I have a 21-month-old son who is having a hard time. Sometimes when he doesn’t get his way he bangs his head on the hard-wood floor or the wall two or three times before crying in pain. I try my best to stop him but he head butts me before crying and cuddling in my arms. I am afraid he may really hurt himself. How can I help him identify, understand and regulate his feelings? Should I be concerned about any long-term damage?
Toddlers have small vocabularies and big feelings; tantrums often become the default setting. Because they have such limited resources for understanding their feelings – let alone for managing them—waves of frustration flood their bodies. Sometimes, the only option is to open the floodgates, hit the wall, or collapse in your lap.
With limited cognitive capacities, toddlers are clueless about adult rationale for limit-setting. “One cookie, not two” makes no sense to a toddler. Unfortunately, a screaming child can make life unpleasant, particularly when you’re tired or taking your son out in public (or both). The good news is that this stage usually only lasts for a few weeks. It may still feel unbearable but with a few strategies in your hip pocket, both of you can survive this bump in the road.
Label “Big Feelings” A toddler experience emotions – disappointment, anger, and happiness - with huge intensity but little self-awareness. Identifying the big feeling, “you are mad” can help the child begin to build a shared understanding with you about his emotions. Following the identification with reassurance like: “I can help;” “I know you are mad;” or “I am right here;” can decrease his worry and increase his confidence at being able to regulate. Emotional regulation is something that children learn over time in the context of caring relationships.
Red Cup-Blue Cup Anticipating disappointments can be helpful in reducing the number or length of tantrums. When you need to set a limit, think “red cup-blue cup” (giving him a choice while you remain in charge). Present alternatives of something he can have or do. Other examples: “Walk or carry?” “Shoes or coat first?” When he can’t make the decision, which will happen, you make it for him: “Okay, mommy helps - shoes first.”
Keep the Language Simple As adults we often use lengthy explanations to discuss conflicts. Once a toddler starts down the path towards a tantrum, his ability to understand what you are saying decreases dramatically. The more words you add, the less he understands, and the greater the frustration. Use only a few words and keep them reassuring. “I know you are mad.”
Acknowledge When It’s Over A toddler lives in the moment but sometimes adults do not. When the tantrum is over, it is helpful for both child and parent to acknowledge that it finished. “All done mad. Let’s go play.”
With consistency, this, too, shall pass. If it doesn’t or if you’re still worried, please contact your medical provider or school district.