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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 3-year-old child learn to deal constructively with their most upsetting feelings provides a perfect opportunity.
Three-to-four-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. A sense of a lack of control 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 critical, 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. This directly impacts their school readiness. 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 to 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 three-to-four-year-old work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that build up their resilience and skills for self-management.
Your three-year-old may scream and cry when you say “No” to a request for a special snack, or your four-year-old might cry hysterically and refuse to leave the house making you late for a commitment. Learning how to deal with your child’s anger, upset, and their 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 we can help our child regain calm and focus,
- a greater opportunity for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other,
- a growing trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our intense feelings, 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
Three-to-four-year-olds are aware that they are their own individual person, and they can do some things without the assistance of an adult. They also are experiencing many feelings and are just learning how to express them.
Despite your child’s growing 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;
- are growing their ability to advocate for themselves if they need to return to a routine or get more support to manage changes throughout the day; 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.
Three-to-four-year-olds are learning to understand their feelings. They are also just beginning to understand other people’s feelings and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this 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 ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red and your forehead got all scrunched up. So, when you threw the toy, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw you dropped your popsicle on the ground. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- At bedtime, if they seem to be stalling by asking for another drink or a snack, you could ask, “Are you feeling scared?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “Your sister cried when you took the toy. What do you think she is feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- 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?” 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 the 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
- 3-4-year-olds are aware of their separateness from others. This awareness can lead to testing boundaries as they attempt to assert themselves and exert control.
- 3-4-year-olds are interested in demonstrating their independence though they are still learning everyday skills like putting on shoes or fastening a coat. This can lead to frustrations as they are not fully capable of acting independently.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences and are developing a feelings vocabulary. They are learning to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes time to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds may still struggle with asserting their needs or communicating when upset and may still throw a tantrum to express their anger or frustration.
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 and 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.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child can use depending on what feels right. But, when your child is really angry and upset, it can be difficult for them to recall what will make them feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child really needs it. Some ideas include imagining your favorite place, taking a walk, getting a drink of water, taking deep breaths, counting, drawing, or building something.
- 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 your child can name a range of feelings, the more comfortable they 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.
- 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, but it’s that next step that matters in repairing the relationship. A three-to-four-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 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 can take some deep breaths to calm down.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you didn’t throw your toy 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 mad? Would your doll help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing positive behavior.
- 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.
- 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 three-to-four-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 are good in the store, I will get you a candy” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were so helpful in the store 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 children are using 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, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.