If you’re raising a toddler, you’re likely familiar with their ability to feel and express many strong emotions.
They may be quick to giggle for joy and then, seconds later, dissolve into an angry tantrum. Unfortunately, tantrums are an expected toddler behaviour.
While your toddler is much more capable than they were as infants, they don’t yet have the vocabulary to communicate all of their needs, and they still have little control over their environment.
Those factors can cause a lot of frustration, and frustration can quickly give way to anger.
Most toddlers grow out of tantrums as they get older, gain more control over their communication skills, and learn to have some patience.
Until they reach that point, there are steps you can take to help your toddler manage their anger and prevent tantrums from happening.
It’s tough for both parents and kids when a child struggles with anger. Some children grow frustrated easily.
They blow up over seemingly minor events. They yell. They might even become aggressive.
If your child has angry outbursts, significantly if your child’s anger interferes with their relationships and quality of life, it’s essential to teach them the skills they need to deal with their feelings healthily.
Guidance from a mental health professional can also be beneficial.
By teaching our children to recognise and deal with their anger, we may prevent its negative impacts before they happen.
Children need to learn to be assertive, not aggressive and express themselves without getting emotional or defensive.
Fortunately, proven techniques exist, and like other skills, these need to be practised.
Aggression in the Early Years
Aggression and “acting out” in early childhood is often a top concern for many parents. And while parents often feel confident that they should do something to help their child, what that should be, isn’t always straightforward.
Stopping behaviours like hitting and biting are a great idea. However, it’s essential to help children manage their feelings and choices.
The missing piece of the puzzle, which is even more critical than just stopping the biting and hitting, is to help children find new and better ways to express what they are feeling.
Did you know you can shape your child’s responses to overwhelming events through your parenting style?
When you can calmly help your child understand and manage anger, frustration and fear, you are actively helping your child develop essential skills.
Understanding the Feelings Behind Aggressive Behaviors
Aggression in the early years is not a sign of a misbehaving child or bad parenting. Instead, aggression (hitting, biting, shoving, screaming) sign a child needs guidance.
Because children don’t act out aggressively unless they are distressed. (Distress to a child often looks like nothing to us. To us, not a big deal, to our kids; however, huge, big deal!)
Common causes for aggressive behaviours in the early years are related to frustration, upset, sadness or anxiety.
Before your child hits or bites, she is likely to experience a mix of emotions. Emotions that are too difficult to handle rationally.
Children’s brains are still immature; the part of the brain that controls these outbursts and reactions is still very much under construction.
By no fault of their own, children are prone to reacting impulsively, especially in an emotionally charged situation. As a result, grabbing, hitting, biting, kicking can happen quite unexpectedly.
Self-Regulation: the Nitty Gritty Behind a Calm or Aggressive Response
A common underlying cause of aggressive behaviour in children under the age of ten is fear and an inability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation means monitoring and controlling our thoughts and behaviours and responding appropriately to each situation.
Like asking for toys instead of snatching them away or melting into a pile on the floor.
Self-regulation is essential for emotional well-being and something that children develop over time. So while you can’t make a child have it, you can help them grow it.
How parents self-regulate and communicate with their children builds a path for developing a child’s self-regulation skills. Your interactions with your child while they are acting out actually can have a significant impact on your child’s long term well-being because you have the opportunity to help her learn how to self-regulate.
Signs of Anger in Toddlers
Toddlers tend to respond to anger and frustration with tantrums.
The Yale Medicine Child Study Center states that children younger than four may have, on average, up to 9 tantrums every week.
Most children will grow out of these outbursts by the time they enter kindergarten.
Some behaviours associated with anger and tantrums in 1- and 2-year-olds can include:
- pulling or shoving
- throwing things
Generally, toddlers will outgrow these angry outbursts as their developmental skills progress. However, teaching them appropriate strategies to manage their emotions can also help.
Should I Be Concerned About My Toddler’s Anger?
Consider talking to your child’s doctor if:
- your toddler regularly has multiple angry outbursts per day
- your toddler’s tantrums regularly last for very long periods, despite your attempts to manage the behaviour
- you’re concerned they’re going to injure themselves or others during tantrums
Common Tantrum Triggers in Toddlers
Toddlers can become angry when they encounter a challenge, cannot communicate wants or are deprived of a basic need. Some common triggers for angry outbursts or tantrums may include:
- being unable to express needs or emotions
- playing with a toy or doing an activity that is hard to figure out
- feeling hungry or tired
- changes to usual and expected daily routine
- interacting with a sibling or another child
- not being given something they want
Some factors can also make your toddler more susceptible to anger and tantrums, including:
- stress experienced in infancy
- temperamental differences
- family dynamics
- parenting approaches
How to Help Your Toddler Manage Anger
Your child will develop a lot more coping and communication skills between the ages of 1 and 3. This may help alleviate some anger triggers.
By the age of 4, most children are more equipped to share, express their emotions, and do more with their fine motor and gross motor skills.
While you can’t speed up the aging clock, there are several strategies you can use to help your toddler manage and reduce the frequency of tantrums.
Some may be more effective for your child than others. And methods that worked for another child of yours or another parent may not work.
Additionally, methods that worked during a previous tantrum may not continue to work for future ones.
If your child is having a tantrum, you should first make sure they aren’t in danger of getting hurt or hurting others.
Toddlers often have little control over their bodies during a tantrum.
You may want to relocate them to a safer place to have the tantrum, such as their bedroom if you’re at home or a quiet area away from cars and lots of foot traffic if you’re out.
Once your child is safe, here are some strategies for parenting a toddler through a tantrum:
Prepare Yourself, Prepare Your Child
Chances are, you can pinpoint some of the situations that make it more likely for your child to act out.
Ask yourself, “What can I do to help my child manage this event well?” Or “What signs will I be looking out for so I can help my child sooner than later?
With the right mindset, you can keep yourself calm and ready to interact warmly and helpfully.
Strive not to blame yourself or your child but to understand the situation and be ready to offer guidance calmly and confidently.
Remember, it takes the same and often less effort to be proactive about guidance than to fix a situation that has escalated reactively.
Teach Your Child About Feelings
Kids are more likely to lash out when they don’t understand their feelings or cannot verbalise them.
A child who can’t say “I’m mad!” may try to show they’re angry by lashing out. Or a child who isn’t able to perceive or explain that they’re sad may misbehave to get your attention.
To help your child learn to identify and label feelings, begin by teaching essential feeling words such as “mad,” “sad,” “happy,” and “scared.”
Label your child’s feelings for them by saying, “It looks like you feel outraged right now.” Over time, they’ll learn to label their own emotions.
As your child develops a better understanding of their emotions and how to describe them, teach them more sophisticated feeling words such as frustrated, disappointed, worried, and lonely.
Create an Anger Thermometer
Anger thermometers are tools that help kids recognise the signs that their anger is rising. Draw a giant thermometer on a piece of paper.
Start at the bottom with a 0 and fill in the numbers up until 10, which should land at the top of the thermometer.
On an anger thermometer, zero means “no anger at all.” A 5 means “a medium amount of anger,” and ten standards “the most anger ever.”
When your child is not feeling upset or angry, talk about what happens in their body at each number on the thermometer.
Your child might say they are smiling when they’re at level 0 but have a mad face when they reach level 5.
They might feel their face get hot when they are two, and they might make fists with their hands when they are at 7. By the time they get to 10, they may feel like an angry monster.
Using the thermometer helps kids learn to recognise anger when it’s happening.
Eventually, they can connect that when their anger temperature starts to rise, taking a break can help them cool it down.
My Baby Nursery has the biggest range of nursery baby monitors for you to choose from.
Develop a Calm-Down Plan
Teach children what to do when they begin to feel angry. Rather than throw blocks when they’re frustrated, for example, they might go to their room or a designated “calming corner.”
Please encourage them to colour, read a book, or engage in another calming activity until they feel better. You might even create a calm-down kit. This could include your child’s favourite colouring books and crayons, a fun book to read, stickers, a favourite toy, or lotion that smells good.
When they’re upset, you can say, “Go get your calm-down kit.” This encourages your child to take responsibility for calming themselves down.
Cultivate Anger Management Skills
One of the best ways to help a child who feels angry is to teach them specific anger management techniques.
Taking deep breaths, for example, can calm your child’s mind and body when they are upset. Going for a quick walk, counting to 10, or repeating a helpful phrase might also help.
Teach other skills, such as impulse control skills and self-discipline, as well. Some kids need a fair amount of coaching to help practise those skills when they’re upset.
Don’t Give in to Tantrums.
Sometimes kids discover that angry outbursts are an effective way to get their needs met. For example, if a child throws a temper tantrum and their parents give them a toy to keep them quiet, they will learn that temper tantrums are effective.
Don’t give in to your child to avoid a meltdown. Although that may be easier in the short term, giving in will only make behaviour problems and aggression worse in the long run.
Instead, work on connecting with your child to feel more confident that their needs will be met.
Follow Through With Consequences
Consistent discipline is necessary to help your child learn that aggression or disrespectful behaviour isn’t acceptable. If your child breaks the rules, follow through with a consequence each time.
Time-out or taking away privileges can be effective discipline strategies. If your child breaks something when angry, have them help repair it or do chores to raise money for repairs.
Avoid Violent Media
If your child displays aggressive behaviour, exposing them to violent TV shows or video games may exacerbate the problem.
Focus on exposing them to books, games and shows that model healthy conflict resolution skills.
Encourage Self-Regulation With Empathy, Validation and Emotional Release
Hitting and biting, as mentioned above, are signs of emotional overload and missing self-regulation skills.
In these early years, we get to be role models and guides to help our children learn better ways to cope and express themselves.
When your child lashes out, has a meltdown or otherwise has an aggressive outburst, strive to confidently stop the unnecessary behaviour but don’t forget to address feelings.
Once the storm has passed, listen to your child and her needs. Take the time to let your child feel and process a full range of feelings.
This includes time to feel sad, angry, frustrated etc. fully. This is so important to the development of self-regulation.
Research shows that a warm and responsive parenting style that allows a full expression of feelings helps children better develop self-regulation skills.
Such a supportive parenting style also offers long term benefits to a child’s overall psychological well-being.
For toddlers and preschoolers, having an outlet for their frustration, anger, or upset is all very important.
From roughhousing to playing chase or pillow fights, games that actively allow children to release energy all help prevent biting, hitting and other aggression from building up.
Active play such as tumbling, roughhousing, and chasing (without any aggressive intent) helps children learn skills related to working out conflicts with their peers.
Through play, children also re-fill their need to feel closely connected to you, strengthening your bond and ability to offer guidance.
Focus on a Can Do Plan
It’s tempting to ask children to behave well. But this can backfire. Lectures like “we are going to playgroup, you have to be excellent. Don’t hit anyone.
Don’t yell. Don’t take stuff.” while very well intended, put the focus on the exact behaviours you are not looking for. A great alternative is to focus on a CAN DO plan. It might sound something like:
- You CAN come to me if you need help sharing.
- You CAN tell the teacher if you need help.
- You CAN come to me if you feel upset.
- We CAN take a break together if you need me.
If your plan is positive and free of punishments, your child will feel safe coming to you when her feelings are overwhelming, and in turn, you will be able to offer guidance to get your child back on track.
Use Alternatives to Traditional Discipline
Young children can’t comprehend the rationale for punishments. So instead, they trust you to help them, to keep them safe.
It’s startling and scary to a child who is already feeling overwhelmed with emotions to be sent to sit alone or to have a favourite toy taken away.
While it’s important to catch and limit hitting, biting and other unnecessary behaviours, choosing alternatives to traditional discipline are more likely to help your child understand and manage his emotions.
From years of research, we now know that children learn well when they trust their caregiver and when they feel safe.
Even more so when they are given the space to learn from mistakes.
When children choose aggression to communicate unmet needs and complicated feelings, and we choose to punish them, we ignore the very root of the problem.
Only stopping the behaviour, without actually teaching the child how to manage what they feel, is like pretending you don’t have a flat tire when you do.
Yes, you will keep rolling forward, but it will be a very bumpy ride and not suitable for the car.
Helpful Alternatives to Punishment for Aggressive Behaviors
Calm Down Plan:
Teach your child what to do and where to go when they feel overwhelmed.
Taking a Time In
Sit with your child and listen to them and help them figure out what will help them choose differently.
Teach your child how to take calming breaths such as being a bunny or big lion to release stress.
Such games can be done for fun and then called upon when your child has overwhelming feelings.
“How great is your anger” and “How big is your Fear” pictures are often helpful for children to start talking about what they are feeling and how they can choose to change their behaviour
Having a Wheel of Choice
In Positive Discipline (by Jane Nelsen D.Ed.), there is a tool called Wheel of Choice in which you can put pictures of things your child can do when angry instead of hitting or biting, such as hugging a teddy bear, talking with mom, or squishing play-dough.
Biting and hitting are often present in early childhood.
Although many parents feel overwhelmed, worried, and sometimes embarrassed by such behaviours, managing such strong emotions is a learning process for children.
Just like learning to walk, drink from an open cup, holding a spoon or riding a bicycle, to overcome impulsive (aggressive) responses takes time, practice, and above all, loving guidance from you.
Kids don’t enjoy feeling angry or having angry outbursts. Often, they are reacting to frustration and an inability to manage their big feelings.
Helping your child learn to respond appropriately to anger and other negative emotions will positively impact their life at home and school.
If you’re struggling, ask your child’s pediatrician or school counsellor for help.
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