When Adrienne (not her real name) joined a program to help parents with meltdowns, her daughter was 15 months old and almost always in meltdown mode.
"Sophie was constantly screaming, crying and throwing tantrums," her mom explains. "At that young age, she didn't have the words to say what she wanted, so she used her voice to get attention."
So Adrienne and Sophie became part of studies recently published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology and the Infant Mental Health Journal, which helped coach parents on when to intervene as their kiddo was feeling "big emotions" or acting out. According to Adrienne, it was super helpful—the good news is you don't have to sign up for a study to learn what she did. We have the tips right here.
Understanding 'big emotions' in little bodies
The study saw parents, like Adrienne, coached in 'Parent-Child Interaction Therapy' so that they could recognize a potential blow up and intervene early to help their little one.
"As parents become better equipped to identify why the child is being disruptive, they can help the child manage and regulate their emotions. With this support, the child will gradually become better at doing this on their own," says Dr. Jane Kohlhoff, lead author of the study and senior lecturer at University of New South Wales Medicine's School of Psychiatry, who adds that "it teaches parents to reconceptualise their child's challenging behaviours."
Kohloff continues: "Often, the behaviour isn't a deliberate disobedience, but a result of the child's struggle with new, big emotions, like frustration, fear and anxiety."
Spotting you child's escalating emotions
For example, imagine a child is playing with a toy oven and toy pot, and she can't get the pot to fit in the oven. They may not understand why this isn't working. Playing roughly and smashing toys can is a sign that children are having trouble understanding how the toys work or what they can do with them.
"For a young child, this can be frustrating and the feelings may escalate quickly. It may lead them to become rough and aggressive, or to have a tantrum," says Kohlhoff.
"In this instance, the parent would be coached to notice this change in emotion early, and then to move closer to the child and validate their emotions by saying, 'I know you are feeling frustrated right now'."
Soothing, suggesting + showing physical comfort
The next step, says Kohloff, if to reassure your child. Try saying, "Mama is here to help you" in a soothing, calm voice. Offer physical affection and comfort and suggest another way to play (in this example, show the child another place to put the toy pot).
By doing this instead of simply telling our children to play nice, or chastising them for smashing their toys around, we are guiding them not only in play but in emotional regulation. Too often, kids are expected to know how to regulate their own emotions way too soon, and when parents come at them with this unrealistic expectation, the relationship suffers.
"Children at this young age are still trying to work out what emotions are, and how to navigate them," says Kohlhoff. "One of the best things a parent can do is to help their child understand and manage their emotions. We can't expect young toddlers to do it themselves."
Bottom line: Getting involved in play can help prevent tantrums
For Adrienne, connecting with this study gave her the opportunity to learn these skills from professionals, but we can all replicate this study at home and replicate her results with Sophie.
"My husband and I feel more at ease with knowing how to help her during meltdowns," she explains. "Our relationship with our daughter improved...I'm more mindful of what I say–for example, I've learnt to be specific in my praises rather than saying something general, like 'Good girl,' when she's behaving well."