Posts in Discipline
A New Way to Think About Toddler Tantrums That Will Turn Your World Upside Down

A Letter…

Hi Aubrey, 

I’m contacting you because I feel like I need help with my toddler. I’m hoping you can give me any advice that can help both him and I. My son is 22 months. He is very outspoken, a trait I love about him, but we are struggling. I feel like from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to sleep, we are constantly dealing with meltdowns.

I don’t know what to do. I offer choices, I try to help him take deep breaths, I don’t shut down his emotions, I acknowledge them and try to help him get through them, I even have tried to give him alone time to see if that helps calm him.

I know he’s not acting this way on purpose and it comes with this age, but, it’s gotten to a level where I feel like I am not being a good mother. I can’t help calm him and it’s gotten to where we are both crying.

What can I do? Just this morning, while making the bed, he wanted to play under the covers, which I understood and played with him, making forts, etc, for an hour. It had gotten to the point where it was time to get the rest of the day going and I told him we were done playing. He didn’t like that and the meltdown started.

Next, I offered him two choices of outfits; he threw them on the floor and had another meltdown. What do you advise? I’m with him 24/7 and I feel like the constant meltdowns are making me short fused and I know that he doesn’t deserve a mother who snaps out negative at his emotions. 


Dear, Sweet Mama…

I can tell by the way you write that you have boatloads of compassion for your child. You know from your research that children who are tantruming or melting down are really having a hard time emotionally, and that resonates with you so deeply that you feel it in your soul.

Your Parenting Toolkit Is Full of Good Stuff

You have good strategies in your parenting toolkit already! You offer choices first, you take deep breaths, and you do your best to help your child calm down, knowing that what most children need is more love and not reprimanding when they are hurting inside.

I would say that you already have the golden ticket here with your approach. You’re doing great, mama! Honestly, there are just a couple of things I think you might be missing in your bag to help you deal with this situation more effectively.

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The Mindshift You Need: Self-Compassion

When I read how you are framing yourself, it is a story of a mom who is feeling inadequate because she is unable to calm her own child. You see yourself becoming “not a good mother” when you’re stressed, and you “can’t help” him, despite throwing your entire being into the effort. You’ve tried everything you can think of, and you still can’t do it.

These feelings of helplessness are causing your anxiety and frustration to spike during these difficult moments.

...and it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The more your child melts down over the little things, the more helpless and frustrated you feel. His behavior is both developmentally normal and influenced by yours. No doubt you are aware of this, and the more uptight you are about it, the longer his tantrums will last and more frequent they will be. The more you expect them and worry about them, the more likely they are to happen.

Conversely, and most importantly, the more relaxed and easygoing you are during his meltdowns the easier they will be for both of you.

So how are we going to help you get more relaxed about this, mama?

I want you to take some time to reflect on our conversation. Go on a long walk alone or with your partner and stew on it, do some journaling, talk about it with some IRL friends at the park while your children play, or do some restorative yoga poses in the evening while you meditate.

I also want you to do some research into the concept of reframing negative self talk. If you choose, you can change your habit of thinking of yourself as a bad mother when things go awry. 

Not to sound like a Negative Nellie, but mama, there are a lot of tough times coming your way in the future. 

Talk to any parent who has a child older than yours and you will find that parenting can be a very emotionally painful experience - especially for those who are like us: sensitive, empathic people. From the occasional terrifying illnesses to the first time his romantic crush rejects him, you will feel it.

If you don’t intentionally reframe the way you think about yourself as a parent now, all of these future experiences will be internalized through a screen of guilt and inadequacy. I am not chiding you. I know this from experience, and I so wish that someone had told me this flat out when I had my first toddler.

Don’t Fear Those Meltdowns

I wish I could tell you exactly why some children tantrum more than others at different ages. We have all kinds of suggested labels for different types of common childhood behavior and there are many ways we can help.

For example, tantrums and meltdowns can be caused by...

  • Anxiety - in general or caused by a specific event

  • Insecurity - because of lack of enough boundaries

  • Disturbed sense of order - routine disrupted

  • Frustrated by own inability to do things he feels he is capable of

  • Being asked to do something he feels he is not capable of

  • Overly hungry or tired - not enough sleep?

  • Illness - a cold/virus is not yet obvious

  • Sensory overstimulation or understimulation - not just for those with “sensory processing disorder” but this can happen with any child

The key to helping him in the current moment will depend on your ability to observe, wait patiently, observe again, try something new, observe again, and try something else, and then wait and wait.

Follow your gut. If you feel like the tantrums are way outside of the norm and an indicator that something is seriously wrong, please find in-person help from a counselor or at the very least consult your child’s doctor — but many children do go through a very normal tantruming phase that is no indication of any more severe problem. Trust your intuition here.

On patience…I know that it’s hard to wait. You want to solve his behavior immediately. The truth is that sometimes we never know what causes our childrens’ meltdowns or the “right” thing to do to help. We have to ride the wave with them.

You Are Already What He Needs

You are the best mama for your son - the only mama he ever needs, the one he absolutely hands down no doubt whatsoever deserves, and you are a good mother - even when you are short fused, even when you feel like you can’t do anything to directly calm him in the moment. He is a lucky, lucky little boy.

You are not letting him struggle alone. You are there with him in those tough, frustrating moments, and maybe you are letting his emotions dictate yours a bit - it’s true. But you know what? There is a LOT of parenting advice out there telling us that in order to properly handle our children’s meltdowns we have to be these cool, impassive, emotionless beings, and I just don’t buy it.

Lean in to it. If you’re a passionate, sensitive person, it makes sense that your son is, too! He is feeling the unfairness of the world intensely right now. His brain is not yet developed to understand logic and reason, so he is just...feeling.

While tantrums look really dramatic on the outside, they are just outside expressions of inner emotions. They’re nothing to be afraid of.

The two of you are still intertwined emotionally. It’s been a year or more since he left your womb, and yet your heartbeats and breaths still sync when things are good, and also when things are bad.

I am so touched that you reached out to me and I am rooting for you and your little darling. I know things will get better soon for you both. You’ll make sure of it!

Love,
Aubrey


Here’s Your Free Parenting Checklist

Get my free checklist of the most common reasons why your child might be tantruming.

Here’s a sneak preview…

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Here’s what to do next.

  1. Download the checklist. You’ll get the list, plus, when you join my community of readers, you’ll also receive gentle, compassionate parenting tips and information about educating your child at home.

  2. Save it digitally, print, or share it with a friend.

  3. Put it on your fridge or in a special place and use it when you’re feeling stressed and need some objectivity.

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    This Is the Way We Wash a Wall: the montessori way!

    An hand-crank eggbeater utensil, a bowl, and a drop of concentrated soap is an activity any toddler or preschooler will enjoy….and after the fun inside the bowl, why not have a cleaning frenzy?

    Children love to clean, and when they get into it, sometimes they can't quite stop.

    Let’s give them a huge canvas to explore possibilities.

    All you need is a bowl of soapy water, a sponge, and a drying cloth.

    I recommend very little actual water. You can always add more later. The sponge should be child sized. That means if you have a toddler, you may want to cut a regular sponge in thirds and give your child a third.

    If your child is older, half a sponge may be quite appropriate. This way little hands can feel secure with the right sized tool. I also recommend that if you have more than one child, you give each child his own sponge and bowl so he can go where he likes to clean in his own space.

    It is helpful if you give some boundaries. If you want your child to focus on a small section of wall that is especially dirty, you may consider putting some masking tape around the area that you want cleaned and asking the child to stay within the square.

    I also recommend giving a lesson on how to wash the wall first.

    The Lesson

    1. Carefully gather your supplies and put them right in front of the wall to wash. If in the classroom, this would include putting on an apron (children, too).
 

    2. Silently inspect the wall and use your fingers to point to dirty spots. You may even wrinkle your nose a little and say matter of factly, "This wall is dirty." 
 

    3. In exaggerated fashion, dip the sponge and squeeze out the water. Drip, drip, drip. Again. Dip. Squeeze. Drip, drip, drip. Say, "Now, I am ready to wash the wall." 
 

    4. Scrub. Smile and nod in satisfaction. Put the sponge back down. Use your drying cloth to dry the area.
 

    5. Say, "Now this part of the wall is clean. It's your turn."

     
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    Ready. Set. Scrub!

    Well, after this long lesson, the children are probably dying to jump in there, so go for it! Sing songs about washing like "This is the way we wash the walls" to the tune of "Here we go round the Mulberry Bush." 

    Make a big soapy mess and then use your whole body to dry the soapy area. You can see in the pictures how my kids were loving this and dancing around. If you're dancing and having fun, they will, too.

    Bonus: Your house gets cleaner, not messier! ;)

    Print This Free Montessori Lesson

    Download the printable version of this lesson and add it to your homeschooling binder or share with a friend.

    Here’s what it looks like, except unfortunately, I will be unable to email you the soap & sponge! I know you’re disappointed, but at least you can get the lesson, right?

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    Download your free printable lesson.

    1. Download the lesson. You’ll get the lesson, plus gentle, compassionate parenting tips and information about educating your child at home.

    2. Print and add this lesson to your binder, share it with a friend, or use it with your Montessori homeschooling planner.

    3. Try this activity with your child! It’s a winner!

      Your Parenting Journey

      Boisterous or clingy, shrieky or shy, our toddlers give us the wildest ride of our lives and win our hearts forever.

      Your parenting journey, just like your toddler’s personality, is unique.

      In this excerpt from the Introduction of Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage, you can get a glimpse of my own pathway toward compassionate, gentle discipline.

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      Excerpt from Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage

      He glares at me from across the kitchen, eyes squinting in fury, face reddening as he holds his breath. Headfirst and full force, he runs toward my belly, and upon contact, mashes himself against me. His arms are flailing, and I can’t tell if he’s actively trying to hit me or if he’s just out of control. My biceps are still stronger than his so I use them to hold him at bay without hurting him. He screeches in protest and reaches for my waist. I can see tears forming in the corners of his eyes. I feel awful inside.

      In my head, I am running through all the discipline strategies I know and I’m second-guessing all of my decisions. Did I make the wrong choice by setting a limit? Was I too harsh or unsympathetic? Am I a pushover? And the worst thought of all—am I failing as a parent?

      I give up fighting him. Heart pounding, I reverse the energy flow and hug him tightly instead. I yell, “You’re mad at me! You’re really, really mad! I’m sorry we’re fighting. I don’t want to fight. I love you. I love you so much!” His body goes rag-doll limp. He takes a shaky breath and lets out a sob. We melt to the floor together, a tangle of bent knees and bowed heads. I still don’t know if the way I handled the situation would seem right or wrong in anyone else’s eyes, but my own uniquely impulsive and intensely emotional child accepts the cuddle. I rock us back and forth for a long time, whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

      Every time we interact with our children, we have the opportunity to coach them on how to manage their own emotions and behave appropriately in social situations. It isn’t easy; our own personalities and insecurities greatly influence how we address a challenging behavior in our children.

      As the daughter of a Montessori preschool teacher and a psychologist, child development was a frequent dinner table topic. By the time I was thirteen, I was completely hooked. My childhood heroes were Alfie Kohn and Madelyn Swift, two fierce proponents of a more positive, compassionate approach to discipline. I also became aware that I was being raised differently from many of my peers: While my friends and cousins were spanked or grounded, I was counseled. But it wasn’t exactly easy to come clean and reveal my emotions and mutually agree upon solutions, and sometimes being punished seemed like the easy way out! Still, I grew up with a heavy appreciation of the time my parents spent with me to offer their guidance, and the fair and respectful treatment of children became the golden, wrapped-up package in my soul.

      After several years of teaching kindergarteners and a whole lot more personal research on disciplinary techniques and strategies to handle defiance, effective parenting seemed so easy. When I saw a child having a tantrum in the grocery store, I assumed that if the parent had been proactive in the right way, the whole embarrassing conflict could have been avoided. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that, now.”

      The first time I had to handle a tantrum from my own child, I was knocked flat off my feet! All the strategies I had learned by heart now had to be implemented in practice, not just preached. The complete lack of objectivity had rendered me a newbie in the field. What I had learned to be true from the books now had to be learned all over again from experience. And so, my children set about teaching me the right way to parent them.

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      Now, as a parent coach and educational consultant, I listen to the concerns and anxieties of many parents in the thick of those tough toddler years, and my heart aches in remembrance. Parenting is a humbling experience. Children pass through such a quickly progressing succession of developmental stages during the first few years of life that it’s hard for us to keep up with their current needs, much less anticipate what changes will occur next. As my mama always said with a bit of cheekiness, “If you don’t like your child’s behavior, just wait a few weeks for a new developmental stage. By then, you’ll have an entirely different problem to figure out!”

      In addition, most of us have no real memories of what it felt like to be a toddler. We can only imagine the intensity of their emotions as they push toward independence and simultaneously demand the safety and comfort that can only be provided by a parent.

      You, like your child, are on a path of becoming. Your quest: to nurture your child’s potential, and while doing so, learn how to become a stronger and more compassionate human being yourself. Every day, you bravely face the possibility of tantrums and acts of defiance, obstacles that would ruffle even the most heroic among us. Yet you are never alone in these woods.

      Unlike a fairy tale, there is no magic wand or spell that can skip to the happily-ever-after; however, what I can offer you is a map that reveals your child’s natural developmental path. I can also help fill the backpack for this journey with discipline strategies to pick and choose from as you learn what works best for you and your child. I can give you a heads up about the issues parents commonly face during each year so that you know what to look for. And I can reassure you that there is no such thing as perfection. We all make mistakes and learn from them. Our children’s capacity for forgiveness and acceptance of our faults is unfathomable. As long as you are meeting your child’s basic needs for health, safety, and love, you will walk right out of these dark woods into the sunlight. I promise.

      There is no degree in parenting. But there's this.
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      I loved my mother so much I wanted to grow up and be just like her. I can close my eyes and I still see my five-year-old rosy cheeks and pigtails in the mirror. The answer to the age-old whaddya wanna be when ya grow up question was suddenly clear as day.

      I looked right into my own hazel eyes and announced the epiphany out loud. “I’m going to be a mom!” My voice echoed off the old olive-green tiles. I whispered it again for good measure. And then I went into my backyard and twirled in the sun, happy and fulfilled, secure in my future career. I wonder how many other children had a similar adorably innocent moment.

      Unlike other life-altering career decisions, like my own foray into classroom teaching, there is no degree to obtain in parenting. There are no certifications to pile up. No professional development hours to accrue and turn in. No one hires you or fires you. No one gives you a to-do list or evaluates your performance.

      You can read about the right way to discipline children and even study child development before you give birth to or adopt one. These formal studies can certainly get you philosophically centered and ready to face challenges head on, but in the end, as new parents, we are all more or less on the same playing field. Newbies mucking about together, hoping for the best.

      Parenting well takes constant introspection and empathy - for when we learn to see the world through the eyes of our children, we start to understand why they behave the way they do. And then we can modify our reactions to meet their deepest needs.

      If we are trying our best to parent with compassion, with respect, with loving guidance, with gentle encouragement, with supportive limits, and with a good deal of humility, I truly believe we are all on the right path.

      Even so grounded, many parents have come to me over the years and asked me for specific strategies to try when their toddlers and young preschoolers are throwing tantrums, refusing to cooperate, throwing toys, hitting, or biting, among other behavioral difficulties.

      I’m happy to share the wisdom I’ve learned along the way - from reading books, chatting with my mama friends, and by watching my husband work his own parenting magic - but it is impossible disregard information about the development of the child in lieu of a specific method. They are both essential to solving a problem.

      In my new book, Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage, you’ll find practical strategies for overcoming common issues faced by parents of 1-4 year olds right alongside insight into your child’s developmental stage. It was a genuine thrill to write and brought back so many memories of my own children when they were little!

      You are the perfect parent for your own child - just as you are. You know that, right? I hope you do.

      I know you might not always feel like one. Most of us struggle with periods of self-doubt and even cry about it in the bathroom or get unreasonably cranky. Recently, I re-watched the animated film Tangled again and was struck by how much I identified with the evil witch (“mother”) when she fell back into her chair in exasperation after yelling and said in regret, “Great. Now I’m the bad guy!” Oh, how many times have I been that bad guy, goaded into losing control of my own emotions!

      All of the fretting, the exhaustion, and for some of you (myself included) even the yelling…this is life handing you an opportunity for learning. Every good story has an internal struggle. It wouldn’t be a story without one!

      But with dedication to learning and the willingness to embrace the ups and the downs, your child will respect how hard you tried and may even look in the mirror and decide to one day take the journey, too.

       
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