toddler tantrum tip iceberg
Blog Post, Practices

Tantrums are just the Tip of the Iceberg

Part of mothering a toddler through challenging ‘toddler tantrums’ is processing and dealing with our OWN emotions and feelings. Recognising that their behaviour and their tantrums are just the tip of the iceberg. But this can be hard. When we put so much into our mothering and feel like we’re trying our absolute best, it can be overwhelming and frustrating when we are continually faced with the same challenging behaviour and toddler tantrums.

I have a few major things that I tackle through my work on motherhood. They are:

  • Shining a light on the structural and social aspects of motherhood that make our lives unnecessarily more difficult (with a view to deconstruct and change these forces!)
  • Showing that what we experience is usually ‘normal’. This realisation helps to alleviate feelings of guilt, anxiety, worry and stress. It’s also about reminding Mums that they are not alone – we are in this together.
  • Equipping mothers with knowledge and tools that they can draw on to reclaim their power as mothers. This helps us to feel supported and confident in our mothering.

Mothering a toddler through challenging behaviour during this immense period of growth and change in their (and your) lives, really intersects with all three of these goals.

Social understandings of toddler tantrums

Socially, there is widespread misunderstanding of what we expect toddlers and small children to be capable of in terms of emotional regulation. Think about all the comments about the ‘terrible 2s’. Or the expectations of our small children to sit still and quietly.

There can be an underlying assumption that we are their ruler and they are our little subjects who – when throwing a toddler tantrums – are misbehaving and being ‘naughty’ attention seekers. There may also be the assumption that our children’s behaviour is a direct correlation and reflection of our capacities as a parent.

None of these assumptions help us as mothers, or help our children.

Behaviour is the tip of the toddler iceberg

Toddler tantrums happen when the limbic system – emotional part of the brain – becomes overloaded. The state of your child’s brain means they have little control over their actions – they are not thinking or able to behave ‘rationally’. So their tantrums are literally the tip of an iceberg, and what we’re interested in is what lies underneath.

I think a big part of taking away the feelings of ‘failure’ and frustration we feel as Mums of toddlers and young children is to recognise that these behaviours are normal. That crying, whining, and struggling to regulate emotions are normal and inevitable behaviours for young children. If we know that something is normal, it can help then adjust our expectations and responses to this behaviour.

As Alfie Kohn argues, ““behaviours are just the protruding tip of the proverbial iceberg. What matters more than ‘what’ or ‘how much?’ is ‘how come?’”. When a child throws a tantrum or is struggling to regulate their emotions or behaviour, they often go into fight/flight mode.

In this mode they can no longer access their prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that deals with reasoning and judgement. Dr Bruce Perry who is an expert on childhood trauma says that when they’re in a state of fear, brain scans show that there is virtually no activity happening in the thinking part of the brain. It’s an evolutionary response to be in this fight/flight mode without being distracting or delayed by our reasoning and logic.

How toddler tantrums can relate to us

Children are regulating sponges and sense, feel, and act out the stress of those around them. This is because they rely on co-regulation. Co-regulation is our children ‘borrowing’ the nervous systems of those carers around them.

So if we aren’t regulated internally, if we feel frantic, they often will physically act out our internal chaos.

Tantrums are just the tip of the iceberg. This is why having self-awareness of our own emotional states helps us in our mothering. And is also why compassion and empathy for ourselves then means we are able to extend this to our children.

But also think about the ways your toddler’s behaviour makes YOU feel. Are your children’s triggers mirroring your own triggers? Even more than this, mirror neurons fire off when we see our child in distress, and it makes us feel like we are in distress too. This can be really uncomfortable and unsettling, and sometimes it can provoke us to construct a mental wall to block out this behaviour.

Also, sometimes when we just don’t know what to do and we have no tools or capacity at our disposal, we do nothing. Ignoring a child in a tantrum may exacerbate and intensify their feelings, or cause them to repress them. We don’t want to ignore our children when they’re in distress, the same way we don’t want to ignore our partners or friends when they are in distress.

Interested in learning more? Listen to my podcast episode 11 ‘Toddler Tantrums’ and check out my Transforming Toddler Tantrums Course.

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