'I'm trying to remember to breathe': How to get through the tantrum-filled toddler years

Brooke with her daughter, who is demonstrating both sides of her toddler personality.
Brooke with her daughter, who is demonstrating both sides of her toddler personality. Photo: Supplied

Parenting is hard. It's also amazing and beautiful and special and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world, but did I mention it's hard? And there is one stage I find particularly hard, the toddler stage.

I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old so I'm sure parents of teenagers are laughing at me right now, knowing I have the dreaded teen years to come and have no idea what I'm in for, but in my experience so far as a parent, right now, just trying to get through the day – the toddler stage is the one that really brings me undone. 

When my eldest daughter came out the other side of the terrible twos I questioned if I had some form of post-natal anxiety. I was a shell of the person I was going into it; tired, emotionally and physically exhausted, stressed and anxious. I asked a professional if she thought I had some kind of anxiety. She politely said no, it was stress and all too common for mothers of children at this age. She told me it would pass and to breathe through it.  She was right. 

I am trying to remember to breathe again as I go through this stage once more and remember it all too well.

Don't get me wrong, I know I'm lucky. I have this beautiful, full of life little girl who has the perfect amount of spunk and feistiness. Sometimes I look at her and can't believe she's mine. She has all the qualities you want your daughter to have, just ones that are hard to manage in a little person who can  - and will - explode at any given second.

Toddlers fight you on everything; getting dressed, eating dinner, cleaning their teeth, going to bed, every single thing is a battle.

Mostly, you can't reason with them, they fly off the handle at any second  - usually in front of people and at the worst and most embarrassing of times. They need to be entertained 24/7 – they can't sit down and draw or do arts and crafts just yet. Although they can manage to somehow do their best artwork on the walls and cushions. They're clever like that.

I don't want to wish the time away because it is precious, I want to enjoy it - but I also don't want to lose my mind in the process.

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So that's why I have called in the big guns.

And in this case, that's the super talented duo from Big Little Feelings, child therapist, Deena Margolin and parent coach, Kristin Gallant. I sat down with them to ask some of the hard hitting questions every toddler parent wants to know.

Ladies, what are your three tips for getting through the difficult toddler stage and remaining somewhat sane in the process?

  • "Know that tantrums are developmentally healthy and normal. You are not a bad parent, your kid is not a bad kid. It's a sign of healthy brain development since the areas that help with managing emotions, using their words to share their feelings, and controlling their body are still under construction." 
  • "The sooner we, as parents, accept the feelings behind the difficult moments and tantrums, the quicker your little one will move through those feelings."
  • "There's no such thing as a perfect parent. We're all doing our best, we're all going to make mistakes. It's not about perfection, it's about progress.
     

Everything is a battle when it comes to toddlers – what is your one piece of advice when it comes to getting them to do simple things like getting dressed or eating their dinner?

"You probably noticed that your toddler is obsessed with power and control. We want to go with that obsession and give them some age-appropriate power to avoid the battles. 

Here's how it works: Parents can choose the big stuff and toddlers can choose the small stuff. Give a choice of two items they can choose between, so they feel involved and in control, which shifts them from pushback mode to collaboration mode. So when leaving the house, the parent decides it's time to put shoes on, and the toddler gets to choose which shoes to wear: "Do you want to wear your boots or your light up shoes?" 

Is bribing okay or is this generally frowned upon? (cue crying mothers everywhere!)

"It can be so tempting to use bribes, because they seem to work in the moment, but this can leave you on a rewards treadmill, where the prize/reward needs to be better and bigger to keep their interest. That's why it doesn't work long term. Plus, it doesn't teach your kid how to look inside, understand what they're feeling, and learn new skills for handling tough feelings, wants and needs.

"So we recommend using a technique that teaches real skills and internal motivation. Instead of 'If you help me put the plates on the table, you'll get a treat' go with 'You're helping put the plates on the table! How do you feel being a helper?! Proud?'."

Best way to handle tantrums in public?

  • Inhale, exhale: Remember, all kids do this and all parents go through this. 
  • Get to eye level, it helps your kid feel safe, and safe leads to calm 
  • OK the feelings and hold boundaries just as you would at home. 
  • You don't need to stop your toddlers tantrum. When we give in and don't hold the boundary, just because we want the tantrum to stop, we invite in bigger, longer, stronger tantrums next time because their crying, screaming, hitting behaviour worked - it got them what they wanted.
  • So instead, use our tantrum technique: 
  • See them/OK the feeling: "I hear you want the toy. It's OK to feel sad and mad." 
  • Boundary: "We're not buying the toy today."
  • Shift to the yes: "We can play bubbles or superheroes when we get home. You choose! Which do you want to play?" 

If like me, you're in toddler vortex, I hope this helps. And if you're also like me and find your heart beating a little faster when your little one is losing it on the supermarket floor, or you last only five minutes when attempting to eat out for dinner before the tantrums start and you have to pack up and go, know you'll look in on them sleeping before you go to bed and remember how lucky you are, and that tomorrow is a new day.