On the brink of turning 3 years old, my daughter is newly obsessed with volcanoes—so much so that nearly every play scenario she dreams up now involves molten lava. It’s such a fitting fixation too, because in the last few months, she’s become something of a volcano herself. By this, I mean that she erupts into angry sobs frequently.
I am not new to toddler tantrums. As a mom of two, I’ve dealt with my fair share of tear-streaked faces and public meltdowns, but this instantly summoned rage feels like something else entirely. Because I know I’m not alone in this, I brought in a toddler expert to help make sense of these emotional explosions. Together, we created a guide to understanding and easing my toddler’s waves of anger.
What’s Going On
Emily Patillo, a developmental therapist in Michigan, assured me that tantrums—and the fires of anger they stoke—can be a normal part of a toddler’s development. She stressed that to navigate them, parents and caregivers need to first understand what emotions lie beneath.
“It’s important to try and understand why a child is feeling so angry in that moment,” she said. “Maybe they’re upset about leaving the park or they’re frustrated that they don’t have the words to communicate their needs. Whatever the case, determining a trigger goes a long way toward helping your toddler learn to understand and deal with their emotions.”
I’ll admit that reminding myself there’s a more vulnerable emotion at play beneath these outbursts broadens my capacity for empathy. Instead of focusing on my daughter’s balled fists and gritted teeth, examining the situation with a detective’s eye, as Patillo recommended, helps bring everyone back down to a simmer. From there, I can problem solve and determine a better course for side-stepping the issue going forward.
When Everything Is a Trigger
When I mentioned to Patillo that my daughter seems to fly off the handle at a new trigger every day, she was quick to offer a simple solution: Stick to a routine. “Routines help a child feel safe and secure, and toddlers thrive on the predictable,” she said. In these dog days of summer, when we’ve intentionally aimed for a slower, less structured pace, Patillo’s recommendation came as a wake-up call.
There have been many days this season when my little ones have stayed in pajamas, eaten brunch instead of a proper breakfast, and stayed up well past their bedtime. I appreciated the nudge to get back on track, knowing that flying by the seat of my pants may feel fine to me, but it’s disruptive and confusing for my order-loving toddler.
How to Manage Your Toddler’s Anger
Patillo advised that any teaching moment should happen when everyone is feeling calm and regulated. She encouraged parents and caregivers to use this time to help toddlers understand the big emotions they can’t yet wrap their heads around.
“As the adult, model simple, labeling throughout the day such as, ‘I’m feeling so frustrated that I spilled my cereal,’” she said. “You want your kid to normalize this language so they can start labeling their own emotions.” By doing this, you’re not only preparing them to better understand waves of big emotions, but you’re also teaching them that everyone deals with feelings and that there’s a more comfortable—less explosive—way to process them.
Create a ‘Toolkit’
One of the most useful and impactful things we can do for our toddlers is empower them with self-regulating practices to reach for in times of need. For our pre-readers, Patillo suggested creating a visual chart to depict each calming strategy and keeping it in a place your child can regularly see.
One of the most useful and impactful things we can do for our toddlers is empower them with self-regulating practices to reach for in times of need.
Some of the strategies Patillo suggested include the following:
- Take a deep breath
- Ask for help
- Squeeze a pillow
- Get a drink of water
When it comes to making these stick, don’t underestimate the power of modeling. Patillo reminded me that our actions are our children’s greatest teachers—for better or worse. If they can see us making good use of their coping strategies, they’ll be more likely to follow through on them too.
“Really, the best thing you can do is be patient with your toddler and help them understand feelings are real,” Patillo said. “Remember that a toddler testing boundaries and pushing limits (often going hand-in-hand with tantrum behaviors and big feelings) is normal and something we want to see in development. It actually signifies growth in cognition and a developmental gain.”