Temper tantrums, physically acting out, tears instead of talking. How can we help our toddlers work through behavioural issues and become happier and better able to regulate their emotions, leading to a happier home all around and helping them gain skills they can use in their future?

What is clear is that not tackling these issues can escalate into bigger concerns. Parents often feel at their wits end with how to change these behaviours and how to explain to a young child, with limited communication skills, that certain behaviours are not acceptable. And in this lies the problem: communication.

Understanding toddlers communication barriers

Young children have limited communication skills. They are only learning to express themselves and have limited language around their emotions. They often act out or throw a tantrum when they are unable to adequately express themselves.

We all know what it is like as adults when we are feeling a certain way, and we are unable to express ourselves efficiently or else if we feel we are expressing ourselves, yet someone fails to understand. We too act out and often become upset. Children are no different, they want to be valued, heard and understood. So how can we as parents help?

Communicate and use expressive language

From a very young age, it is important that we use language around feelings. Even as an infant we can talk to our babies. Discussing our interpretation of their different feeling is really helpful to build up an acknowledgement of feelings, responses and reactions to their mood.

For instance, as parents or caregivers we know the difference between a hungry or tired cry. Speak out loud to your baby and name the emotions, such as “Oh you are so sleepy, that is why you are crying”.

We can feel foolish at times talking to a very young baby out loud when we think they cannot yet understand our words, however, we must remember that communication is much more than verbal.

Only 7% of communication is verbal. Babies will pick up on our tone and body language and learn to interpret these. It is also important that when a baby is upset that they are answered. Talking to your baby during this time shows them that when they are upset and cry, you acknowledge that cry and are there to listen.

These small discussions also help to develop the emotional and social part of the brain and aid in future development. It teaches babies the act of conversation, where someone speaks first, and someone listens and responds.

As a baby starts to be able to communicate, they will already be familiar with the words you have thought them around feelings.

TIP: As your baby develops, play games with them around emotions. Ask them to make a sad face, or a happy face, or a frightened face. Again this encourages understanding of emotion and feelings in a fun way.

Conflict/ resolution

In the toddler years, children can become frustrated due to a lack of language and this can often lead to temper tantrums. During this time, we are also dealing with a stage in development where children can be very egotistical. They are the centre of the world and then do not understand that they cannot always have what they want.

Using a conflict resolution model can be really helpful to avoid tantrums, and aid a child to self-regulate their emotions, calm themselves, be heard and to problem solve. The skills taught during the conflict resolution process can aid a child in resolving conflict right into their adult life. In fact, there have been times in my life that I myself have gone back to conflict resolution when solving grown-up conflicts.

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Tips on conflict resolution for parents

Step one

  • Approach the upset child. If there is a physical conflict between two children, intervene by placing an arm between the children
  • Use a calm voice, and if needed, a gentle touch to calm the child / children
  • Remain neutral

Step two

• Tell them what you think “I can see you are very upset” or “I can see that you lashed out at your friend
• If there is an argument over an item, you take hold of the item

Step three

• Generate information and ask the child to explain what is wrong. Young children may need help with this and need you to help them by telling them what you think the problem might be

Step four

• Repeat back what you heard. For example “You want to play with the car but your brother has it”
• The child can have a chance to correct what you have said
• Repeat back the issue until the child is happy that you have the issue correct and in turn feels heard

Step five

• Ask for solutions. “What do you think we should do?” Again a child may need support in this. Their answer may be “I want the car now”

Step six

• Support “How about we use a timer and when that goes off we can switch turns”
• Praise the solution “Well done you have planned great sharing”
• Be prepared for follow up support and questions

This method may seem long-winded at the start, but when you persist you will start to see children expressing themselves better and negotiating difficult situations themselves, without the need to tantrum.

Soothe and support

We must always understand that children cannot listen, learn or communicate if they are upset, so in all situations, we should first calm the child to a place where they are ready to listen and be supported. So before trying to work through any conflict make sure to soothe and comfort the child.

Teaching a child mindfulness and breathing skills when upset can be really helpful to bring them to a calmer place where they are able to look at the issue at hand.

Handy Tips:

Use your words: Children will use whatever method there is of getting attention if they are upset. This can be lashing out, a tantrum, crying, or talking in a whining voice. It can be helpful to remind a toddler “use your words”, “I can only help you if use your words to talk to me”. By teaching a child that when they use words rather than actions they get support can be really useful in breaking patterns.

Choice: Children like to have choice. So a tantrum over something such as food or clothing can be solved by adding choice. “You can have this or this, but you must pick one.” Often the introduction of choice can help a child feel included and in control.

Look at the ABC’S: If you are looking at a continued behaviour pattern, such as hitting or biting, it is always good to look at:
A: What the antecedents are and what has lead up to the behaviour? Also remember tiredness and hunger can increase poor behaviour
B: What happened, what did the child say or do?
C: Consequences – what happens immediately after

Looking at what happens before, during and after an incident can help us prevent what happens or it can help change our behaviour afterwards, which in turn might change the behaviour itself.

Letting children know what you want to see

I have often seen children lash out or tantrum, as it takes longer to find words and communicate than to act out. It is helpful to let a child know that they should seek support if they are upset. For instance, if a child has a toy pulled out of their hand by another child. Their reaction may be to lash out at the child as they do not have the vocabulary to say “You can’t take that I was playing with it”.

When you see behaviour like this, it is useful to talk it through. “I understand why you are upset but if someone does that you cannot hit you need to come to me.”

Modelling behaviours

Remember children will often model behaviour, so look at your own reactions and as hard as it may be to keep calm, children will engage more readily with a kind adult.

Teaching consequences

Some poor behaviour might result in consequences. It might be that the child doesn’t get to do or have a certain thing. It is important that we remember that the punishment should be appropriate. It is also wise to stick to consequences, so that there is consistency. When you stick to consequences there can be an escalation in poor behaviour, however, if you hold firm the behaviour will subside.

It is really important to teach children the skills they will need to self-regulate, communicate and solve conflict and also express their feelings. These are skills that have a lifelong impact on not only their social and emotional health, but also on their overall wellbeing and mental health.

Handing out consequences to children for poor behaviour without explaining the context, soothing and supporting them, or taking time to understand the child’s views, will of course make a child conform to what you wish and the behaviour will in cases disappear due to the reprimands. However, where we want to empower our children to express themselves appropriately, be confident in explaining their views and know how to self-regulate their emotions, we arm them with skills for life. We want them to be proficient in solving problems and so taking the time to understand their behaviour and supporting their development in a calm and caring manner will in the long run help with better outcomes for those who are most important to us – our little babies who are just trying to negotiate a world they are only learning about.

Article by Karen Clince, Founder of Tigers Childcare

Karen Clince is founder and CEO of Tigers Childcare, a provider of high-quality childcare services in Ireland and the UK catering for over 2000 children across 13 centres and employing over 180 people.

Karen set up Ireland’s first after-school childcare facility in 2003 and over the following 18 years has expanded Tigers Childcare to offer pre-school and full day care facilities. In March 2020 she opened Tigers Childcare’s first UK childcare centre – a 7000sq ft facility in Elephant and Castle.

Karen has acted as an advisor to many Irish government departments and voluntary bodies on childcare and early years education. She is one of only 50 people in Ireland to be trained in the world-renowned ITERS and ECERS scales, designed to deliver high quality processes for early childhood and school-age care and education.

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