The thing about toddlers is that they’re mind-numbingly irrational. It’s not their fault, of course. It’s going to be a solid two decades before those brains are fully developed and able to offer up true logical reasoning to the world, but still. It’s frustrating.
No parent enjoys the tantrum management that comes with raising little kids, but it can be particularly frustrating when a tantrum starts over a miscommunication. By the time you realise that when you said, “We’re not going to the playground until after lunch,” all they heard was, “We’re not going to the playground,” it’s too late. They’re red-faced and screaming, their brains are flooded with emotion and they can’t hear our words anymore.
Amanda, a former children’s mental health counsellor and writer at Messy Motherhood, discovered a way to interrupt the emotion-flood: Have them play a quick “brain game.”
She used the technique with her own son when he became upset because he thought she wanted him to put away all his Duplo blocks, including the “inventions” he’d been working so hard on. (She only wanted him to put away the spare pieces that littered the floor but that direction was lost in toddler translation.) After unsuccessfully “reasoning” with him and empathising and putting words to his emotions, she switched gears:
I put my hands on his shoulders so that we’re face to face. I whisper to him “Hey buddy, do you want to play a little game really quick? It will be fun.”
His tear-filled blue eyes look up at me and he nods.
“OK, it’s super simple. Can you point out 5 things that are blue?”
He hiccups in sorrow but looks around the room. Slowly he walks over to his Duplo bin and says “this is blue… one.” He continues walking through his room pointing out all the blue things.
His cries stop and he starts smiling as he goes.
“Two blue, three blue, four blue, five blue! I got 5 blue things, Mama!”
“Awesome job kiddo. Now can you find 4 yellow things?”
With a huge smile on his face, he does it again.
Once he’d calmed down, she was able to explain that he didn’t have to take his inventions apart, and they cleaned up and organised the Duplos together. Getting the brain to start thinking helps it calm down, she writes.
However, before you can make a request like “point out five things that are blue,” you may have to do something to get their attention. They are, after all, wrapped up in their own emotions. Turn the lights off and on, jump up and down or make a silly noise. Then, ask them to play a game.
Depending on their ability, ask if they can find three things that start with the letter “c.” Or send them in search of four square items or 3 things that are soft.
Keep it simple, Amanda says, but get them thinking.