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Staying Calm During Toddler Tantrums

Strategies to help you stay calm amidst the chaos.

You feel tired, stressed and spread thin. You feel triggered by your child in some way. Maybe they’re not listening, maybe they’re screaming and crying, maybe they’re pushing back. You feel the anger and tension begin to rise in your body. Eventually, you snap and lose it. You yell and threaten and possibly say things you don’t mean. And after, you feel guilt, regret, and shame.

Does this cycle sound familiar?

Yes, without question, one of the top concerns I hear about from parents is that they have a hard time staying calm. They really want to remain calm and patient with their children, yet find it nearly impossible to do so.

I want you to know that if you find it challenging to keep your composure all the time, you are not alone. Yes, staying calm, composed, and in control of your emotions is the ultimate goal. However, I want you to know that no one, truly no one, is able to stay calm 100% of the time. Of course not. After all, you are human. You have feelings. You have triggers. Parenting is hard, and this is real life.

So, while yes, you should actively and continuously work towards the goal of remaining calm, confident, and composed for your children, don’t forget to be patient with yourself in the process. Because it is a process. Show yourself empathy and above all, don’t give up.

Understand Your Triggers

The very first step to being able to stay calm is understanding your triggers. Not the surface triggers, but the deep, underlying triggers.

Think about what your triggers are. What is it that your child does that triggers you to feel upset, frustrated, embarrassed, angry? You might be thinking to yourself something like: “I get angry when my child doesn’t listen to me.” Or “I feel anxious when my child acts out in public.” Or “I feel overwhelmed when my child is crying.”

These are all surface triggers. They are very real and valid, but they are surface triggers. You want to continue to ask yourself, “why” and search for the deeper underlying trigger beneath the surface trigger.

Surface Trigger: “I get angry when my child doesn’t listen to me.”

Why? (Underlying Trigger)

  • Because things are not going my way and I want to be in control.
  • Because I was raised to believe that not listening is disrespectful and I feel offended.
  • Because I’m not getting what I want and it doesn’t feel good.

Surface Trigger: “I feel anxious when my child acts out in public”

Why? (Underlying Trigger)

  • Because I’m concerned about what others are thinking of me and my child.
  • Because it’s important for me to be perceived as a good parent.
  • Because I’m worried something may be “wrong” with my child or with my parenting.

Surface Trigger:“I feel overwhelmed when my child is crying.”

Why? (Underlying Trigger)

  • Because it makes me feel out of control.
  • Because “negative” emotions scare me.
  • Because I was not allowed to openly express my emotions as a child.

Do you see the difference between a surface trigger and an underlying trigger? Notice how many of the surface triggers put blame on your child, while the underlying triggers are more focused on you and understanding your reaction. It’s the true, underlying triggers you want to work to identify. And only when you can really understand your underlying triggers, can you then work to manage them.

Continue to ask yourself these types of questions to better understand your triggers:

  • Why am I feeling angry (overwhelmed, frustrated etc) right now? But really… why?
  • The last time I got very upset with my child, what was going on with me? What was I feeling?
  • Why did I react that way? Where/how did I learn to react that way?
  • What was getting triggered in me?
  • How would I prefer to respond when this happens again? (when, not if)
  • Is this how I always react, or was there something else going on?
  • Are my needs being met? Am I looking for others to help me manage my emotions?
  • Is this actually about my child, or is this really about me?

These are some of the most common parenting triggers:

  • CONTROL: The need to feel in control. You feel overwhelmed when
  • things are out of your control: too loud, too much, too messy,
  • not listening and so on.
  • DOUBT: Doubt about your parenting abilities or doubt about your child’s capabilities.
  • FEAR: In some way, all triggers are tied to fear.

Slooooowing Down

When you slow down you are able to listen to your body’s signals. You know what it feels like when you’re becoming frustrated and triggered. Your chest tightens, maybe your heart races…you know how that feels. Slow down in order to notice these feelings and once you do, slow down again and breathe through them.

If you’re not able to first slow down, you will miss these signals your body is giving you.

When you slow down you are giving yourself room to think. When you can think, you can thoughtfully respond instead of emotionally react. What’s the difference between reacting and responding? Reacting is immediate, emotionally charged and often out of control. Meanwhile, responding is thoughtful, reflective and focused on guidance. Slow down in order to give yourself the room you need to think and respond to your child.

When you slow down your child will also slow down. Children are immediate and intense. Oftentimes, parent feel they must respond to their child with the same level of intensity and immediacy. They don’t. You don’t. Take your time to respond to your child and make your decisions. Let your child know you “have to think about it and get back” to them. Model patience and mindfulness. Work to delay gratification.

Slowing down is tied to breathing. Don’t underestimate the power of breathing. Deep breathing (belly breathing) is an excellent way to help yourself stay calm and connected. And it’s something you can do anytime, anywhere. When you feel yourself starting to get frustrated, overwhelmed or angry, stop what you’re doing or saying and right there and then, slow down and begin some deep breathing. It’s perfectly ok to do this in front of your children. In fact, it’s a great technique to model for them.

You can literally stop in place and tell yourself out loud: “Slow down and
breathe.” Deep breathing is slow, steady and deliberate. Pick calm moments and practice breathing this way often so that when the tough moments come, you and your body already know what to do.

Look Inward & Validate

You know how you’re going about your day and seemingly within an instant your nice family dinner turns into a screaming
match. Or after school pick up starts off okay and then suddenly you and your child are yelling at each other. You think to yourself “What just happened!? Things were going so well.” These moments feel like they go from zero to full blown meltdown in an instant, but in actuality, there were signals along the way that you may not have noticed.

That’s why it’s incredibly important to take a moment to pause and look inward throughout the day. Looking inward means to check in with yourself and ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now?” It’s as if you’re stopping for a split second and taking inventory of your own emotions. Practice doing this throughout your day, during all types of moments: calm moments, anxious moments, angry moments. Start by asking yourself 2 or 3 times a day: “How am I feeling right now?” And build up from there. You’d be shocked to find how common it is to walk around and interact with the world without having a clear picture of how you’re feeling.
The more you practice looking inward, the more you’ll be able to instinctually do this during triggered moments. And that’s your goal: awareness. You want to get to a place where the moment you begin to feel triggered (or feel anything), you notice it. Once you’re aware of what you’re feeling, you’re then able to validate and manage those feelings. There is a lot of talk about validating your child’s feelings. Don’t forget to also validate your own.

Validation is acknowledging that it’s ok to feel how you feel. Here is how it can work: You look inward and check in with yourself throughout the day. You notice that you’re feeling a little extra sensitive and on edge. You validate to yourself: “I’m feeling a little on edge today… it’s ok for
me to feel this way sometimes. I won’t feel like this all the time, but right now that’s how I feel.” Later in the day you look inward and feel yourself starting to get angry and overwhelmed with your child, you pause and validate these feelings: “I can feel myself starting to get angry…it’s ok, I can feel this way sometimes…I’m in control of my emotions and I can do this.”

Realization of your own feelings in the moment helps to reduce your reactivity. When your own emotions are recognized and validated, you are able to be a more grounded and responsive parent.

Encourage Yourself With a Mantra

A mantra is a personal affirmation that you say to yourself during tough moments. It’s a way to encourage yourself and cheer yourself on. You can create one for yourself or use one of the below Here are some of my favorite mantras, including the one I use.

  • “It’s ok. We are ok.”
  • “I’ve got this.”
  • “This is hard. I can still do this.”
  • “I can stay calm… I can stay calm.”
  • “I believe in myself and I know what to do.”
  • “I am the lighthouse and my child is the storm… I am the lighthouse…”
  • “This too shall pass.”
  • “I am my child’s mentor.”
  • “Slow down… slow down.”

In moments of frustration, you want to use a personal mantra that really
encourages you and you want to really believe in what you’re saying. Let’s put all these steps together and see how this can work out in real life

You’ve really thought deeply about your triggers and you’ve come to
recognize that a messy house really gets to you. You like things done your way, you like to feel in control and it makes you feel out of control and overwhelmed when your house is messy. You’re working to continually understand and manage your triggers.

You wanted to clean up a bit but didn’t have the time. You’ve checked in with yourself a handful of times throughout the day and you recognize you’re feeling stressed because you weren’t able to achieve what you planned to. Your kids come home from school and there are immediately shoes, socks and bags thrown about. You look inward once again and feel a tightening in your chest and a shot of anxiety.

Instead of immediately reacting, you slow down and again, check in with how you’re feeling: “I really don’t like messes. They make me feel out of
control… I also wanted to clean up earlier and wasn’t able to and it’s been bothering me all day… this is about me and not about my kids…. breathe… breathe… slow down…breathe…. ok, I can do this… I’m ok, I’ve got this.”

You walk over to your kids and let them know, calmly and confidently: “Time to pick up your shoes and socks and put them in your room. Yes, right now…I know you don’t want to…I know it feels hard…still, that’s what we’re doing right now. Go ahead, you can do it. I’ll get your socks and you get your shoes. There you go.”

And throughout your conversation with your children you’re breathing, looking inward and checking in and encouraging yourself with your mantra: “I can do this… we’re ok… they are the kids and I am their mentor.”

Do you see how easily and quickly this scenario could have taken a
different turn…and ended in yelling and threatening. I know that this may feel like a lot of steps. That’s why I use this example to illustrate how the steps are happening simultaneously, alongside one other. The more you practice, the more this becomes a habit for you and you’re moving through these steps in mere seconds.

Knowledge Is Power

Many moments of parental frustration come from unmet expectations. If you expect your young child to sit still for long periods of time, then you may feel upset and frustrated when they can’t. If you expect your teenager to always listen on command…then, of course, you’re going to feel angry when they don’t. If you are unaware that it’s perfectly healthy for a toddler to have tantrums, then you may feel especially frustrated and overwhelmed when your toddler has a tantrum.

These are examples of where you may have to reset your expectations of
what your child is able to do, based on having a better understanding of what they are developmentally and emotionally capable of. This is why it’s incredibly important to seek out information and knowledge about your child’s stage of development, what’s considered typical and how best to handle it. (Guess what?! That’s what you’re doing right now! Give yourself some credit.)

The more you know and understand about your child’s development, the more confident and relaxed you are able to feel in your parenting.

Above all else, it’s so important to know that you’re human and this takes tons of practice and patience. Growth is a life-long journey. Don’t give up on yourself and know that you won’t always be able to control your emotions in the way you want to…and that’s ok. When you react to your child in a way that you don’t feel good about, know you can and should repair. Repairing means to approach your child and apologize. Modeling true ownership and normalizing mistake making and personal growth.

About the Author

Dr. Siggie, PhD

Child Development Specialist