Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats to Emma Mullings about managing toddler tantrums.
If there’s one situation mums and dads dread, it’s toddler tantrums in the supermarket.
Parents handle public hissy-fits in numerous ways, from ranting and raving, to caving in and buying the lolly, and even – in some cases – using shock value by getting on the floor and having a grown-up tantrum too. But none of these methods are particularly helpful, according to parenting author Justin Coulson.
Dr Coulson suggests three basic keys that parents can use to work towards a calm resolution to their toddler’s needs. If you’ve got kids who are in the tantrum phase, give these a try.
Step 1 – Identify Your Toddler’s Need – Remember ‘HALTS’
Ask yourself what is your child’s core need at the time of the tantrum.
“When our children are having a tantrum, remember that they’ve got an unmet need,” Dr Coulson said. “They’re upset about something.”
He said the causes for childrens’ upset can generally be boiled down into six main categories, that can be remembered with the acronym H.A.L.T.S.S.
“If your child is tantrumming, they’re probably Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stressed or Sick. Sometimes there will be other issues, but those are the main issues. If we can identify their need, we’re already half way to solving the tantrum, before it becomes a tantrum.”
Step 2 – Get In Early, Before The Tantrum Escalates
“We’ve got to get in and address our child’s need before it blows up and becomes a full-blown, crazy tantrum time,” Dr Coulson said. “Our children, our toddlers in particular, are brand new people and they don’t have the language capacity to express themselves in effective ways. They also don’t know how to regulate their emotions or behaviours particularly well. So when something difficult happens that makes them hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed or sick, they just lose it – because they don’t know how to do anything else about it.”
Step 3 – ‘Moving Towards’ Your Child
Dr Coulson said there are two main kinds of response that are ineffective in dealing with toddler tantrums. These are “turning against”, and “turning away”.
The Angry Response: Turning Against
The angry-style reaction, where a parent yells, ‘Would you cut that out right now!’ / ‘Stop being so ridiculous!’ / ‘Calm down!’, is not helpful, according to Dr Coulson.
“What child has ever said, ‘yes mum, you make good point’,” he said. “It doesn’t work. I call that disapproving, or turning against our kids. We see that most of the time in public, because people don’t want to be embarrassed by having misbehaving, challenging children. An angry reaction only makes things worse.”
The Dismissive Response: Turning Away
While it may be tempting to simply ignore your screaming child, Dr Coulson said that’s not a helpful approach either.
“When we’re in private, quite often the alternate response is that we just ignore them,” he said. “People tell us not to reward their problem behaviour with attention, but to instead ignore it and it’ll go away. I call that dismissing our children, or turning away from them. Both these responses, ‘Turning Against’ or ‘Turning Away’, lead to lousy outcomes as a general rule.”
The Kind Response: Turning Towards
What children need their parents to do is the opposite of turning against or away, and that is to turn towards them.
“Once we recognise why the tantrum’s happening, or why it’s about to happen, we can very carefully invite our child to come and have a hug, or to talk with us about it,” he said. “We move towards them. Not all toddlers want to talk or be logical, but the aim is that we invite them to be close, to connect, and try to meet their needs.”
If the child’s needs can’t be met, use empathy and offer alternatives. Let’s say your child is tantrumming because they want a lollipop but aren’t allowed to have one. Dr Coulson’s suggested response is to use empathy and say, gently, ‘Oh you want a lollipop so badly’, followed by the alternatives: ‘I can give you a cuddle, and we can have a strawberry or a blueberry?’
“We give them choices, we offer them hugs, we keep them close,” he said. “And usually that will actually help.”
Step 4 – Stay Calm
In the event that a strawberry, blueberry or hug is no comfort to your child and the tantrum continues, Dr Coulson says that it’s important to remain calm.
“Sometimes our empathy and alternatives don’t help, in which case we can say, ‘well let’s go somewhere quiet so that we can calm down together’. It shouldn’t be that hard. A lot of parents struggle with staying calm. But what we need to do is be calmer than our child.”
- Dr Justin Coulson is a parenting speaker, author and researcher, and founder of happyfamilies.com.au.