Toddler temper tantrums can be difficult to manage, but should we be concerned if our toddler is having them a couple of times a day in or outside the home?
In The Checkup Column for the New York Times, Perri Klass, M.D. provides helpful guidance for weathering the storm of temper tantrums. Drawing on the expertise of many professionals, Dr. Klass suggests that toddler tantrums, at their core, are due to a child experiencing anger. Parents, she rightly points out, should first focus on keeping their toddler safe, and then shift to uncovering the root cause as they begin to help the child manage the tantrum.
Dr. Klass also asks at what point should parents be concerned. In addition to noting increased frequency of tantrums can be a sign that something is wrong, psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger notes: “Kids who have tantrums outside of the home at school and daycare, at church, outside, that’s another flag.”
While increased frequency of tantrums, including physical aggression, can be reason for concern, having tantrums outside of the home should not automatically set off alarms.
“While admittedly, increased frequency of tantrums can be worrisome, nearly 15 million children under 6 are now in early childhood care, understandably resulting in having tantrums outside the home,” observes Dr. Donna Housman, founder and CEO of Housman Institute, a training and research organization for early childhood educators. “What’s important is that we train teachers, childcare givers, and parents how to most effectively deal with the inevitable tantrum, wherever it occurs.”
At our lab school, the Beginnings School and Child Development Center, our educators and staff use toddler temper tantrums as teachable moments, engaging in these “heat of the moment” episodes to help children learn how to become aware of their emotions, express their emotions in constructive ways, and better manage the intensity of their emotions and those of others. These skills comprise what is known as emotional competence—the building blocks of emotional intelligence.
How do we do it? When children are in a state of aroused emotion, we begin by making sure they are in a safe place. We then share with them that they can get in control of their bodies, and once they do, they are better able to hear us and we can then better help them solve their problems. The process involves helping them identify the feeling or emotion they are experiencing, guiding them towards more constructive expressions and appropriate behaviors associated with that emotion, and then helping them to understand the cause connected to the tantrum before they can effectively solve their problem. This approach allows children to begin to learn to regulate. This regulation of emotion, together with the regulation of thought and behavior, is what is known as self-regulation, a critical construct foundational to lifelong success, health and wellbeing.
So rather than viewing toddler temper tantrums outside of the home as a reason for alarm, let’s shift our focus. A temper tantrum is, at its core, an opportune time for parents, educators, and caregivers to promote growth by introducing the foundational skills of becoming emotionally competent and self-regulated, the building blocks in becoming emotionally intelligent.