Basically, we’ve been in extreme tantrum zone for about 6 months now. They can be over things that seem relatively small – usually around independence. For example, today my toddler had a tantrum because my husband put a straw in her smoothie instead of her doing it. Yesterday she had a tantrum because I was having an ultrasound and the technician wiped the jelly off my stomach instead of letting her do it. Both are things that she normally does herself, so these tantrums are not entirely unexpected. But most of her tantrums do tend to be to do with a certain rigidity in what her expectations are or wanting to do something on her own.
I was looking for guidance as to if I’m on the right track with what I’m doing, or if there’s anything else I could be doing to help her manage her emotions so we can work towards having less and less full-scale meltdowns. What I tend to do is this:
1) Remind her that she can say what she wants in a calm voice (sometimes this will head off a tantrum/meltdown before it happens)
2) If that doesn’t work, let her know that we can talk about what she wants when she calms down
3) If she’s unable to calm down, I will generally go with her to either a bedroom or outside until she is calm enough to talk about it (I don’t leave her anywhere on her own because I’m uncomfortable with time outs etc)
4) Once she’s calmed down (this can be relatively short or quite long and can involve plenty of kicking, scratching, hitting etc where I will tell her that it’s not ok and move away so she can’t hit me), we usually hug for a bit and then I’ll talk to her about what happened and what she could do next time. If she’s thrown anything during the course of the meltdown or tantrum we pick it up.
5) And once all that is done with we go back to what we were doing before
Ah, the extreme tantrum zone. Not a fun place to be. But kudos to you for the way you are handling everything! Wonderful that you are allowing your daughter to release her feelings without punishment or judgment, and being there for her when she’s ready to talk or hug rather than relegating her to “time out”. It sounds like you are being as patient, strong and understanding as humanly possible, allowing the tantrums to run their course without becoming emotionally involved or taking her feelings “on”, and stopping her from lashing out at you physically. Goodness, all this and pregnant, too?!
Which brings me to what I believe might help you help your daughter “manage her emotions so we can work towards having less and less full-scale meltdowns”, and that is…understanding the context for the meltdowns and figuring out how to help her deal with that. Is it a coincidence that you entered the extreme tantrum zone 6 months ago? Um…wouldn’t that have been around the time your daughter became aware of your pregnancy?
So, imagine this… a spirited toddler at a stage of life when her ability to communicate can’t keep up with her desire to express herself. In toddlerhood, children also have a natural and healthy need to seek autonomy (the need for independence you’re noticing), an urge to control their environment, test their power. Frustration and tantrums are inevitable.
Now add another ingredient, a situation way beyond your daughter’s control. It’s very mysterious, worrisome and possibly threatening (to her sense of security). Her parents are having another baby. For gosh sakes, she’s going to be a big sister! And isn’t she supposed to feel excited and happy? Everyone around her does! But she doesn’t. She’s worried, along with a bunch of other really confusing feelings. And in her attempt to get a grip on the situation, she goes into ultra-control mode. Or, in other (bigger) words, your daughter’s developmentally appropriate need to experience autonomy and competence is amplified by the disconcerting impending change in her life. Either way, her family is forced to enter (cue foreboding music) …. the extreme tantrum zone.
So, how to help?
The good news…because your daughter sounds expressive, self-confident and extroverted, you are not going to have to worry about her hiding her feelings — pretending to be fine, perhaps a little quieter than usual, but hurting inside. She’s going to let you know.
From the little window you gave me into your world, I can’t tell if you are already doing these things or not, but here’s what I suggest…
Don’t feel responsible when your daughter doesn’t get her way and falls apart. She is a bit like a pressure-cooker right now, a pot full of simmering feelings, lid ready to pop at any time, hence the “rigidity” you’re noticing. Yes, it’s great to try to remember to allow her to wipe gel and put the straw in herself, but it’s not always going to work out for her, and chances are that when it does she’ll find another reason to explode. So, don’t feel you have to scurry around to please her and avoid an explosion. What she needs most of all (especially right now) are confident, stable, unruffled parents who project calm in the face of her storms (and the freedom you are giving her to have them).
Clarify the situation and make a plan. During more peaceful moments together, talk about life after the birth of the baby. Give her details about the changes that will occur, an imagined play-by-play of the day with the new baby. Be honest and realistic. Toddlers are way too perceptive to believe any whitewashing, and that won’t help her feel settled. Tell her that although you will be very busy taking care of the baby and not be available for her all the time, you’ll make sure she always gets what she needs (through daddy, grandma, etc.). Tell her that you two will have some special time together each day and maybe once (or twice) a week a special outing that she picks.
Then, later, when you are busy with the baby and she’s upset you can say to her calmly and confidently, “I know you want me to do such-and-such with you now, but I can’t. I know it’s hard to wait, but we will have our time together in an hour (or whatever). I’m looking forward to it.” She may have to keep testing that limit until she is certain you will hold your ground.
If you can make the outings work, I highly recommend them, even if you can only give her a choice between a walk down the street and a half-hour outing to the park. It’s not about what you do (or even the amount of time), just about being together. From my experience, those little one-on-one dates with your big girl will be very special, just the way dinner dates with a husband feel extra special once you’ve become parents.
Encourage her to process the feelings. Another thing to do in peaceful moments together is to check in with her about her feelings. The goal is not to get her to label them, but to assure her that anything and everything she is feeling is normal, expected, perfectly all right. You might put it this way, “When children have a baby brother or sister they have all kinds of feelings. Sometimes, even if they like the baby, they feel really sad or mad. Sometimes big sisters don’t like the baby — even hate him or her — and miss the way it used to be with mom. Those are all fine feelings to have. Whatever you’re feeling now or after the baby, please share it with me and daddy. We want to hear about it and help you feel better if we can. The baby will be hard for all of us, but one thing is certain… our love for you will only grow and grow.”
After the baby arrives, know how extremely postive it is for your daughter to get her feelings out in her way and time, even though they are difficult and unpleasant to hear. She may need to grieve the loss of her exclusive relationship with you, and these feelings will seldom come on cue or make sense in the moment. Whenever your toddler has an extreme overreaction or seems totally unreasonable, try to remember that she is processing her fear and grief as best she can. Encourage it. She will be all right.
I hope some of this helps. Please let me know if you have other questions (or tell me what I got wrong!).
Bless you and your family on this wonderful journey!
(Zoey blogs at zoeymartin.com.au)
I share more about tantrums and other challenging toddler behavior in
(Photo by Mel B. on Flickr)