Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and helping your 2-year-old child learn to deal constructively with their most upsetting feelings provides a perfect opportunity.
Two-year-olds are in the earliest stages of learning about their strong feelings. They do not understand the full body takeover that can occur when they are angry, hurt, or frustrated. Feeling out of control because of anger or frustration can be scary and add to the length and intensity of their upset. Tantrums are normal. Learning how to deal with anger or upset without choosing destructive responses is a critical skill, and your support and guidance as a parent or someone in a parenting role matter greatly.
Research confirms that when children learn to manage their feelings, they simultaneously strengthen their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. Yet, we all face challenges in managing upset, frustration, and anger. Your child may throw themselves on the floor crying unable to tell you why they are so upset. Or, they may hit, bite, or hurt you in anger.
The key to many parenting challenges, like helping your child manage tantrums, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to help your two-year-old work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that build up their resilience and skills for self-management.
Your child may cry hysterically at the grocery store when you say “No” to a request for candy, or they might stubbornly refuse to leave the house when you are late for a commitment. Learning how to deal with your child’s anger, upset, and the many other accompanying feelings can become a regular challenge if you don’t have plans and strategies prepared for managing them.
Today, in the short term, learning to manage tantrums can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child regain calm and focus;
- greater opportunity for connection and enjoyment as you work together to care for each other; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- builds skills to handle unexpected challenges in life; and
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries, which are critical for keeping them safe.
This five-step process helps you and your child manage tantrums. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds are highly active, exploring their environment and everything in it. They are adding new words to their vocabulary regularly, but they do not yet know how to name their big feelings. Frustrations with not being understood may result in them losing control more frequently.
Despite your child’s new ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that let them know you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference as you work to manage intense feelings together.
In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another; and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your child to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your child will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your child is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or transition to a nap.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If basic needs like hunger or tiredness are not issues for your child, then take additional steps to help them calm down. This might involve offering a hug, helping them take deep breaths, or holding a blanket or stuffed animal.
Two-year-olds are just beginning to understand their feelings, so they will need your support in figuring them out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can also begin to ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red and your forehead got all scrunched up when you threw the toy. Were you feeling angry?”
- “I know it is almost snack time. I wonder if you are feeling hungry?”
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood versus just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps, your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Remember, you want to look past the behavior to uncover the underlying feelings. Taking the time to help your child learn about these feelings is growing their self awareness skills — skills essential to helping them control their own behavior.
There are no “bad” feelings. Every feeling a child has is a vital message quickly interpreting what’s happening around them. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, the challenge is to avoid interpreting the behavior before trying to understand what is motivating the behavior. The feelings behind the behavior may be from an unmet need.
- If your child has recently thrown a tantrum, then use that example to reflect on what caused it at a time when you are both calm. You might ask, “What made you so upset at the grocery store?” Finding out what contributed to a tantrum can give you insight into your child’s triggers and also help raise your child’s self-awareness.
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry or upset can differ greatly from what angers or upsets a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry or upset?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because intense feelings like anger and hurt occur as you go about your daily life, you may not consider their role and impact on your child. Intense feelings can have a major influence on their day and on your relationship with your child. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your child has a tantrum is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are just learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they act a certain way?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my child to respond when they feel angry?”
Children learn first through modeling. If you respond to anger by yelling, they will learn to respond to anger with yelling. Consider your reactions to anger and other intense emotions. Formulate your new reaction around what you want your child to mimic when they are angry, frustrated, or upset.
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through and help you to have reasonable expectations for your child.2
- Two-year-olds are starting to see themselves as their own unique, individual person. They develop the understanding that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and someone else could have different thoughts and feelings.
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child has a tantrum, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice.
- Respond to your child’s upset with modeling in mind. When your child has a tantrum, focus on calming down yourself, and then help your child. Stop what you are doing and walk them, if you can, to a safe, non-public spot where they can calm down. Don’t leave them. Be with them and using a calm, soft voice, encourage them to breathe by breathing with them slowly. Don’t try to talk about the situation until they are calm (they won’t be able to hear you anyway). Stand aside and focus on your own deep breathing while you allow your child time to calm down.
- Raising your voice and your level of upset in response to your child’s tantrum will only increase the intensity and duration of your child’s upset. Yelling only communicates that you are raising the level of emotional intensity not diminishing it. Leaving your child alone in their room will also escalate the tantrum at this age. They need you because they have literally been overpowered by their own feelings.
- The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Look for ways to identify feelings and name them. Post a feelings chart on your refrigerator as a helpful reminder. The more you can name a range of feelings, the more comfortable your child will get with articulating what they are feeling. This one strategy alone can reduce the time a child is engaged in a tantrum since they become skilled at articulating what they are feeling and feel more capable of securing your understanding faster.
- Play the “feel better” game. At a calm time, ask, “What helps you feel better when you’re sad, mad, or hurt?” Share ideas like taking deep breaths, getting a drink of water, taking a walk, or asking for a hug. Be sure and practice those soothing actions together during play.
- Create a safe base. In a time when your child is not upset, talk about what makes your child feel better and offers comfort. Create a “safe base” with your child — a place in the house where your child can choose to go when they want comfort. Place a pillow, blanket, and stuffed animal there. Play act using it. “I am getting red in the face. I’m hot. I feel angry. I’m going to my safe base to calm down.”
- Begin to teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Harm could be physical, like breaking something, or emotional, like hurting someone’s feelings. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another, and it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship. A two-year-old will not be able to repair harm on their own, but you can help them by checking in with someone they may have harmed and asking if they are OK.
Never command your child to go to their safe base when they are upset. Instead, gently remind, “Would your safe base help you feel better?” Offer it as a free choice. If you tell them to go there, it takes away their ownership, and your child does not have the opportunity to practice and internalize the self-management skill the experience has the opportunity to build.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing a task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and offering support. Practice is necessary for children to learn new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action. In addition, these practice steps also help prevent tantrums.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can manage their feelings successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you hug your pillow in your safe base to calm your body.” This can be used when you observe their upset growing.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like. When your child is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “Are you upset? Would your blanket help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing a positive behavior.
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!3
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Teddy Bear Belly Breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
- Reflect and reframe. When you are reflecting with your child about their upset, it can be helpful to consider the issue from a learning perspective. One excellent reframe for these early years is that young children are learning. So, if another child grabs a toy and acts in mean ways, you could say, “He’s learning.” This offers your child a sense of grace for others as well as their own mistakes.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflections on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What did you like about today?” or “What were you most proud of?” or “What are you looking forward to tomorrow?” You should answer the questions as well. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day. Grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for managing their intensely upset feelings so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Use intentional communication to foster skill development. For example, “We are headed to the playground. I know it’s tough to leave when you’re having fun. Remember I’ll give a reminder to do your last fun activity before we go. If you feel upset, we can take some deep breaths together.”
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after the behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Learning new behaviors to replace inappropriate behaviors takes time. Your two-year-old will likely not do it right the first time (or even second or third!). That’s OK. What’s important is that you approach growing skills to handle tantrums by understanding feelings, teaching new behaviors, and practicing all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took a deep breath when you got upset — that is a great idea!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you get in your car seat without screaming, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You got in your car seat so well today. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your child is starting to use the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got upset, you hugged your bear. That’s the way to feel better.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting through your bedtime routine, snuggle together and read before bed. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.