Last month I wrote about toddlers growing older and becoming children. They need help to make that transition into the bigger world. Sometimes it can feel really hard for a parent and a child getting through those years. What can you do when your toddler really tantrums? When the tantrum is so big that your child can’t hear you?
It is a common feeling to many parents to experience anger and frustration when in the middle of a public place (generally the supermarket!) with a tantruming toddler. There is a feeling that this little being who is less than half your size has somehow managed to attract the attention of all the adults around him, and has won the argument. The argument might have been that the toddler wasn’t allowed a packet of sweets from the shelf. The toddler might not have the sweets but you wonder if it was worth the argument when he is lying on the floor, screaming and crying and kicking. It is unbelievable that he can cause so much distress in you and in others.
What’s going on for the toddler? The toddler is trying to find his feet in a world where he has realised he is not central. Freud referred to ‘His Majesty the baby,’ when he was trying to formulate the theory of narcissism, and noted that parents tend to ascribe the perfect parts of themselves and their personalities to their beloved babies. The normal loved baby does indeed experience the world as if he is at its centre. He cries and someone feeds him; he is fed, changed, entertained and loved unconditionally. However, as he grows into being a toddler, his loving parents are not so immediately available. He has to experience a bit of frustration. His loss of power can be not only frustrating for him but also a bit scary. It gives him a message that he will have to stand on his own two feet a bit, and that is what the toddler literally has to do. Sometimes, it just feels all a bit too much when his wishes are frustrated, especially if he is tired or out-of-sorts. He begins to protest when his demands are not met, and very easily a state of mind can be triggered where he feels a mixture of anger, hopelessness and despair, a bit like he might have done as a tiny baby when, despite the attentions of his parents, he couldn’t get his comforts met.
The adult in turn might have won the argument but feels like he has lost. The toddler feels angry, hopeless and frustrated and the adult feels the same. This is a momentary feeling for both although at the time it can feel endless. As I stated last month, children are very adaptable, and in time the toddler learns to manage not having his demands met and enjoys standing on his own two feet. The parent, however awful he or she feels, needs to remember that there is no battle really. The adult is in charge and the toddler knows it but is protesting. He will protest vigorously, causing a lot of disturbance, and there is little you can do about it, but it will pass. You can try various tactics, some of which will work, depending on the severity of the tantrum and the size of the toddler:
- Kneel down next to the child and remain quiet until he calms
- Use humour or distraction
- Pick the child up if he will let you, and remove him from the situation.
- Keep holding the child until he calms.
- Put the child in a safe place and keep a slight distance.
When it’s over, reassure the child that you love him. If you did give in and buy the sweet, explain that you did that time, and acknowledge how hard it can feel not to always get what you want. Say to your child that perhaps next time he will manage to accept your ‘no.’ Then, you might be able to pre-empt the tantrum by reminding him just before you start your next battle!
 1914 Freud S. On Narcissism
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists