Most parents deal with their toddler’s tantrums by telling them to stop while they’re in the middle of the storm. It doesn’t work like that. As a parent, you have to understand that there are phases or sequences to a tantrum. Start understanding how tantrums really work so you can better support your child. Karen Stoteraux talks with Gia Gambaro Blount, longtime Toddler & Me educator at The Family Room, about the inevitable tantrum. Gia gives tips on removing predictable triggers, understanding the sequence of a tantrum, and how to help your child develop emotional hygiene. Karen and Gia then discuss dealing with judgment during tantrums in public and how to survive the moment.
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Understanding Tantrums With Gia Gambaro Blount
We’re talking about toddler behavior and tantrums. I’m very excited to welcome Gia Gambaro Blount to the show. Gia has been leading our Toddler and Me program at The Family Room for over five years. She has been teaching Child Development courses at local universities, and fronting parenting support groups for over fifteen years. She is a parenting consultant, has two sons, and has lots of fun. Welcome to the show, Gia.
Thank you so much for having me.
You’ve been teaching at The Family Room for over five years. You’re one of our very important educators here.
Thank you so much.
You get asked about toddlers’ tantrums and their behavior often. It’s probably one of the most asked questions in your classes.
Tantrums, eating, and sleeping are the three things. They are linked.
That’s good to know. Toddlers throw an average of one tantrum a day, sometimes more or less. This is a daily challenge for parents. What advice do you give? What can we do so parents won’t lose their minds?
I’m surprised by the number, only one a day. Those are the lucky few that only have a child that tantrums once a day. First is a little perspective taking that toddlers are considered toddlers after twelve months. As young as thirteen months having experiences for the first time, big feelings, and new things to explore, all of the big wide world can feel overwhelming and exciting. Letting that feeling run through their body is normal.Understand that you can't fix or make tantrums go away. It's just part of living. Click To Tweet
It’s normal for kids to have big reactions to the world that they’re in. One of the ways that we can help understand tantrums is to look at them before, during and after. That will be our way of organizing ourselves. You want to have the understanding that you’re not going to fix this. It’s not going to go away. It’s part of living. We still have big reactions to things as adults. We learn how to handle them a little bit better. The kids are new to this thing called life but not everyone. That is true.
That’s a good example. If you can draw upon adults in your life that you’re like, “That’s how you behave,” then it can give you that perspective that this is a lifelong process. The sequence of a tantrum is important to understand too. We’re going to look at these things in two different ways. A child gets triggered by something. That’s the first step in a sequence.
Something happened. You didn’t give them ice cream for breakfast, “You’re the worst. There’s no gum at Target. It’s over,” or whatever it is. Most triggers are beyond our control, but some are in our control, and the ones that are, we can get rid of, fix or change if possible. Let me give you an example. If your child is always climbing on a coffee table in your living room and doing the same thing, hide it in the garage or your bedroom for now.
The best advice I can give you is not everything is a teachable moment. You don’t have to be the best parent and teach your child life lessons all the time. It’s exhausting. Try to remove predictable triggers as much as possible. Some things are unchangeable, “You have to wear your seatbelt every time we get in the car.” If you can remove the ones that are possible, that frees up your bandwidth to handle the things that you cannot change.
It’s picking your battles.
It’s a version of picking your battles, except picking your battles is in the moment and eliminating triggers is outside the box. The second step is this. After a toddler is triggered, they have a feeling about it like anger, frustration, and disappointment. If it’s something positive, there’s a positive feeling like joy or excitement. That’s a feeling as well that’s big, but here’s the thing with feelings. They’re invisible. That’s an internal landscape that we are not privy to. We don’t see it. What do we see? We see behaviors.
We see an outburst.
If it was a good thing like they were feeling joy because you were going to Disneyland, you might see the same type of behavior like jumping, clutching, clapping, screaming, or that big-bodied release of joy or excitement. When it’s a big-bodied release rooted in anger or frustration, it usually looks like hitting, throwing, some type of self-harm, trying to cause harm to others, or damage to property, we react and try to control that behavior. The last piece in the sequence is very popular, “How do I get my child to get regulated or get back to homeostasis?”
It’s to make it stop. Every parent wants it to stop.
The behavior that you see like the hitting, the throwing, the crying or whatever it is, and it’s stopping, the distance between those two things is the tantrum. That’s what a tantrum is. It’s the space between the action and the recovery. The way that we try to address this is to understand that feelings are going to be reoccurring throughout life. It’s the same ones. Throughout life, they will have feelings of anger, joy, disappointment, and excitement. That won’t change.
What will change hopefully is the way that they express those through behavior. That’s where we want to start. We want to start by giving toddlers ways to express those invisible feelings and give them visible ways where they can show how they’re feeling in a way that is sustainable and socially acceptable. It’s something that you could almost imagine them doing for the rest of their lives or imagine yourself doing.
Can you give an example of what some of those would be?
If you have a big-bodied response to excitement and joy, and you allow your child to jump up and down and clap their hands when you say they’re going to Disneyland, then you also need to allow for a big-bodied response when their feeling is anger, frustration, disappointment, or some of the harder feelings. Big-bodied responses that are socially acceptable and sustainable can be stomping your foot, grunting, crying, verbalizing, clenching your fists and releasing them, and clapping.
You want to imagine what you do when you drop your $7 latte on the ground. Maybe you utter a bad word. You can give kids a physical release, but what we do when we drop our $7 latte is shout a curse word and then recover very quickly because we are mature. We say a curse word, take a deep breath, and get back to homeostasis quickly because we’re mature and we have done it lots of times. We know that we can get another one. Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces.Not everything is a teachable moment. You don't have to teach your child life lessons all the time in order to be a good parent. Click To Tweet
Replacement behaviors are something that’s hard for parents to understand. I’ve been around this parenting blog for a while, both professionally and personally. What’s popular is teaching children emotional vocabulary, emotional regulation, and coping strategies. I love it. I’m all about it. Get the books, get the dolls, watch Inside Out, all the things, and teach them replacement behaviors. There is no human on this planet, not Mother Teresa or Gandhi, that can handle a big feeling with no behavior attached to it. Even if Gandhi dropped a $7 latte, he might be like, “Bummer.”
They need to learn their go-to. For different toddlers, it could be a very different go-to. I have three children. Some would prefer to be hugged. Evelyn doesn’t want to be touched. Don’t touch her when she’s mad. That does not help her calm down.
Calming down is the last step in the sequence. First, for Evelyn, who doesn’t want to be touched, you might want to give her a way to express her frustration in a way that’s socially acceptable and sustainable. Maybe you will allow her to use some verbalization, “I don’t like that. Give me a minute,” or what our curse word would be, and some verbal expression.
You can start to offer coping strategies, which would be a hug, a deep breath or whatever it is. Here’s the trick to teaching coping strategies. No one can ever use one at the moment if they haven’t practiced them at a neutral time. The worst time for our brain to receive a lesson is when we are in the middle of a storm. It’s not a good time to learn how to sail a ship when you’re already in the middle of a storm.
That’s a big thing that parents often do. They’re trying to talk to their child during the tantrum. Nothing is getting in there.
It’s not going to work. What does work is something I like to call emotional hygiene, which is a daily way of caring for yourself or the way you do with your body. You help your child brush their teeth and wash their body, hair, and face. You help them take care of themselves. What we often do is not teach them those same strategies for hygiene for the internal process. Spend a few minutes a day or maybe the same amount of minutes you do brushing teeth but with teaching, modeling, and reinforcing coping strategies.
It’s like, “We’re going to punch the pillow, honey.”
Punching is a release. You could practice. When you feel mad, you could stomp your feet. Coping strategies are what to do after. This is exactly what people will be asking though. It’s release and recover. Trigger feeling behavior, which is the release, and then recover, which is the coping strategy. The way to do this emotional hygiene is the same way you teach brushing teeth. It’s the time-place tool.
It’s around the same time every day. It’s always in the same place. There’s a tool that you use like your toothbrush. Emotional hygiene can be the same. It’s around the same time every day, maybe before bedtime. It’s in the same place every day. Make a cozy corner or part of your couch where there’s an extra fluffy blanket or something. There are lots of tools that can help with emotional regulation.
My kids are a little older now. After you brush your teeth, maybe you sit and practice breathing or something like that. When they know something has triggered them and they have become dysregulated, they already have done that. They know that’s their go-to to stay calm. That makes a lot of sense.
Wherever you create this cozy little corner or calm-down corner, I encourage parents to name it something that aligns with who they are and how they talk to each other normally. You’re not like, “Let’s mindfully blah blah.” If that’s not how you talk to your kids, then call it something else.
It’s something they can relate to or be excited about.
It’s whatever you do call it. I’m going to say cool-down corner for now. It is never forced. It’s never like, “You seem upset. Go to the corner.” You go into this corner with them to teach the calming down strategies. For young kids, I like things like chanting, call and response, pressure points, stuff that engages both of you at the same time, or some co-regulation strategies.
If you do it with them, they will be a little bit more willing to participate at a young age, but then what you hope to see, and I have evidence that this happens with the many families that I do consultations for, is that when your child gets upset, they self-elect to go over there. They smell the flower or blow the bubbles or whatever tools you’ve stuck in that corner.No one can ever use a coping strategy at the moment if they haven't practiced them at a neutral time. Click To Tweet
My question is this. What happens when you’re at Target and cozy corners are not available? You’re in public. This is the worst too. We can also get into this. It’s this judgment and shame that parents feel when we’re in public and our child is melting down. Maybe the tools that they established at home aren’t available to them. What do you do?
How do we handle our feelings of embarrassment and shame or feeling like we’re being judged and all of that? How do you survive Target?
You do a pickup.
In the beginning, we talked about how you remove the triggers that you can. If it happens more than three times, don’t do it anymore. Give yourself a break. There are many other ways to get shopping done. This goes back to how not everything is a teachable moment. They don’t need the life lesson of being well-behaved in Target in the body of a two-year-old. They don’t need to learn that life lesson because they will not stay in the body of a two-year-old. When they’re seven, it’s not as hard.
Avoid it. That’s the perfect answer. Not everyone can avoid it. I want to give two responses to this. There is a tool that only has a 50/50 shot. You can try it. When a child is about to tantrum, you can feel it coming on, and you’re about to lock in with no gum. There are some things that you can try and do that may or may not work. It’s a crapshoot. These are quick sensory changes. When the brain is about to go down this rut of “I want gum,” you can try and flip a switch that will get their brains to go down another neural pathway.
“Let’s listen to music.” If you’re not listening to music, turn the music on. If there is a snack or a drink, activate taste. It makes your brain think differently. If you’re in a big, bright place like Target, try and go into a small dark space. Put both of you under your jacket and be like, “Let’s be quiet in here.” All of a sudden, the sound and brightness are different. It feels smaller. You can sit in your car for a minute and go back to your shopping cart if that’s possible. These are quick sensory changes.
If you’re at home and they’re about to lose it, you can turn off the light switch. When I do this talk in one of our classes, I switch off the light switch. It’s so weird because there’s all this commotion. The kids are shuffling around, throwing things, whatever they’re doing in class, and then having fun. We turn off the light. It’s silent for three seconds because the brain is like, “What happened?” Turn out the lights, crank up the music, or turn off the music.
The only problem is it only works half the time, but it’s worth a try. Another tool that you can do at the moment is very old school, which is to pick your battles. Lose the battle. Win the war. They want gum. They’re demanding it. You don’t have time for this. You can turn it into your idea because part of the parenting strategy is always to balance authority, boundaries, warmth, and connection. If you think of the scales of justice, we’re always balancing warmth and authority.
You can use both at that moment and say something like, “You want this gum. Gum is a great idea. I’m going to buy it and put it in my purse. We can have it after lunch,” but you did not want to buy the gum. You’re surviving the moment. It’s not our optimal parenting. It’s not the life lessons. It’s not teaching but that’s okay. You can survive the moment. That’s fine. The second part of the question was how to deal with feeling judged.
That’s one of the reasons why we want to make it stop because we feel like we’re bad parents.
There’s a saying in social science research, “That which is observed changes.” Whenever we feel observed, we pull out different aspects of our personality. We might pull out the version of our personality that is a super strict mom, “I said no gum. You’re not getting any gum.” That’s not even who you are. It’s because you’re being observed. It might trigger another part of your personality or gentle parenting, “I’m going to be the gentle parent. I know you want gum. Not having gum is so hard. I understand. Thank you for verbalizing your feelings with me.” That’s also not who you are.
It’s understanding this common thread that we all have. We’re people doing the best we can. Not every part of your parenting journey is going to be the best version of yourself. That’s fine. Dealing with judgment is a personal journey. You can, at that moment, feel eyeballs on you and decide that you don’t care, or you can stand in that moment and not be able to help yourself. That independent journey to self-reliance and a sense of worthiness and strength is another episode. I often tell parents, “If you build your parenting philosophy, the fact that you’re showing up to class, reading books, and all of those things can give you that self-esteem.” I’m doing the best I can.
There needs to be some type of campaign. It’s setting expectations on what is normal toddler behavior. Not everything that happens as a parent is your fault. Sometimes we do have to go into Target. We had to go in, and a meltdown happened. It’s because that’s what a toddler’s brain development is. They’re not capable of responding as an adult because they’re still babies.
They are not capable of responding as an adult. You are not capable of controlling someone else’s behavior. They are unique individuals hurdling through life with you as their guide, teacher, and source of love and support. I am a parenting coach. One of the things that I say is this. Good parenting does not necessarily lead to good “results.” Who they are is who they are. The way that you can tell you’re a “good parent” is not if your child gets into Harvard. A way that you can tell that you’re a good parent is if your child comes to you in their time of need.Dealing with judgment is a personal journey. Click To Tweet
I almost feel like everyone should write down what you said before. I don’t even remember what you said exactly, but it sounded like something that I would want to repeat to myself in a moment to regulate myself. Sometimes, that’s a question you get about how to stay calm. It’s like, “My kid is freaking out whether I’m at Target or home. I want it to stop.” We know that we can’t. Our job is to be with them in it as best as we can. What if we’re having a hard time being with them in it?
If you get triggered, then you will be dysregulated. I have triggers. My trigger in raising my kids is whining. It would physically hurt me if I heard whining. I couldn’t stay regulated. Here’s the thing about yourself getting dysregulated. Imagine something else. Let’s set aside tantrums for a minute. Imagine that you wanted to learn how to cook. If your model of cooking was always perfection, it makes it very hard for you to want to try.
When you are dysregulated, you get to model that you are also a human doing the best you can. After that storm has passed, you can revisit whatever dysregulated you, whatever your behavior was, and whatever your coping strategy was as a way to teach. It is a way to show a human connection. This is the human condition. This is what it’s like to be a human on this planet.
I’m no different than you, two-year-olds. I might get there faster. I have more skills and experience. It’s a chance for grace and connection with your child and be like, “I yelled at you yesterday. I’m so sorry about that. When I lose my patience, sometimes I yell. That’s something I’m also working on.” Guess who else yells, cries, and screams? It’s your two-year-olds.
I always used to say, “I’m getting angry or upset too. I need a minute.” I would remove myself.
That probably didn’t happen every time. Sometimes you didn’t remove yourself fast enough. That is normal. That is a teachable moment but only in the rearview, not at the moment. Afterward, you verbally process together. It feels like a relief to your toddler that you’re not perfect.
We had a lot of people. I let everyone know that I was going to be talking to you. People write in questions. We had a lot. I thought it might be fun or helpful to ask you some of them that we got from people in our community. How do you deal with hitting other than reading books and reminders? What happens when your toddler is having a meltdown and hitting you or themselves?
We’re going to use the model that we talked about earlier, which is something that triggered them to have some feeling which is invisible. The behavior that you see is hitting. What I was suggesting during our talk so far is that you can’t stop them from expressing their feelings and jumping to regulation. We’re going to try to find replacement behaviors for hitting. Instead of hitting, you can stomp your feet, crumple up a piece of paper, say something, or grunt. Grunting is a good one. It almost feels like that curse word feeling that grownups get.
I always used to say, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” instead of cursing. Audrey thought that they were her siblings or something because she was like, “Who are these people?” All the time, that was my go-to. I could release. If she said, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
That is so funny. That’s what I was trying to say earlier. There’s a lot of parenting expertise out there that’s saying, “Teach coping strategies.” My thing is, “Teach replacement behaviors for those feelings.” You wouldn’t stop a child from jumping up and down with joy. You cannot stop a child from wanting to hit when they’re mad.
They need that release. Find a release that is not going to get them arrested.
That is sustainable. Punching a pillow is not sustainable because pillows don’t follow you for the rest of your life. You’re not always around them. We don’t want to hardwire hitting with a release. We want to hardwire things that you could see somebody do in line at Costco or whatever it is. Stomp their feet, roll their eyes, or clench and release their hands. Any muscle tension and release are helpful. You can screw up your face and then relax it. Teenagers roll their eyes. That’s so much better than what they could be doing.
Reading those books is helpful, but for the parent that asked that question, I would encourage her to get that cool-down corner, practice that emotional hygiene time-place tool, give replacement behaviors, and practice those at a neutral time. When you’re mad, you can stomp your feet and do all the things I said.
When they are in the moment of having a tantrum, you can say, “You’re mad your train did not stay on the track the way that you wanted to.” You can stomp your feet, clench your hands and say, “I’m so mad at the train.” Let it out. That’s what I used to tell my boys a lot, “Let it out. Would you like a hug? Do you want a glass of water? Do you want to take a deep breath?” All of those things I said are the things that you practice for your emotional hygiene.Toddlers have all-or-nothing thinking. They're not capable of switching gears. Click To Tweet
Another question is what to do or say to your child when they’re having a full-blown meltdown. We did address that. Do you feel like you have anything else that you want to add to what to do or say?
If you’re already in the middle of a storm, there are two things that you can do. We said it, but here’s a quick summary. You want to describe what you think their experience is as best as they can as a way to connect. You’re like, “You’re so mad that your train didn’t stay on the track. You can be mad about it. You need one little pathway out. It’s frustrating your train didn’t stay on track. Let it out. You can be mad about it. We’re going to try again or put the train tracks away. I’m going to get the screwdriver and fix it.” It’s something that shows them a future. Connect with it. Don’t be like, “This train is so annoying.” Release it, stomp your feet, and calm down but also, life still goes on because toddlers have all-or-nothing thinking. They’re not capable of switching gears.
That’s what makes the transition so hard. Transitions probably trigger tantrums often.
“I’ll never go to the park again if we leave. This is the end of life as I know it.”
“The park is closed.”
It’s some little pathway out.
That was a lot. Thank you so much for talking with us about what to do, what to say, and how to survive them. You’re both trying to do the best you can. I have something I do at the end of each episode where I ask our guests what they googled and what they learned. Do you want to share with us what that would be for you?
I have been obsessed with your pictures of Sedona.
We had the best time. You should be obsessed. I’m obsessed.
I’m going. I don’t know when and how, but it is going to happen.
When your kid is having a tantrum, pretend you’re in a vortex in Sedona. It will all be better.
I have been like, “Resorts in Sedona. Spiritual retreats in Sedona. Meditation in Sedona.”
Everyone, google Sedona and go there. I don’t work for the tourism bureau. Maybe I should because we had such a lovely time. When we were leaving, James and I were like, “We have to come back without the kids.” We had a great time with the kids. It was awesome, but I would love to go back just the two of us and experience it in a different way. Thank you so much. I’m sure you will be a regular on the show.
Gia not only leads our Toddler and Me Program here at The Family Room, but she also does private consults. You can book those through our websites, speak to her one-on-one, and help troubleshoot any issues you’re having about tantrums or anything else in the toddler behavior world. She is good at giving tangible actions to families. We hear that often. Everyone loves her. You’re a bright light. I’m so glad to talk to you and have you on our team. Thank you.
- Gia Gambaro Blount
- Toddler and Me
About Gia Gambaro Blount
Gia has been supporting families in the San Gabriel Valley for more than fifteen years through her work at Pasadena City College, where she is a Child Development professor, Parent Education Coordinator and instructor. She has a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education, however, many of her insights into parenting support come from her personal experience raising two boys who are so different from one another it deepened her awareness that there is not one “right” way to parent. Her goal is to help parents develop their parenting intuition and tailor the overwhelming amounts of parenting “advice” to become their child’s optimal parent.
Want more from Gia? She offers private parenting consultations: https://familyrooms.wpengine.com/private-classes-and-consultations/
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