Has your toddler ever started screaming for seemingly no reason? Or hit you out of the blue? Or thrown their toys across the room? Or had a meltdown in the grocery store? Or had a temper tantrum at just the wrong time? Ever wondered why your beautiful child turns into a monster for seemingly no reason at all? Better yet, how can you make it stop?
I’d like to offer an alternative to timeouts, discipline, or other consequences when a toddler breaks down.
We’ve all said to our kids, “Use your words.” There is a period of todderhood when a child knows words, but cannot make them available as speech when they are upset. Instead they may hit, throw themselves down on the ground, cry, scream, throw objects, run away, refuse to follow directions, use the only word that comes to mind, “NO!” or name call.
My sister tells a story of a time when I “kicked her in the face for no reason.” I had a perfectly good reason for kicking her in the face, I even warned her before I did it. I was sitting in the recliner trying to sleep and she came over and started to bother me. I told her, “Go away, I’m trying to sleep.” She kept at it, so I told her, “My eyes are closed, and if you don’t leave me alone I’m going to kick, and I won’t be responsible for where my foot lands.” Guess what? She didn’t leave me alone and my foot landed in her face. Now I obviously wasn’t a toddler, and I had plenty of words. The thing is, my sister always had more words than me, and bigger words, and I knew I was no match for her. She would assault me with words, and my only defense was my foot or my fists. When she told my dad that I kicked her, he asked, “What did you say to her?”
Words can be just as powerful as a foot or fist, and when you can’t form them to defend yourself at the right moment it’s frustrating. The same is true for a toddler. They may have a feeling and know what they want, but they are not able to express that so that another human being can understand. So instead they have what is commonly referred to as a temper tantrum.
Can you imagine knowing exactly what you want, having the vocabulary to ask for it, but when you open your mouth nothing comes out but a scream? Or if you were so hungry that you’d eat your shorts, but you’re not tall enough to reach for a cracker in the cupboard? Even if you could get to that cracker by pulling over a stool and climbing up, there’s a good chance that someone is going to tell you to stop and get down. Denied, once again. That’s the life of a toddler.
Have you ever wondered why feelings are called “feelings?” It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized that I actually physically feel feelings in my body. When I’m sad my throat starts to hurt. When I’m angry, I get a knot in the pit of my belly. When I feel love, I have a warmth that takes over my body. When I’m scared I get the chills. I’d been feeling these things all my life, and never made the connection until someone pointed it out to me. When I express my feelings with words, some of that physical discomfort dissipates and I eventually start to feel better.
Think of a how a toddler must feel when they have a feeling in their body that they don’t understand and can’t express with words. They’re angry that they can’t have a cookie for breakfast and they can’t put that into words. So, they have a temper tantrum. They seek physical comfort because the feeling is a physical sensation. Hitting, screaming, running, crying, these are all physical attempts to regulate that negative physical feeling, even pain.
Once I discovered this I was able to help my son when he was feeling an uncomfortable emotion. I can see it in his face when he begins to get upset. His eyes narrow, his head drops, his lip quivers, and his fists tighten. He starts to cry. And scream. He might throw something, or hit.
Here’s the thing. Toddlers may not have the words to express their feelings, but we can teach them the words. However, once they know the words, they still may not be able to access them when they’re in that feeling. We can help them to access these words.
Here are some ways to teach your kids about feelings that we’ve tried and they’ve worked:
- Read books about feelings. Our favorite is How Are You Peeling: Foods With Moods by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. They photograph fruits and vegetables and give them faces by either cutting them or adding other bits of food and talk about what they might be feeling. Brilliant!
- Draw simple pictures of faces expressing feelings and ask your child to name the feelings. Examples are happy, sad, angry, grumpy, cranky, frustrated, surprised, scared, or confused.
- Ask your child to make faces of different feelings and take pictures of the doing it. Tell them, “Show me your angry face, now your happiest face, now your surprised face”, etc. Take pictures for each feeling and put together a slideshow or collage to review different feelings with them.
- Make faces at your child and ask them to tell you what they think you are feeling. This could be a game or during an actual situation. For instance, if they hit you tell them to look at your face and tell them what you’re feeling. “Look at mommy’s face. You hit me, what do you think I’m feeling?” “That’s right, I’m feeling sad.”
- Use as many words as you can for feelings, including complex emotions. At first they may only understand the simple ones like happy and sad, but be sure to express feelings as words like excited, proud, giddy, mad, angry, frustrated, scared, surprised, and confused.
Once they have the words, you can start to help them to access the words during a meltdown. Instead of saying “Don’t hit” or putting your child in timeout (we’ve never had to use timeouts because of our work on feelings), ask them what (not how) they are feeling.
Say, “STOP! What are you feeling?” In the beginning you may have to script the answer for them. “It sounds like you’re mad right now. Are you feeling mad?” Once they express the feeling, you can ask them, “What is making you feel mad?” Now they’ve had a chance to express what they’re feeling and why they feel that way. You’ve helped them to regulate in a way that they aren’t capable of doing themselves quite yet. “I want a cookie for breakfast and you said no!”
Here’s where you can tell them that you understand and that you’ve heard their concerns. It’s important to note that you don’t have to “give in” to the request and you don’t have to “discipline”, you just have to help them to express and know that they’ve been heard.
“Oh, it’s frustrating when you can’t have what you want. I know you want a cookie, but cookies aren’t something we eat for breakfast. You can have oatmeal now, and maybe a cookie after lunch later.”
You haven’t said “No!” You haven’t reacted to the behavior of having a tantrum. Instead, you’ve tried to understand the cause of the tantrum and helped them to express it.
Every time I’ve done this with my little guy it’s worked. He may sniffle a couple more times, and I may have to repeat that we don’t have cookies for breakfast, but then it’s OVER. Tantrum done. No timeout, no “discipline”, no yelling. Only understanding and love.
I challenge you to try this with your toddler and then I’d love to hear how it works. I don’t think it’s ever too early to start teaching about emotions. I wish someone had taught me early on, but it’s something we don’t think to teach. I’m telling you it can be taught and it’s amazing when they start to get it.