Discover more from Raising Good Humans with Dr. Aliza Pressman
What’s the difference between ignoring and not giving attention?
Responding to tantrums is about both/and
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Dear Dr. Aliza, I am so confused about toddler tantrums. I hear lots of online experts say to be sensitive, to name my toddler's feelings, and to support him through a tantrum, but my pediatrician also tells me to ignore his demands and not give the tantrums too much attention. How can you ignore and be sensitive at the same time? I feel like I am not making things any better. Today it was about ice cream for breakfast, and I’m scared of what it will be about next. HELP.
This is a GREAT question, and one I get a lot. It makes sense that so many parents are confused about this! There is so much noise out there about being sensitive to our children and honoring their feelings, BUT this is sometimes confused as giving attention to, or following, every one of their demands and requests. Just because our children want something, doesn’t mean we need to give it to them.
Tantrums are developmentally appropriate for toddlers. They have strong feelings, want control over many aspects of their lives, and have limited self regulation abilities thanks to a still developing pre-frontal cortex. This means we can understand why they feel a certain way - like disappointed that they can’t have ice cream for breakfast - and can have empathy and compassion for them in that moment. In this example, you could say, “I know it feels disappointing not to have ice cream. You love it, so of course you want it for breakfast!” This statement would validate that your child is allowed to be upset and help them to feel heard and seen. Check! But now, you get to decide that your child is not having ice cream for breakfast and say, “Ice cream is not a healthy breakfast food, so we can’t have it now. But, we can have it [fill in the blank with when they can have it] instead. I will write a little note to remind us to have ice cream on Saturday and put it on the fridge so we remember.” Now, you have set the limit (no ice cream for breakfast), given a reason (it’s not a healthy way to start the day), and found a way to honor the request when you can (making a specific plan to have ice cream) . Parenting complete! Well…not exactly. Now, your child may be screaming, frustrated that they didn’t get their way, and melting down on the kitchen floor. But that’s OK. Some of this may be because your child has realized that tantrums get your attention (you’ve likely reacted to them before and accidentally reinforced them) AND because your child lacks the regulation skills to be able to handle disappointment calmly (which may continue to be true for older ages too - even adults). Now the real work is to be able to be present with your toddler while they tantrum, AND not give in by offering ice cream for breakfast. You can start by saying, “It’s OK to be upset, I know it is hard. I’m here to help you calm down and make you a different breakfast when you’re ready.” Keep your body close to your toddler (unless they are physically aggressive and then you may need to give some space), and try to remain calm. Remember how important coregulation is, the idea that your child is borrowing your calm when you can stay in control and regulated? Getting upset and meeting your toddler’s dysregulated state will only exacerbate the situation. Try taking a deep breath in through your nose, and remind yourself that you are not being chased by a bear, your child is having a tough time but they are not in harm's way!! Then, without talking about the ice cream or their disappointment anymore, you can continue to make breakfast, read something, and move on to other activities while you remain available to your child. Talk about the weather, what you’re doing later, the color of the carpet, you name it. You don’t need to ignore your child, you just don’t need to engage anymore around the tantrum.
A key takeaway from all of this? You can name a feeling, make space for your child’s reaction, and offer empathy at EVERY AGE. But we also have to help our children to accept limits, work through hard moments, and carry on. The balance between sensitivity and teaching them to cope with difficult feelings is the art of parenting…and it isn’t easy.