The Upside of Toddler Tantrums

In this episode: Janet considers a letter from a mother struggling with her toddler’s meltdowns and wondering how to connect with respect and compassion.

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and I’m going to be talking today in Janet Lansbury Unruffled about how to acknowledge feelings and connect.

This is a question I received on Facebook:

“My daughter is 19 months and I feel I am confident when it comes to setting limits and boundaries. What I don’t feel confident with is when to acknowledge feelings so she feels heard. For example, me asking her to give me something I don’t want her to have. She may throw herself on the ground and scream with displeasure and it’s then that I’m not sure what to do. She’s loud so she can’t hear me, although I’ve tried to acknowledge feelings at this time, I can’t hear myself over her scream, let alone her hearing me and it appears she doesn’t want to be held. In that moment, I feel disconnected from her. I would love some guidance on what to do in that moment and the moments following. That is when to acknowledge feelings.”

Okay. So you’ve asked your child to give you something that you don’t want them to have. “Can you please give me that? That’s not safe.” And she throws herself on the ground and screams with displeasure. This is a tantrum and it’s very healthy for toddlers to have these. They’re not just about what happens in that moment. That’s important to know. It’s not about the thing that you didn’t want her to have. That was the tipping point for her to be able to express some toddler frustration, angst, fear, all these heavy feelings that toddlers walk around with in this rapidly changing time of their life. They are developing so quickly. So they have a lot of intense feelings, feelings that we can always trust, although it may be hard to.

This parent has the right attitude in that she wants to acknowledge her and she wants to connect. This is where we have to trust. Often times, it’s us the parent that really wants to connect because we want our child to know we love them and that we want to make it all better and we’re sorry. We feel disconnected.

I believe in this case (and this is something I often see and remember feeling, by the way, and still feel with my children even though they’re older) that we’re the ones that want to connect. She’s saying in this moment that she doesn’t need to connect. She needs to express. And sometimes expressing and connecting don’t go together in the way that we want them to — itcdoesn’t happen when we’re hugging and all cozy. Sometimes, it happens when they’re throwing themselves on the floor and they’re screaming.

The best way to connect during that kind of episode is to let the feelings be, to relax your body, to accept where your child is and that she’s doing something healthy and that you’re allowing her to. So, you’re being a great parent in this moment.

This isn’t easy stuff to see children go through. This is prime parenting moment to embrace. Let her have her feelings and then trust.

When she’s done, when she can hear you, then I would say, “Wow. You really didn’t like that.” Not, “You’re upset over blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Just what we know for sure, which is that she didn’t like that you didn’t want her to have the phone or whatever it was. “You really wanted that. You didn’t want me to take that away.” And what that might do is actually open the door for her to express more.

So if she expresses more after that… if she says, “I don’t like you,” like an older child might say. Or, “You’re a bad mommy,” or something like that (at 19 months, she’s probably not going to say that, but she might try to hit you, push you away), she’s telling you more about how mad she is. So let her go as long as she needs to go with this and just be patient.

Accepting and acknowledging feelings can’t have an ending point. It can’t be, Well this is how much I’m comfortable with and now I need to stop you. I need to hug you. I need to calm you down. That’s not acknowledging feelings. That’s not accepting feelings. It’s got to be all the way. It’s all or nothing for children. And so let it be “all.” Let her go all the way. Trust that it’s all in there and needs to come out.

You haven’t created it by taking that thing away from her. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re doing everything right by letting this happen. It’s so important to keep reminding ourselves of this, because everything in us is telling us our child is upset and we’re terrible parents and our world has come crashing down and everything’s awful.

The opposite is true in these moments. You’re being heroic. You are being incredible. You are connecting with a child in, what I think, is the most profound way, which is the message that your feelings are all okay with me. All,to the end, okay with me.

So don’t worry about the words to say. Especially, don’t try to talk to her when she’s screaming. Just let your shoulders fall, feel relaxed, feel like you are … I used to talk about in one of my posts. I can’t remember the name of it right now. My secret to staying calm when my kids aren’t. That’s what it is. And this is also in my book, No Bad Kids. I used to imagine that I had this shield over me so that I could be there. I could be present without letting the feelings get in me and inside me and make me feel terrible. Imagery may help you, but that’s all we have to do: let it be.

As this mother says, “It appears she doesn’t want to be held.” Trust that. When you’re angry at somebody, you don’t want them to come over and try to hug you out of it. You just want to be angry at them. And, as parents, as the primary caregiver, we’re going to get the brunt of it. That’s a compliment. That means we’re doing our job, giving her a relationship that she feels safe in to express these hard feelings. Feels safe to let her go all the way with her feelings.

So, in that moment, this mother says, “I feel disconnected from her.” Yes, you feel disconnected, but that’s okay. You don’t have to connect with her in the way that you think, in the way that looks cozy and nice. You actually are connecting with her, and that’s the way I would perceive this. You’re connecting with her. You’re giving her so many messages in these moments. While she’s screaming, you’re giving her the message:

I don’t desert you, I don’t try to stop you, I’m not uncomfortable with your feelings. I’m okay with them. And therefore, you can be okay with them and you can go to these dark places in yourself. These are safe places for you to go.

Do you know how powerful that is? Do you know how many of us didn’t get that message and how important it is?

It’s easy to be happy when things are always going well, but to be able to be happy in life, or not happy, but okay, to know we’re going to be okay when things aren’t going well, that is true happiness. That is knowing that we can handle everything that’s thrown our way. And that’s the message that most of us want our children to have. You can handle these feelings.

So those are the important huge messages you’re giving her. And that’s connecting. Not the way most people will see it, but the way that it really is with toddlers. Letting them feel bad with you, letting them be mad at you.

So that’s what I would do and then, as I said, at the end when she does hear you, I would just say something simple. “Wow. That was really upsetting for you. You did not like that.” That’s it. That’s all we have to do. And like I said, these are prime parenting moments and I would embrace them. Every time you do, kudos to you! It sounds like you’re already doing it.

I hope this helps and don’t forget, we can do this.

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thanks for the article. I just had an episode with my 2yo and I’ve NEVER seen him like that. I don’t even know the exact reason why he freaked out but it got to the point where he just sat there crying and sobbing and starting to throw himself around. I was worried he might hurt himself. He’s a very gentle soul so this is nothing like him. He basically was upset since half an hour already an did not stop, it got worse. How long would you let this go on for without really doing anything? It’s so hard! Thanks

    1. My pleasure, Alex. Regarding “How long would you let this go on for without really doing anything”… What would you like to do in these instances? Also, do you have any idea why your child might feel stressed?

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