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Defiance, Tantrums, and Meltdowns: Is This Normal?


Parenting can be the most joyful and wonderful experience. It can also make us feel anxious, vulnerable, and concerned. I know from my work with parents and teachers that one of the hardest things is determining which behaviors are appropriate versus worrisome.  I hope this post will be helpful.❤️ happy parenting! 

Most of the time, defiance, tantrums, and meltdowns are behaviors that are to be expected of any typical and healthy child.  But, once in a while, these behaviors could be an indication of something we may need to attend to. For all parents, it’s helpful to be aware of some of the developmental tasks of early childhood to assist us in how we respond to defiance, tantrums, and meltdowns.  The following are 5 big categories that can help us understand, from a developmental and social/emotional perspective, what is going on for children from around 18 months through 4 or 5-years-old.

-Communication and Language Skills. Children are still in the process of learning how to express themselves and communicate their needs. We oftentimes see children exhibit defiance and become emotionally dysregulated (unable to manage and cope with their feelings and therefore tantrum and meltdown) when they are simply struggling to ask for what they want, or just to communicate in general. To help your child, you can practice puting language to their experiences: name their feelings. “I see you are feeling frustrated.”

I’ve often see behavior deteriorate when a child is attempting to communicate with their parent, but their parent is not fully present with them or is not attuned with what their child is trying to communicate (this is hard--there is no parent shaming or blaming here!). We cannot be expected to always be fully available to our child, but I do recommend communicating with them if we notice that they are searching for a connection with us, even if it's to tell them something like,  “I am talking to someone else right now. I need you to wait until I am finished.” If we just ignore or continue to push away, the child becomes more and more desperate to get the attention they’re looking for.

-Emotion Regulation. It takes a child time and developmental maturity to develop skills to help them regulate their emotions (some adults have a hard time, too!). The hard thing is that children learn best from what they see and how they are treated. If a child is surrounded by adults who aren’t regulating their emotions well, they may have a very hard time naturally learning how to cope and manage big feelings. We really can’t expect our child to learn how to stay calm and use language to express their feelings if we aren’t doing that ourselves. It’s our job to model how we want our child to behave when they are feeling angry, sad, disappointed, etc. I personally think this is one of the hardest jobs as a parent. Once children do learn emotion regulation skills, it will serve them well in every arena of their life. 

We can practice teaching emotion regulation by communicating our own feelings and practicing coping skills like deep breathing, taking a quick break, or using a positive mantra.

-Environmental Considerations. Once we get into the practice of noticing the environmental influences on behavior, it becomes easier to prevent some of these challenging moments for our children. Many children become dysregulated when they are in a setting that is new to them or is very stimulating (remember, children are learning with their whole bodies and may be more sensitive to noises, colors, crowds, etc, than we are).

A new setting may prompt the developmental need for your child to understand boundaries. For example, some children may have a hard time when they go to a new restaurant. Maybe they say “no” to everything, maybe they are whining or wheepy about each option they are given, maybe they refuse to stay in their chair or want to leave. Does any of that sound somewhat familiar? Developmentally, this child may be: 1. Over stimulated by the environment and, 2. developmentally, they are searching for answers about the world. They are ‘looking for boundaries from parents and are searching for an understanding of how to operate in this specific setting and, 3. Maybe we become distracted and disconnected from our child in a restaurant and the child’s behavior is demonstrating their need for us to check in with them.

Young children still lack the cognitive ability to be able to apply information across settings. So, it would be understandable if a child is not clear on how they are expected to behave if the setting is completely new to them and my recommendation is to show your child compassionate guidance to help them understand what is expected of them.

One more note about the developmental need to find boundaries: children look to trusted adults to guide them. When a child is behaving in a way that is challenging, I always recommend FIRST assuming that their behavior is coming from their need to understand boundaries, or connect with their parent. Think of a young child who drops their spoon off their highchair onto the floor. We pick up the spoon and put it back on their tray. The child drops the spoon again and then looks to the parent to understand what will happen next. This child is going through a process of understanding, when I drop this spoon, what will happen? And the adult’s behavior teaches them what will happen (when I drop this spoon it stays on the floor, or gets picked up and put back on my tray, or gets picked up and taken away). It takes more repetition for a young child and less repetition for an older child. When an older child goes to a new restaurant, they may “test” out standing on their chair, what will happen here if I do this? And our reaction teaches them the answer. This is developmentally appropriate.

-Emotional Needs: A child’s behavior can be, and usually is, connected to their emotional needs. The above example of needing to “test” boundaries can also come from a child’s need to understand how their relationship with their parent works, or just to connect. All children crave, and need, love and connection from trusted caregivers. Oftentimes, difficult behaviors come from a need to “test” their relationships. This is more true for slightly older children and is basically where the idea of “terrible twos” came from. Around the age of two, children are beginning a new developmental phase of autonomy and a need to seek greater understanding of the world around them, yet children still lack the language they need to communicate well and lack the abilities they need to be as independent as they may desire. It’s a time of great turmoil and can actually last much longer than the age of two (some parents find that 3-years-old is even tougher than 2).

But, what we also know is that the way parents respond to these very complex, and challenging, developmental tasks of toddlerhood can make a big impact on how often and with what intensity children demonstrate tantrums, defiance, and meltdowns. We see that oftentimes, parents who practice compassionate, firm boundaries, and connection, have toddlers who exhibit less challenging behaviors. The more responsive and connected parents are with their children, the less children need to “test” and push limits and boundaries. Children whose developmental needs are responded to and cared for with warmth and trust, feel more safe and can focus less on “testing” and more on experiencing and learning. My recommendation here is to practice connection with your child. Look them in the eye and speak directly to them, use gentle touches to show them you’re focusing on them, find times to be playful, and try your best to be present. Don’t only name their feelings, also validate their feelings. “You’re feeling so frustrated right now. You don’t want to pick up your toys.”  

-Physical Needs: This can be straight-forward (although not always!). Is your child hungry? Tired? Uncomfortable? Because language skills may still prevent your child from expressing themselves well, we may overlook these physical needs. For some children, even if they could use language to communicate, they may not realize that they’re hungry or tired. My recommendation here is to pay attention to when and where the troublesome behavior is happening. If you start to see a pattern, it can be a helpful indication of your child being over-tired or hungry.

Overall, all of these examples are just a starting place. When children spend a large part of their day in a state of dysregulation, that can be a signal of something being less developmentally typical. We can also look at the pattern and frequency to help us determine what other factors may be at play. For example, if a child is quick to become dysregulated at a specific time of day, that can help us understand that there may be an environmental need and we can remedy that. I always want parents to be proactive and if you have any concerns, or want to prevent future issues, ask for a consultation!

Go to my website or email me to learn more about how we can help your child.

#emotionregulation #parenting #earlychildhood