Deconstructing Toddler Tantrums: Holding Space When a Child is Dysregulated

Here’s a question I hear a lot: What’s the best way for parents react to a toddler’s tantrum?

It’s not uncommon for parents to hear from well-meaning pre-school teachers, neighbors or even parenting advisors that it’s best to ignore a child’s tantrums or “negative” behaviors. One popular view is that behavioral reinforcement schedules — that is, ignoring problematic behaviors and reinforcing positive ones — are the best solution to all troubling behaviors.

But a growing body of evidence shows that’s the wrong approach. Research on how we develop resilience and strong attachments makes it clear that the best option isn’t ignoring an upset toddler, it’s responding.

Offering responsive care means paying attention to a child’s emotions and feelings, trying to determine what a child needs, and then meeting those needs. That’s exactly how babies and toddlers first learn to trust other human beings. A little one in distress needs immediate attention, customized and titrated to what each child’s body and mind need in real time.

When a little human is in distress, our response as parents shouldn’t be to wait it out—that is, not unless we’ve tried all forms of warm and engaging contact and nothing has worked. (Even in that case, it’s important to show empathy.)

And we don’t have to get it right, in fact “mismatches: are to be expected as we guess what our child needs. Important benefits happen when we work with the child and repair the mismatches—that are inevitable—as we try to help them regulate and calm.

In my upcoming book, I suggest a four-step approach to help a dysregulated toddler that’s spelled out in an easy-to-remember acronym: LOVE.

L = Look at your child through soft eyes (expanding our vision with equanimity)

O = Observe the child’s behaviors without judgement, and with curiosity

V = Validate their experiences, their struggles. Witness, send cues of love and warmth

E = Experience safety together by sharing your best calm, attentive presence with your child in a way that help their unique nervous system reset and their bodies relax.

These steps offer a way to “hold space” for a toddler, to be with the child with empathy and compassion—and without judgement. When a toddler’s nervous system triggers a fight-or-flight response, the child shouldn’t be left to thrash around on their own.  They need customized co-regulation to ease their suffering. Engaging with them in a compassionate way, we can help toddlers grow into people who will one day use their words to express their suffering and to seek support from others.

In the meantime, they need our patience—and, mostly, to know that when they lose control, they aren’t alone.

I share about the power of co-regulation and the brain-body approach to parenting our precious children while maintaining our own emotional boundaries and sense of calm—and much more—in my upcoming book, Brain-Body Parenting.

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