Responding to an Emotional Outburst with a Toddler

Emotional outbursts can be one of the more difficult parenting challenges. I often write about my experiences with my eldest son, because we have just finished going through the toddler years. Then it happened, well it happens to every parent really; our baby became a toddler. Emotional outbursts are no longer always about the basics; love, food, security, warmth, comfort. Those needs may not have always been easy to meet, but you likely felt meeting those needs was necessary. But toddlers have wants, not that infants don’t, but toddlers will typically start having frequent emotional outbursts in pursuit of those wants. You can look at those as needs too. They have a need to start building autonomy, a sense of self. Their need for autonomy and validation is developmentally appropriate and serves many purposes, but that does not mean you need to fulfill every want, in order to validate their feelings and encourage autonomy.

The moment reality sets in…. You look over and see your 15 month old is trying to climb onto a coffee table. You quickly rush over, take him down, say “feet on the floor” and then it begins…. he arches his back and starts screaming, crying and flailing his body around. You’re thinking ‘oh no, he’s hurt!’ You start trying to comfort him, but he does not want comfort. Now you think there is something really wrong. You sit down with him on the floor while you begin a full body inspection. As you put him down, he stops crying, quickly runs off towards the coffee table, and starts trying to climb up on it again. That’s the moment it hits you…..’Oh my gosh, he’s not hurt, he wants to do something unsafe, and I won’t let him, and he is mad at me. My baby is becoming a toddler!”

Creating a “Yes” environment is an effective way to avoid frequent emotional outbursts with a small child. Expecting a child under two to understand safety rules is an unrealistic expectation. In my experience, children under three are still likely to only understand half of what you are asking them to do. A child under four, may understand what you want, but struggle with following through on your request. A child under five will likely understand your requests and the rules but may still struggle with impulse control, making it hard to “listen” sometimes. In my opinion, around five years old, is when many children start understanding safety rules, their purpose, and try their best to follow them a lot of the time. Until then, try to make their environment safe, so they can explore freely and you do not have to chase them around, stopping them from doing unsafe things all day long. This can get very frustrating and having an understanding of child development and a safe play space, can relieve a lot of stress.

Realistic expectations are crucial. Feeling like “I told him not to touch the T.V. a hundred times!” can really set a parent up for disappointment and sometimes feelings of failure. I often hear parents complain about how they feel like they have failed their child because their child doesn’t “listen.” I always think “NO! They are two! That is all, no other explanation needed.” Unrealistic expectations are confusing for parents. Despite your child’s inability to fully grasp your requests and commands, they still will impress you with what they do understand. This can also confuse parents, as they think, ‘well if he can open the baby gate, he can surely understand me telling him not to.’ Just because they figured out something they were motivated to figure out, doesn’t mean they understand what you want. Even if your child does understand your requests, if it is not what they want to do, your opinion is irrelevant to them because their egocentrism only allows them to think about their own needs and wants. It is a crucial part of holistic development and survival. You must understand yourself, before you can understand others.

There is nothing more impressive than a determined one year old, conquering a baby gate. As much as we want children to have freedom to explore their environments, there is something about many one year olds, somehow they can always find the one weak spot in your labyrinth, the one gap in the intricately set up fence. Then they start learning how to climb the fence or open the latch on the baby gate, so even if their play area is completely safe, they will try to escape and you will often need to stop them from doing unsafe things. This can be cause for some pretty strong emotional outbursts, at times on both sides. Parents get fearful and frustrated, and children just get frustrated. So now what?

Safety First

In this situation your child is trying to climb on the coffee table at home. I always try to remove the object, instead of the child. It’s just much more respectful but with a young toddler, out of sight, out of mind, can be quite effective in diffusing the situation. If you cannot move the object, such as a book shelf, or you are in public, and have limited ability to adjust your surroundings, you may need to take your child to a quiet, calm place. I would handle this differently with a slightly older child, as I would only want to remove them from the situation if they were becoming a danger to themselves or others and all other attempts to support them have failed. A younger child will likely not walk with you or listen to you, if they are upset. You may need to pick them up and take them to another area in order to begin the process of supporting their emotional needs. If you think you can support them, without removing them from the situation, then that is wonderful, but I think it is very common for caregivers to need to make the choice to pick small children up, and go somewhere’s to help them calm down.

Empathize and Broadcast

Now the item of desire is gone, and/or you are in a safe place. Even though your child has limited language skills at this point, they can understand a lot more than we realize. Regardless, this is a great chance for them to experience emotional language. It is incredibly helpful for a child to be able to effectively describe how they feel and what they need. At this age, we are giving them the language. “I know you are really angry that I won’t let you climb on the table. It is not safe. I am worried you may fall and hurt yourself. I can see you are very angry because you are clenching your fists (point out fists) and your mouth is growling (mimic growling).”

Comfort

Then you can offer them a hug. “would you like a hug?” They may not want a hug. I would respect that choice. You could try to offer them a comfort item. “would you like to hold mr. bear?” If your child is still refusing to engage with you, you can say “I understand, it seems you want your space. I’m just going to sit right here and when you are ready, I’ll be waiting with my hug.” I would really be cautious to never leave a small child alone when they are upset, regardless of what they do or say. It can trigger feelings of abandonment, as this survival instinct is still strong in a young child.

If they are being uncontrollably violent, I do not recommend forcibly holding the child, I think this makes some children panic, instead create a barrier (can be the door if you have to) and say “I really want to help you, but I don’t know how and you are hurting me. I am going to stand right here on the other side of this door until you stop throwing things and then I can come back in. Let me know when you are ready.” If you have a child who you think needs to be held tightly to calm down, I would research other ways of achieving that feeling. There are pressure vests, weighted blankets and pillows, body socks, all kinds of things that can help give them that feeling without the battle. If you have a child who you know throws things and can be destructive, try to make the “safe place” as child proof, soft and calming as possible. That way if they do throw things, they won’t hurt themselves, others, or anything in the room.

Reflect

Reflect on what caused the outburst. Of course he can’t climb on the table but he is showing you that he wants to practice his climbing skills. You can support that need for gross motor activity by bringing your child to the playground (indoor or outdoor), setting up pillows to climb on and over, setting up large vinyl soft blocks, getting a small climber for outside, etc. Risk-taking is an important part of physical literacy skill building, but also the development of problem solving skills, self-confidence and feelings of self-efficacy. Risk-taking needs to be developmentally appropriate, however, one year olds don’t care if you aren’t ready to let them take risks, they’re going to do it anyways. It doesn’t hurt to start researching risk-taking now so you can mentally prepare yourself for moments when you have the urge to scream “be careful!” (this can sometimes shock children and actually scare them into falling or tripping, exactly what you are trying to avoid, I lost two front teeth this way as a toddler). Play is interwoven into everything children do and often their play mimics real life, the practicing of real life skills. They do this naturally, without prompting. That is why they always want to get higher and be where you are. find ways to safely involve them in what you are doing. Often a baby carrier is still useful for this age. Also, read about children’s play schemas to understand your child’s evolving play and why they do the things they do.

If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086

References

meeting those needs was necessary: Your child is not “protesting”…they are crying. The language sleep trainers use and the damage it causes- https://themilkmeg.com/your-child-is-not-protesting-they-are-crying-the-language-sleep-trainers-use-and-the-damage-it-causes/

autonomy: The little toddler that could: autonomy in toddlerhood-http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/the_little_toddler_that_could_autonomy_in_toddlerhood

developmentally appropriate: Erik Erikson Life stages- http://www.crowe-associates.co.uk/psychotherapy/erikson-life-stages/

validate their feelings: Five Easy, Powerful Ways to Validate Your Child’s Feelings- https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201309/five-easy-powerful-ways-validate-your-childs-feelings

“Yes” environmentHOW TO MAKE YOUR HOME A YES ENVIRONMENT- http://thenaturalparentmagazine.com/make-home-yes-environment/

Expecting a child under two: What Does Your Child Under Three Really “Know” About “No”?- https://www.positivediscipline.com/articles/what-does-your-child-under-three-really-know-about-no

egocentrism: The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development- https://www.simplypsychology.org/preoperational.html

Parents get fearful and frustrated: WHAT HELPED ME BECOME A CALMER MOM AND BE GENTLE WITH MY CHILD EVEN IF I’M ANGRY- https://playfulnotes.com/what-helped-me-become-a-calm-mom/

Risk-taking: Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play- https://theconversation.com/why-kids-need-risk-fear-and-excitement-in-play-81450

physical literacy skill building: http://sportforlife.ca/physical-literacy/

children’s play schemas: Schemas in Children’s Play- http://www.nature-play.co.uk/blog/schemas-in-childrens-play

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