Toddler tantrums are no fun for anyone involved. Tensions are high and triggers can be anything from a missed nap to a toy left behind. While most of the attention during a tantrum is on the child's behavior, mom's behavior in the moment has a lot of significance, too. In fact, according to a recent study, how moms react to their toddler's tantrums may predict how their children will handle their emotions now and later in life.
Researchers at the University of Illinois monitored moms' supportive or non-supportive behavior during emotionally challenging times (read: tantrums) to determine strategies to best handle these situations. Supportive responses were found to work best and Niyantri Ravindran, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the university, explained to Science Daily what exactly is meant by supportive behaviors:
By maternal support, we mean behaviors like validating the child's experience, as well as comforting the child and providing reasons for parental requests. Depending on the context, support might also mean distracting the child away from the situation that is causing him or her to feel frustrated or distressed.
Numerous other studies have suggested the importance of maternal support in parenting, according to Science Daily, and researchers from this study found that non-supportive, negative responses — such as "ignoring the child's behavior, threatening or punishing the child, or telling the child that he is overreacting" — can actually hinder emotional development in children.
The study included 127 toddlers and their mothers, who participated in a five minute-long snack delay task. In the exercise, children could see a snack in front of them, but were told that they had to wait for mom to finish filling out paperwork before they could eat it. Understandably, both moms and children were stressed by the delay. Researchers then recorded parent and child behavior and their responses during the wait time.
As for the mothers' behaviors, they included a variety of responses. According to the findings, some were supportive — such as "distracting them away from the snack, validating their feelings, or providing reasons why they could not have the snack yet" — while others were non-supportive, which included ignoring their child, physically moving them or taking the snack box away, or interrupting them. Along with exhibiting in the moment responses for researchers, mothers also filled out surveys on how they usually respond in these situations.
The supportive behaviors were found to be more beneficial to both child and mother. For this reason, according to Science Daily, Ravindran suggested that parents use these findings to prepare themselves for coming meltdowns, saying, "I would encourage parents to develop strategies to manage their emotions in those moments. Becoming more aware could also affect your parenting." The study was not intended to sort "good or bad" parents, but to help parents to better teach their children about emotions.
While the study's parental participants were all mothers, there is reason to believe that the findings would extend to fathers as well. Dr. Gregory Popcak has examined fathers' reactions to temper tantrums and their impact on children in a similar article, explaining that a dad's presence communicates something different to a child. “A mother’s presence helps a child calm down from stress, but a father’s presence helps kids calm down from aggression,” Dr. Popcak told Aleteia.
Dr. William Sears, renowned pediatrician and author of numerous parenting books, told Parenting that children need to learn how to articulate their emotions:
Part of childhood development is learning what language gets one's needs met and what doesn't. When your son is yelling and screaming, calmly put your hand on his shoulders, look him in the eye, and say, "Use your nice voice, and tell Mommy what you need."
There are a number of techniques for improving responses during tantrums, but remaining supportive is key. Additionally, each parent will ultimately need to find what works best for them. Rather than focus on discipline during a child's emotional outburst, parents should attempt to view them as a teachable moment. Most importantly, according to Parenting, Dr. Sears suggested that parents remember that these situations won't last forever:
Temper tantrums usually end between 18 months and two years of age, when a child develops the language skills necessary to express his feelings with words rather than actions. So when you're at your wit's end, remember: This too shall pass.
Understanding the impact that parental responses have on child development, preparing children to effectively manage their emotions can be one of the best gifts a parent can give.
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