tantrum toddler

What causes tantrums and how can you stop your toddler from a meltdown? New BBC documentary passes on some parenting wisdom.

We’ve loved the BBC documentary Babies: Their Wonderful World (Mondays, BBC2). So of course the third episode on Monday was full of more parenting gems. 

The show tracks the development of babies from birth to small person-dom. It covers how, where and when different parts of our humanity kick in. And this week was all about becoming independent. 

We watched with great interest as the experts and parents talked about toddler tantrums. In the show, Psychologist Dr Emily Jones explored why, from a toddler’s point of view, they get so frustrated. How they physically react. And then - the golden nugget - how best to stop a tantrum in its tracks.

The why

As a toddler’s brain changes, there is a time when they know exactly what they want (an object, or to achieve something). But they aren’t yet able to control their emotions if they can’t get to that end goal. There’s a mismatch between what they set their heart on, and what they can do or actually achieve. Sound familiar?

The how

Physically, as a toddler starts to get upset, their heart rate increases. They thrash around. They get frustrated. Stress hormones (such as cortisol) kick in. They enter a classic tantrum state. And then a vicious circle kicks in.

More cortisol is released. They feel even more stressed. Their heart rate goes up further. Children this age can’t get themselves out of this cycle; they need someone to help them. And this brings us to….

How to stop a tantrum in its tracks

We’ll forgive you if you’ve skipped forward to this section. It’s what every parent wants to know. How do we help our little ones snap out of a tantrum and deal with their super strong emotions as they grow?

Despite cuddles being a common technique, soothing the toddlers on the show didn’t bring their heart rates down. The reason why? At this age, as a child tries to claim their independence, holding them close can make them feel constrained. This backs up Dr Jones’ previous research. It can even make things worse. 

Distraction is the technique that seems to work wonders. The tantruming toddlers in the programme showed a dramatic drop in their heart rates almost immediately. And this supports Dr Jones’ previous observations too.

How do you distract a toddler in the middle of a tantrum?

A few ideas for you to try:

  • Reach for a toy. Or another interesting household object. Something that makes a noise or is brightly coloured might help.
  • Sing your heart out. Click into entertainer gear and sing a nursery rhyme, a top ten hit or your favourite show tune.
  • Move around. Dance around the room for them, or with them. Either way they should appreciate your efforts.
  • Who’s that? The age old ‘who’s that in the mirror?’ trick normally works a treat. This can also be applied to ‘who’s that cat/bird/squirrel outside?’ And ‘who’s that person/animal in a book/picture?’

Interestingly, Dr Jones explains that distraction isn’t only a technique for parents and carers to use to help toddlers through a tantrum. It’s also a technique that over time - as they see how much calmer they feel - toddlers learn themselves. 

At around 18 months, a toddler needs someone else to help steer their mind away from being frustrated. But by around 22 months, they’re able to start distracting themselves, even stepping away from the situation that’s causing stress.

Toddlers – amazing and frustrating in equal measure, eh?

Further information

Catch up on the episode here.

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

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You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

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