Which version of toddler tantrums do you get? Jelly fish? Superhuman strength? Immovable Object? Arms and legs tornado? All of the above?
We are born with an emotional limbic system that is 100% functional from the start. Even as infants we have an emotional radar that can sense the stress, confidence, and safety around us. Our neocortex – the logical, rational, thinking part of the brain takes MUCH longer to get up and running.
Just like our immune system, the emotional limbic system has some tools for healing emotional distress. Tears, clinging, tantrums, laughter and connection all have a part to play. When a child is overwhelmed, scared, anxious, or frustrated they resort physical expressions of upset and lose all access to their thinking brains. If we can think of these big feelings like a virus and the emotional offloading like vomiting, it is easier to treat tantrums like we do illness – usually inconvenient, but not something a child is INTENTIONALLY doing.
If we parents can stay in our own neocortex/thinking brain rather than being sucked into swamp of emotions, then we can support the healing process in many ways – most of which don’t take any longer than trying to talk or reason them out of their feelings. Have you ever been told to calm down when you’re upset? How did that go? We all tend to respond better and feel better when someone listens, validates and waits until we offload the feelings causing the upset.
So, how does this work with a tantruming jellyfish toddler? Hand in Hand Parenting suggests the Stay Listening Tool.
There are many ways to use this tool but it usually looks something like this: move in close, make physical contact, or be the container for your child by keeping them in one space. Set a limit if needed “I can’t let you hit the dog” or simply acknowledge the feelings “you really wanted the red cup.” You don’t have to say much – the limbic system doesn’t process words, and language actually distracts from the healing process.
You just tune in, offering your calm limbic system like a lighthouse beacon and your full attention without judgment. This can be tricky and can suck the best of us right into the emotional swamp with them sometimes. Of course, the color of the cup is a ridiculous thing to throw a tantrum about, BUT by choosing this PRETEXT for a good, emotional cleansing, who knows what other emotional hurts and upsets are being flushed out with this silly upset?
Most children carry on with the tantrum for a bit and then run out of steam. The flush is complete and they are done. They move on with their day. They “vomit out” the feelings and feel better.
Check out this article on Stay Listening for more about why and how it works and sign up for an upcoming Hand in Hand Parenting Class at Birth Roots for more troubleshooting and ideas for your specific version of the toddler tantrum.