materials (coloring, stress balls, listening to music), some that don’t (stretching, hand massage)…. You want your child to have a toolbox full of skills that they can use in various situations so that, no matter where they are when they are upset, they build confidence that they can get through stressful situations. Introduce maybe 1 or 2 skills now, but vary it up at other times and teach other skills later.  Help them add some tools to their toolbox over time so that they have lots of options (this is especially good for when kids learn that some coping skills work well for some emotions or situations, but not for others).  

Now go and celebrate what an awesome job you just did, because THAT is NOT easy AT ALL.  Muster up any coping skills you have left for yourself, even if all you can do is laugh, and move on with your day.  Chances are your kid will be over it sooner than you will!