“Nooooo, I don’t wanna!” screams your child at 7:00 am, or in the middle of the grocery store, or while getting ready for bed.
This sort of outburst is a common situation most parents of toddlers must manage a handful of times in a day. In fact, according to Dr. Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota who researches tantrums, roughly 85 percent of 2- and 3-year-olds have tantrums (nytimes.com).
As toddlers develop language skills and learn to communicate their experiences to caregivers, they are also learning how sharing emotions can be a way of getting their needs met. Parents of toddlers who have frequent tantrums may at times feel like screaming from the rooftop: “Help, what do I do?; “Is this normal?”; “Do others think my child is terrible?”; “Am I doing something wrong?”.
There is hope! Paris Goodyear Brown, the creator of TraumaPlay, developed what is referred to as the SOOTHE Skill to help parents approach their child during these difficult times (Goodyear-Brown, 2021).
What is the SOOTHE Skill?
S – Soft tone of voice
Approaching your child with a soft tone of voice and a relaxed face might not be easy when they are in the midst of a temper tantrum, but staying calm and grounded will help them do the same. This allows you to “borrow” your calm body to your child. Breathe and then approach!
O – Organize the child’s experience
As a parent, it may feel like you are living in constant chaos no matter how hard you try. But helping your child organize their internal and external environments can be fun!–no promises here, of course.
Organizing could look like creating a board game for your child to visualize and help them work their way through their morning routine. It could also look like dedicating time with your child to prepare for a new experience so they can feel more organized leading into it. If your child is starting a new sport and appears unsure, have them try on their outfit and wear it around the house or look up fun videos to help explain the rules of the game.
The list of possibilities goes on and on. There is power in predicting and planning with children.
O – Offer choices
Offer choices simply means that you are helping your child feel less overwhelmed by limiting the options. Try using the statement, “You can choose to _____, or I can help you to do it,” or “You can choose to ____, or ____”. Utilize the first statement when trying to build trust with your child and the second statement when trying to encourage your child to choose their own positive outcomes.
T – Touch or togetherness
Physical contact or touch again allows you to “borrow” your regulated body to your child. Just like how adults may sometimes want a hug when they hear sad news, children may also need a comforting touch when they are dysregulated. This might look like placing your hand on your child’s back or asking if they want a hug.
Your child might also display a need for some physical space. You can still provide that sense of support by sitting near your child and letting them know you will be there when they are ready.
H – Hear what the underlying concern is
Hearing the underlying concern or anxiety means trying to look beneath the surface of the “NO!”
Is your child saying no because he is nervous for the task placed before him? Is your child unsure of how to begin? Does your child need choices? Try to understand where your child is at and name that feeling with them.
E – End and Let Go
Finally, end and let go! Once you and your child have weathered the storm, sit with your child and continue to comfort. Read a book together, listen to a soothing song. This is not the time to enforce consequences as your child is likely to become dysregulated again after feeling such intense emotions. Rather, let your child continue to return to their calm state at their own pace.
Don’t forget to breathe along the way, as parental regulation is a critical part of the SOOTHE skill.
What not to do during a tantrum
Engage, don’t enrage is a catchy phrase to remember in high-stress situations.
Sometimes when we are at our max capacity for dealing with our toddler’s emotions, we fall into the trap that is command and demand (Siegel & Payne Bryson, 2011). We might respond with “I said no!” and expect the child to listen. However, we have just activated our child’s “downstairs brain” which houses his strong emotions and fight or flight responses thereby causing him to experience big emotions again. Instead of a command or demand:
- Help your child expand their emotional vocabulary by sportscasting using feeling words: “You are mad!” If your child says they are not mad, accept this boundary as they are learning about themselves.
- Ask your child questions to figure out what made them upset.
- Work together to brainstorm a solution that appeases you both.
- Utilize the SOOTHE skills.
It is important to remember that your child’s brain is experiencing a time of major construction. Our “upstairs brain”, which is not fully developed until we are in our mid-20’s, is where our decision-making, empathy, and ability to control our emotions and body are housed.
Working together with your toddler during difficult times helps them develop and form their upstairs brain. Our brain is a muscle and just like any other muscle, the more we exercise or lift those dreadful weights the stronger our muscles become (Siegel & Payne Bryson, 2011).
It is worth noting that if a child is experiencing excessive tantrums (five to ten tantrums a day that last longer than 10 minutes resulting in elevated aggression and destruction), parents should consider reaching out for professional help (nytimes.com). Seeking professional help does not mean that you have failed as a parent or admitted defeat!
The SOOTHE skills coupled with the principle engage, don’t enrage may help you as a parent feel like you are heading into a day with your child with flowers as a peace offering rather than geared up from head to toe in clunky and uncomfortable body armor. Remember that your child is learning how to feel feelings and ask for help when they have overwhelming emotions and need parental support with that process to help facilitate the development of emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills.
Did you try the SOOTHE Skill? How did it go for you?
Blog written by Sentier therapist, Bridgett Brye, MSW, LICSW.
- Goodyear-Brown, P. (2021). Parents as Partners. The Guilford Press.
- Siegel, D; Payne Bryson, T. (2011). Whole Brain Child.