by MELISSA FOX
It’s been a long, exhausting day. You’re pushing a cart down an aisle while your toddler loudly melts down. Likely mortified and melting down yourself, if we take a step back, we can see both parent and child are ‘dysregulated’. Rather than trying to gain control via any means necessary, leaning on communication and empathy means everybody wins.
According to verywellmind.com, dysregulation is “the poor ability to manage emotional responses or to keep them within an acceptable range; this can refer to sadness, anger, irritability and frustration.”
“Toddlers don’t ‘act up’; they behave as toddlers,” explained Gwendolyn Creary, an infant and early childhood mental health consultant working with Parenting Guide Bermuda. “They are realising that they have an idea about how they want things to be and that it can differ from what their adults want to happen.”
‘Messy Mama’ Heather Willens agreed, adding that tantrums can “trigger” parents because we tend to see toddlers as “an extension of our ego. When they [tantrum], we feel like we’re messing up, but we have to respect children as people.
“Full disclaimer, I’m not qualified to tell people how to raise their children,” she stated, however her formal training as a teacher and undergraduate degree in developmental psychology has provided a well-rounded perspective on communicating with children. “But the idea is not so much managing your children as it is managing you.”
When your toddler starts to melt down, “stay calm and ask yourself why this behaviour is happening,” Ms Creary said. “Put yourself in your child’s shoes: how are they feeling?”
“A good parent is like a good psychologist; you find some way to mirror what they’re saying,” Ms Willens added. “You’re really mad right now. You’re allowed to be mad. I feel like a lot of the times when I’m saying that to my son, I’m talking to myself, and I know that when we don’t [validate their feelings], data shows us they may stop showing them to us, but they’re not processing. As they get older, their frontal lobe develops. They’re getting better brakes on their emotions, but those brakes don’t finish developing until they’re 25.”
Ms Creary expanded on this: “Research shows that infants and toddlers learn coping mechanisms from their parents, especially when in distress. Adults who are self-aware can calmly assist their child to co-regulate, allowing the child’s brain to grow the neuronal connections that will facilitate their own ability to self-regulate.”
In teaching regulation, Ms Creary supports the concept of ACT: “Acknowledge how they’re feeling: ‘I know you are angry because I am putting your tablet away. Communicate the rule or what needs to happen: ‘Your tablet must be put away because it is bedtime’. Target a positive choice: ‘What book would you like me to read before you go to sleep?”
It is up to parents to give kids the tools to wire the ‘breaks’ appropriately. Ms Willens recalled advice from a fellow mother and teacher who touted the power of ownership. In her example, a teacher presents a fact to the class, which is challenged by a student.
“In the old days, you weren’t allowed to contradict the teacher. The new model is much more appropriate, where the dynamic between teacher and student is that they’re evolving together. So, if you make a mistake or don’t know the answer, you have more power in the child’s eyes when you own up to it.”
When it comes to a dysregulated child, she continued, “I can’t stop if I’ve already lost my patience. But when we’re both calm, we can come back to it, and I can say, ‘Okay, I blew it. This is what I did; it wasn’t good and I regret doing that. I’m sorry.’ And, ‘here’s what I’m going to try to do next time,’ or ‘what do you need me to do next time?’”
When tantrums take on a physical form, Ms Creary stressed first the need to recognise that even this behaviour is a form of communication and that as adults, we must try to “acknowledge the child’s emotional experience and reflect it. This helps the child take ownership and develop a sense of their mind. Discipline that accepts feelings but limits behaviour can teach a child to manage emotions.”
She noted that three components may contribute to ‘problem behaviour’: biology, family relationships, and a parent’s history of adverse experiences: “Depending on one’s analysis of the three components, professional consultation may be a good idea. In any case, if a parent is struggling, they should seek help and support.”
Let’s go back to the store and the tantrum. You take a deep breath and acknowledge their feelings.
“Our brains can’t work from the frontal cortex when we have big emotions, and their emotional brains are firing, so we can’t teach them anything in that moment,” Ms Willens said. “So often we feel this pressure to punish the behaviour and control it, but our energy would be better spent calming our kid, and us, down, getting back to the car and then having a conversation over a snack about why it is okay to feel angry, tired or hungry but simply unacceptable to collapse in the wine aisle in Lindo’s and scream (true story!), and how can we tell mummy in the future that we really need some Goldfish?”
Ms Willens shared five tips to help curb tantrum behaviour before it begins:
Make sure everyone is fed, mama, included!
Where possible, time errands and outings for kids to be successful. “Most kids are at their best in the mornings.”
Create a consistent daily routine to help kids feel in control. For more anxious children, give them a ‘heads up’ for routine changes.
Setting expectations can help kids to remember what ‘good’ behaviour looks and sounds like.
Realising that some days, it’s all going to hit the fan. @drbeckygoodinside on Instagram has this wonderful script: “You’re a good kid who is having a hard time right now. I love you no matter what.”