How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums: The Connected Crying Approach

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Fact of life: All toddlers throw tantrums. (If you have a toddler who doesn’t, you have cracked the secret to producing perfect kids! Bottle your DNA and sell it and you’ll be rich!) If crying and screaming is driving you up the wall and the time outs aren’t working, try looking into this approach called connected crying to manage them. My husband and I have embraced this approach in the last couple of months and it has been working really well for us. Miss A is happier, calmer and a lot more secure than she used to be. Sure she still can have a bit of attitude every now and then, but she no longer kicks too much of a fuss when we deny her something she wants.

Boots

What do you mean I can’t wear boots to bed??!!

So what is connected crying?

Connected crying is part of the “hand in hand” parenting approach. To explain what that is, this is a blurb from the Hand in Hand website:

The Hand in Hand Parenting approach, Parenting by Connection, helps families build a stronger parent-child connection. This strong emotional bond is the hallmark of happy, well-adjusted families. It’s also the soundest way to a better society.

Recent research shows that regardless of background, a close parent-child connection throughout childhood and beyond is the strongest factor in preventing a variety of health and social problems, including young people’s involvement in drugs, violence, and unintended pregnancies.

The emphasis of connected crying and the hand in hand approach is a close parent-child connection

For most of us, our natural reaction to crying and tantrums is to tell the child off for them and ignore them (so as to “not reinforce bad behaviour”), especially when they appear completely irrational and you’re feeling frazzled and annoyed. However, hand in hand parenting/connected crying involves staying with them, listening to them, helping them express their feelings, validating their feelings, and telling them it’s okay to cry and be upset (e.g “I’m sorry you feel sad”). The idea is that by listening to them and validating their feelings, they learn to process and express their emotions in a healthy manner. They will feel more connected to you because they know you understand them and are there for them. With your guidance, they learn the skills to regulate their own emotions and get over disappointment and hurt very quickly. This equates to less tantrums (which happens when they can’t control or express their emotions or don’t feel understood).

Of course listening to and sympathising with them does NOT mean not offering guidance/advice, setting boundaries or accepting rudeness. It also definitely means standing firm on your word and not giving in or distracting them with something else just to avoid a public meltdown (they need to know it’s okay to be upset). For example, if Miss A gets upset and wants to hit the dog, I make sure to get down to her level and question why she’s upset. After she’s told me I will say “I understand you’re upset because of X, but we never ever hurt other people or animals. If you’re upset, you can use your words and say “I’m upset because of X”. If you still feel angry, you can hit this pillow here.” Teaching them the right words to express themselves and redirecting their frustration in a healthy manner helps them release their pent-up emotions. It’s important not to suppress any emotions, as inappropriate or confronting as it may seem to you, because any suppressed emotion just comes bubbling up another way later. For example, if they’re angry, ask them to use their words (and don’t judge!), hit or bite a pillow, draw out their emotions or if they’re older, they can write something. Or maybe what they needed is just to ask for your help, or get a cuddle or a break to reflect.

If the reason for them being upset seems irrational or out of character, it’s sometimes worth probing a bit deeper and asking if there is something else they are upset about. For example, once Miss A was upset because when she came back home from school, Miss E was already asleep and she could only see her the next day. So those emotions came out as “I don’t want to go to X’s house tomorrow for a play date!” (usually she loves play dates). Once we listened and worked out what the root cause was, we let her sneak into the room quietly to peek at Miss E sleeping and then everything was right in the world again. Sometimes they also act out as a way of getting attention as perhaps they feel disconnected from you. 

Now, all this is easier said than done. If you have a child who throws a lot of tantrums, chances are you often just feel fed up and tend to ignore them or tell them off for it, especially if they’re on the floor in the middle of the supermarket and everyone is looking. It’s also likely that you yourself feel highly uncomfortable with crying because in your own childhood, you were told  “Stop crying!” or “Quit being a baby!” or “Why are you crying over something so silly?” or “Even your baby sister doesn’t cry as much as you do!” This has taught us that crying and expressing our feelings is something negative and an act to be shameful about. This belittles our self worth as we have chosen something “unworthy” to be crying over. As a result, we feel uncomfortable or annoyed when our own children cry as we subconsciously feel that negative emotions should not be expressed. We feel that crying is something to be stoppedI’m sure many of us have been punished simply for crying and we find ourselves in this vicious cycle of doing the same with our kids. These couple of paragraphs from an article on connected crying on the Hand in Hand website drives home the point:

I couldn’t have stopped crying even if I had wanted to. I don’t remember now why I was crying, but I remember the look on my father’s face as he begged me to stop. “What am I going to do with you? All the neighbors are going to think you’ve gone crazy!” It was summer and the windows were open. And I was experiencing heartbreak like only a four year-old can.

Forty years later, what has stayed with me is the deeply jarring alienation brought on by my father’s inability to cope with, let alone understand, my emotional experience. He just wanted it to stop. How could my father, who I adored beyond words, plead with me not to express an experience that clearly needed his comforting and attention? Shame and confusion were layered over whatever the original hurt may have been. If my father complained that I no longer told him anything when I was a teen, he was reaping seeds he planted when I was very small and needed him to listen.

The world according to a toddler is very different! To them, it might be worth crying over mismatched socks…that they chose themselves. But just take a deep breath and try to look at things from their perspective. They’re just a little person in a big world and they’re frustrated that they can’t do things themselves. Listen and talk to them. Is it really about the socks? Is it something else? Make sure they know it’s okay to be frustrated! Mummy gets frustrated too! Matching socks isn’t easy! We just have to stay patient and use your words to express yourself or ask for help. 

Disconnected children creates disconnected teenagers. “Wait a minute! I’m dealing with a toddler, not a teenager!” you may say. Well, I’m telling you that as frightening as it sounds, how you react to their emotions now sets a course for the future. Once they reach puberty, you will find you can no longer tell your kids what to do. If you just say an outright NO, they will DO IT anyway. They just won’t tell you!

Before having kids, I thought about what drove me to act out as a teenager and how I could prevent my own kids from following the same path. It came down to this: relationship and open communication. I can’t stop my kids from making their own mistakes when they are older, but I can hope that we have close enough a bond that they will TALK to me about their problems and ask for my guidance. Talking about personal issues is something I never did with my own parents. They never even gave me the birds and the bees talk. I want my girls to feel like they can talk to me about anything without me judging them: boys, bullying, drugs, sex, alcohol etc. If they are upset, angry or sad, I hope they feel safe enough to seek comfort in me. I can’t tell them to do the right thing, but I can only hope they have such high value of themselves as a result of our relationship that they WANT to do the right thing. And guess where all this begins? In toddlerhood. Uh huh. Did this just get real?

So, in summary:

  • Listen
  • Help them express their emotions verbally or outwardly in a healthy manner
  • Reassure that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling and it’s okay to cry and be upset (but  you can still be firm with boundaries/offer guidance)
  • Stay with them and comfort them as they need

It’s interesting to note that since we started allowing Miss A to get upset and express her emotions in a healthy manner and also working on having a more connected relationship overall with her, not only has she stopped acting out but her security in things has vanished. She used to insist on wearing nappies to school but suddenly decided she was ready to be fully toilet trained. Her fear of public toilets has faded. She is also suddenly really happy to sleep in her own room in her own bed. She actually used to occasionally wake up crying and screaming in the middle of the night and need to be soothed back to sleep but has since started sleeping through the night without disturbing us.

I used to believe attachment parenting meant never letting your child cry but now I see that crying can be healthy and in fact, necessary. We all experience negative emotions in life and need to get it out. If you keep suppressing it and trying to soothe them to not cry, all the “crying debt” will just bubble up in another way eventually. Crying is just another a form of expression and our kids need to learn not to be afraid of it. It sounds strange that the way to prevent more crying is to let them cry, but the difference is in how they cry. The crying needs to be allowed, connected, and supported. Tantrums are not to be feared. Boundaries still need to be set and they are allowed to get upset over it but they will get over this soon if allowed to express themselves. That is what has worked for us, and I hope it can for you too.

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