The other day my 21-month-old daughter, Sandy, had yet another tantrum that involved the super-human strength of throwing furniture. Sometimes it’s the coffee table or her toddler bed — this time it was a stool — a tall, metal stool that she flung straight at me. My good friend, Lauren Gourley, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, happened to be visiting and she witnessed the spectacle. I eventually asked what I was afraid to say out loud, “Does she have a serious anger problem?”
Lauren is a Child Developmental Specialist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she works with families of young children who present with significant trauma, behavioral and/or developmental concerns. In other words, I had just the right person on hand.
Lauren reassured me that my daughter’s behavior was normal because she was able to calm down and start playing again quickly. Her response to Sandy (as I stood horrified and frozen) was “Oh you’re so mad, you’re showing us that you want the TV on. Hey look, here’s a puzzle we could play with.” She went on to reassure me that all toddlers get angry and frustrated and that early childhood is a really important time for learning what to do with those very intense emotions. So, how exactly do you teach a toddler what to do with intense emotions? (Heck, can you remind me what I’m supposed to do with intense emotions)?
Here were Lauren’s tips:
1. Remember that the goal is not for children to not have any strong feelings.
Feelings are normal and healthy — the trick is learning what to do with those feelings.
2. Provide a consistent routine.
Always let kids know when there is going to be a change in plans.
3. Read books about feelings during times when your kids are calm.
(She loves Dr. Seuss’ My Many Colored Days, Janan Cain’s The Way I Feel, and Ed Emberly’s Glad Monster Sad Monster).
4. Play a game.
You can make a game out of making all of the “feeling faces” together (sad, mad, happy, scared, surprised, etc.) and then pretend to do things to feel better —“Oh, you’re showing me a sad face, I’m going to give you a big hug, maybe then you’ll feel better!”
5. Model safe and healthy ways of managing feelings.
So, next time you lose your keys you can say, “Oh man, Mommy lost her keys again! I’m getting mad — I better take three deep breaths to calm down … will you help me take three deep breaths?”
6. When a child gets mad there are important things you can do in the moment.
Talking a ton isn’t really going to help. Getting on your child’s level using a few repeat statements in a low, clear voice can be helpful. “You’re mad. Mommy said no, but I can help you feel better.” Modeling taking some deep breaths and offering some comfort can be helpful.
7. Take a time in.
Dan Siegal, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, talks about taking a “time in” with kids rather than directing kids to take a time out — a time in means you sit with your child while they are upset and use your calm self to help them regulate.
8. Re-direct attention.
After the anger storm has passed (and usually these things pass very quickly) offering a toy or new distraction can help.
9. Talk things through.
It’s also a good time to talk through what happened that made them so mad and what helped them calm down.