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How can temper tantrums teach your child to regulate emotions and manage anxiety

Emotions and anxiety are normal human experiences that can be helpful in some situations (like the intense joy I experienced when I found out I was pregnant with Madi) and unhelpful in other situations (like the frustrations that I feel when Madi won’t eat her dinner).  I think most of us with children have experienced some epic temper tantrums over the years.  Toddler tantrums can sometimes be enough to make you want to rip your hair out, but the interesting thing is that they are an excellent opportunity to teach your child early about managing anxiety and emotions!  

As a physician, I know that it is important to draw attention to a child’s emotions – whether they are positive or negative.  Children who are unable to navigate the extremes of emotion maybe at risk of developing depression and anxiety as adults.  Through the process of teaching your child about strong emotions, the temper tantrums your child throws might become less frequent and less severe, because they have developed some skills to manage strong emotions.    

A good time to start teaching this is around 18 months of age. As your baby gets older they will have better language skills and their receptiveness to teaching can grow. Despite leaning abilities changing over time, the principles are still the same throughout life. 

For example, my parents told me that I had the worst temper tantrums when I was a toddler after my brother stole a toy from me. In fact, I would get so angry that I would often hit my brother in the head with the toy he tried to steal from me. My mom would always try to cuddle me and tell me to calm down.

Temper tantrums are a sign of high emotion and anxiety in your child

What happened to me as a toddler is a very common experience where an unpleasant situation “triggered” a strong emotion – anger.  As anger begins to rise, it can be followed by unpleasant behaviors such as screaming, crying, yelling, or acting out.  There can also be physical symptoms –breathing can became more rapid and shallow, with difficulty in catching his or her breath, and a shaky voice.  Strong emotion can often trigger physical symptoms of anxiety.  In children, this is often experienced as shortness of breath, chest pain, feeling as though there is a lump in their throat, headache, muscle aches, and stomachaches. 

So what to do?? Toddler tantrums are an excellent opportunity to teach your child HOW to calm down, and teach them some skills in regulating emotions and anxiety.  

Take your child to a quiet, calm place

Take your child to a quiet area where they can listen to you, removing distractions – but do not travel too far to do this – you want to catch the emotion as it is rising so that your child can learn from it.

Validate your child’s emotions

Validate your child’s emotion.  “I see that you are very angry and upset, and I’m sorry you are feeling that way.  It’s okay to be angry and upset. That must feel awful”

Help your child calm down by deep breathing

Ask your child to take 5 very deep breaths – it can be helpful if you do this with your child to show them how it’s done.  You can make an analogy to smelling a flower for 5 seconds, and then blowing out a candle for 5 seconds.  

Draw attention to their surroundings and practice mindfulness

Help your child calm down by paying attention to their surroundings, this is called “mindfulness”.  You can try to ask your child to tell you 5 things they see, 4 things they feel (outside their body, or inside their body), 3 things they hear, 2 things they smell, and 1 thing they taste.  Its ok if they can only come up with a few things. The purpose is to help them draw attention to their environment, which will help them to “regulate” or calm down. 

You might need to repeat steps 2-4 a few times, or give your child a few minutes of “time out” before moving to step 5.  

Draw attention to the events or situations that triggered the tantrum

Once your child is calm, help them draw attention to the situation that provoked the strong emotion – while validating the emotion.  This can be as simple as labelling the emotion for them.  Remember that children are often unaware of their feelings.  

For example, “It’s okay to be angry, everybody gets angry sometimes – even mommy.” “are you feeling upset”  “I’m noticing your angry.”

Drawing attention to happiness and joy is also important.  When your child is being playful, happy, and behaving well, draw attention to this emotion and label it.  “You look so happy” “are you feeling excited?”

Remember that although these steps may be straightforward for you, they are not for a toddler

I know this sounds simple and straightforward, but labelling and understanding our feelings is actually a skill that is learned throughout life.  In fact, many people have difficulties with this!  Learning to understand and label emotion is a common concept that is addressed in therapy for people with anxiety and depression.  Learning this skill early on, and continuing this with your child throughout life, will help them to navigate the extremes of emotion.  

Help establish “cause and effect” with child by connecting the emotion and the resulting behaviour

After you have labelled the emotion, help your child draw attention to the behavior that resulted from the emotion (this is true for disruptive / maladaptive behaviors, as well as positive behaviors).  For example, in the case of me hitting my brother, we could say “After you got angry, you hit your brother.”

When Madi see’s dogs – she gets overwhelmingly excited and wants to pet them.  When she does this nicely, I try to say “look how excited you are about the puppy and how gentle you are when giving him pets, good girl Boo Boo.”

Promote a change in maladaptive behaviour

If the behaviour is maladaptive or undesired, use this next step to promote change, “In the future, if you are angry, let mommy know and we can talk about it.  It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not ok to hit people.”

I hope that by helping Madi to recognize and manage her emotions early on, it will help her later in her life.

Remember that settling down a toddler is challenging

I am trying my best to practice the steps above when Madi has a temper tantrum, but there are times when I give in and give her a treat or screen time to calm her down instead of doing the 7 steps I discuss above. However, the more often I follow the steps above, the more I see Madi improve her ability to manage her emotions. 

Temper tantrums are emotionally draining for everyone involved and I hope you find the 7 steps helpful!

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