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How to help your toddler with 'big emotions' (before it turns into a tantrum)

A new study found how to recognize a potential blow up and intervene early.

child big emotions tantrum

When Adrienne (not her real name) joined a program to help parents with meltdowns, her daughter was 15 months old and almost always in meltdown mode.

"Sophie was constantly screaming, crying and throwing tantrums," her mom explains. "At that young age, she didn't have the words to say what she wanted, so she used her voice to get attention."

So Adrienne and Sophie became part of studies recently published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology and the Infant Mental Health Journal, which helped coach parents on when to intervene as their kiddo was feeling "big emotions" or acting out. According to Adrienne, it was super helpful—the good news is you don't have to sign up for a study to learn what she did. We have the tips right here.


Understanding 'big emotions' in little bodies

The study saw parents, like Adrienne, coached in 'Parent-Child Interaction Therapy' so that they could recognize a potential blow up and intervene early to help their little one.

"As parents become better equipped to identify why the child is being disruptive, they can help the child manage and regulate their emotions. With this support, the child will gradually become better at doing this on their own," says Dr. Jane Kohlhoff, lead author of the study and senior lecturer at University of New South Wales Medicine's School of Psychiatry, who adds that "it teaches parents to reconceptualise their child's challenging behaviours."

Kohloff continues: "Often, the behaviour isn't a deliberate disobedience, but a result of the child's struggle with new, big emotions, like frustration, fear and anxiety."

Spotting you child's escalating emotions

For example, imagine a child is playing with a toy oven and toy pot, and she can't get the pot to fit in the oven. They may not understand why this isn't working. Playing roughly and smashing toys can is a sign that children are having trouble understanding how the toys work or what they can do with them.

"For a young child, this can be frustrating and the feelings may escalate quickly. It may lead them to become rough and aggressive, or to have a tantrum," says Kohlhoff.

"In this instance, the parent would be coached to notice this change in emotion early, and then to move closer to the child and validate their emotions by saying, 'I know you are feeling frustrated right now'."

Soothing, suggesting + showing physical comfort

The next step, says Kohloff, if to reassure your child. Try saying, "Mama is here to help you" in a soothing, calm voice. Offer physical affection and comfort and suggest another way to play (in this example, show the child another place to put the toy pot).

By doing this instead of simply telling our children to play nice, or chastising them for smashing their toys around, we are guiding them not only in play but in emotional regulation. Too often, kids are expected to know how to regulate their own emotions way too soon, and when parents come at them with this unrealistic expectation, the relationship suffers.

"Children at this young age are still trying to work out what emotions are, and how to navigate them," says Kohlhoff. "One of the best things a parent can do is to help their child understand and manage their emotions. We can't expect young toddlers to do it themselves."

Bottom line: Getting involved in play can help prevent tantrums

For Adrienne, connecting with this study gave her the opportunity to learn these skills from professionals, but we can all replicate this study at home and replicate her results with Sophie.

"My husband and I feel more at ease with knowing how to help her during meltdowns," she explains. "Our relationship with our daughter improved...I'm more mindful of what I say–for example, I've learnt to be specific in my praises rather than saying something general, like 'Good girl,' when she's behaving well."

As mamas who've been there, here are some of our favorite tools for helping our kidsmanage big emotions.

Slumberkins hammerhead snuggler

Slumberkins hammerhead snuggler

Slumberkins are amazing tools for teaching little ones to name and explain their big emotions. They just happen to be disguised as the most snuggly, soft lovies we've ever seen. Along with their story and mantra card, Hammerhead helps kids articulate big feelings when tantrums or frustration gets the better of them.

$44

Slumberkins alpaca snuggler

Slumberkins alpaca snuggler

Alpaca helps kiddos name and explain worry and anxiety that can lead to acting out.

$44

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

These challenges from Nike PLAYlist are exactly what my child needs to stay active

Plus a fall family bucket list to keep everyone moving all season long.

While it's hard to name anything that the pandemic hasn't affected, one thing that is constantly on my mind is how to keep my family active despite spending more time indoors. Normally, this time of year would be spent at dance and gymnastics lessons, meeting up with friends for games and field trips, and long afternoon playdates where we can all let off a little steam. Instead, we find ourselves inside more often than ever before—and facing down a long winter of a lot more of the same.

I started to search for an outlet that would get my girls moving safely while we social distance, but at first I didn't find a lot of solutions. Online videos either weren't terribly engaging for my active kids, or the messaging wasn't as positive around the power of movement as I would like. Then I found the Nike PLAYlist.

I always knew that Nike could get me moving, but I was so impressed to discover this simple resource for parents. PLAYlist is an episodic sports show on YouTube that's made for kids and designed to teach them the power of expressing themselves through movement. The enthusiastic kid hosts immediately captured my daughter's attention, and I love how the physical activity is organically incorporated in fun activities without ever being specifically called out as anything other than play. For example, this segment where the kids turn yoga into a game of Paper Scissors Rock? Totally genius. The challenges from #TheReplays even get my husband and me moving more when our daughter turns it into a friendly family competition. (Plus, I love the play-inspired sportswear made just for kids!)

My daughter loves the simple Shake Ups at the beginning of the episode and is usually hopping off the couch to jump, dance and play within seconds. One of her favorites is this Sock Flinger Shake Up activity from the Nike PLAYlist that's easy for me to get in on too. Even after we've put away the tablet, the show inspires her to create her own challenges throughout the day.

The best part? The episodes are all under 5 minutes, so they're easy to sprinkle throughout the day whenever we need to work out some wiggles (without adding a lot of screen time to our schedule).

Whether you're looking for simple alternatives to P.E. and sports or simply need fun ways to help your child burn off energy after a day of socially distanced school, Nike's PLAYlist is a fun, kid-friendly way to get everyone moving.

Need more movement inspiration for fall? Here are 5 ways my family is getting up and getting active this season:

1. Go apple picking.

Truly, it doesn't really feel like fall until we've picked our first apple. (Or had our first bite of apple cider donut!) Need to burn off that extra cinnamon-sugar energy? Declare a quick relay race up the orchard aisle—winner gets first to pick of apples at home.

To wear: These Printed Training Tights are perfect for when even a casual walk turns into a race (and they help my daughter scurry up a branch for the big apples).

2. Visit a pumpkin patch.

We love to pick up a few locally grown pumpkins to decorate or cook with each year. Challenge your child to a "strongman" contest and see who can lift the heaviest pumpkin while you're there.

To wear: Suit up your little one in comfort with this Baby Full Zip Coverall so you're ready for whatever adventures the day brings.

3. Have a nature scavenger hunt.

Scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to keep my daughter preoccupied all year long. We love to get outside and search for acorns, leaves and pinecones as part of our homeschool, but it's also just a great way to get her exercising those gross motor skills whenever the wiggles start to build up.

To wear: It's not truly fall until you break out a hoodie. This cozy Therma Elite Kids Hoodie features a mesh overlay to release heat while your child plays.

4. Have a touch-football game.

Tip for parents with very little kids: It doesn't have to last as long as a real football game. 😂 In fact, staging our own mini-games is one of our favorite ways to get everyone up and moving in between quarters during Sunday football, and I promise we all sleep better that night.

To wear: From impromptu games of tag to running through our favorite trails, these kids' Nike Air Zoom Speed running shoes are made to cover ground all season long.

5. Create an indoor obstacle course.

Pretending the floor is lava was just the beginning. See how elaborate your personal course can get, from jumping on the couch to rolling under the coffee table to hopping down the hallway on one foot.

To wear: These ready-for-any-activity Dri-FIT Tempo Shorts are perfect for crawling, hopping and racing—and cuddling up when it's time to rest.

This article was sponsored by Nike. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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