When my son turned 3, his tantrums became more frequent and intense. The smallest denials would trigger him, and he'd lash out, screaming and hitting. During these fits, I would block his hands and firmly say, "NO hitting. Hitting hurts!," but he would keep hitting, and the tantrum would go on for what felt like an exhausting eternity. I tried putting him in time-out, but keeping him there was almost impossible, and it only escalated things. Sometimes, I would even lose my patience, yell, and then feel terrible about myself. I was afraid that not disciplining him would reinforce the behavior, but it clearly wasn't working.
Why Toddlers Have Tantrums
What I didn't realize seems so simple now. Throwing a tantrum and hitting was my toddler's way of using his body to communicate what he couldn't find words for. He had no idea how to process his big feelings. As parents, we forget that children are still developing their prefrontal lobe (the part that helps us plan and make rational decisions). It's hard enough for adults to express themselves calmly under stress, but much more so for kids, especially for a toddler who doesn't have the verbal skills or emotional intelligence that an adult does. In the book How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, parenting and education experts Joanna Faber and Julie King explain that when kids don't feel right, they can't behave right.
How to Respond to a Tantrum With Empathy
One day in the midst of a predinner meltdown, my son put up his fist and swung. I grabbed his arm, but this time, I took Faber and King's advice and named the big feeling by putting it into a sentence for him. "You're mad because you want to keep playing with your toys instead of eating dinner. Playing with toys is fun. You can be mad, but NO hitting! Hitting hurts."
Still too worked up to process what I was saying, he lunged at me again. This is when I tried the second tactic they suggest: matching your child's emotion in a dramatic way to let them know you understand and empathize with the big feelings. "You're SO mad!" I exclaimed dramatically, flailing my arms and summoning my inner 3-year-old.
I got down on my knees so I was below his eye level. "When I said no, you wanted to hit to get the mad out!" I banged my fist on the sofa to show what it looks like when I use my body to show my big feelings. This stopped him in his tracks. He blinked back tears and watched to see what I would do next. I karate chopped the nearest throw pillow, then held it up to him. "We can hit pillows because we can't hurt pillows. Do you want to punch this pillow, or do you want a hug?" I asked.
How Hugs Can Help Tantrums
He put down his fists and let out an exhausted cry. He seemed more drained than I was. "Hug, Mama," he said in between sobs. He walked over with his head down and shoulders hunched and curled up in my lap, sniffling as I rubbed his head. He was completely calm within a minute. Hugging him during his tantrum not only helped to defuse the meltdown, but it also communicated something that a time-out couldn't — that I understood how hard this was for him and that I knew he was still learning. Most importantly, that I still loved him and wouldn't leave him to figure out the big, scary feelings on his own.
Teaching Toddlers Emotional Intelligence
For the last few months, my husband and I have done some version of this to defuse his tantrums, and it's working. I no longer underestimate the power of a hug or the importance of acknowledging his negative feelings. Our toddler rarely hits anymore, but when he does, we have the tools to shut it down more effectively.
The real reward though is witnessing his emotional intelligence evolve. Hearing him blurt out something shockingly introspective gets me every time. "Mama, I don't know how to calm down!" he once cried helplessly. Of course you don't, I realized. It's my job to show you. I wrapped my arms around him as we practiced taking deep breaths and I admitted that calming down is hard for adults, too. It takes practice.
But the real affirmation comes when he puts what he's learned into action without me prompting him. "Mama, I was sad today but you made my heart happy. I sorry for yelling," he said out of nowhere during his bath one night. I swallowed the lump in my throat before answering him. "Thank you for telling me that, buddy," I said as I turned to grab his towel, holding back literal tears of joy.