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Friday, July 30, 2021 by Sally Chaffin Brooks

How to Understand Your Child When Communication Breaks Down

Tantrum. It’s the seven-letter word of parenting. Every young child has them and every parent feels baffled by what to do when they happen. When your toddler is in the midst of a full-on fist-pounding, red-faced, toy-throwing meltdown, it can seem as though there is no way to communicate with them until the storm passes. But the reality is that when your kid is throwing a temper tantrum, they actually are communicating with you and the way that you handle their big emotions communicates something just as important to your child. 

Understand What Your Child is Communicating with a Tantrum 

Communicating through an expression of emotion is called affective communication. When children don't yet have the ability to understand or put words to what they are feeling, sometimes the only way to tell you what’s going on inside is by expressing those big emotions (aka having a temper tantrum). Once you know that your kid is trying to tell you something that they don’t have the language skills or emotional maturity to communicate, it’s easier to be compassionate in the moment. 

To help decode your little person’s meltdown, take note of what is happening right before the tantrum, of the setting and the time of day. You may notice a pattern that can lead to clues about their behavior. Sometimes it’s as simple as hunger, over-tiredness, or a need for attention, but could also be anxiety over transitions or a sensory disorder. 

Handle the Tantrum Consistently and Calmly in the Moment

Quelling a temper tantrum or meltdown is not about giving in to your child’s demands, it’s about helping your kid work through their outsized emotions. As a parent, a tantruming child can be super stressful, but in the moment it is important for you to stay calm and make your child feel safe

Once they are calm, listen to what your child is communicating and try to validate their feelings-- this doesn’t mean agreeing that they don’t have to ever eat broccoli, but it does mean letting your child know that you hear that you making them eat broccoli is the most unfair thing that has ever happened to a person. With young toddlers who don’t have language skills, help them name their feelings (i.e. “it seems like you are feeling mad about sharing your toy.”)

Talk Through the Emotions Later and Reinforce Communication

The middle of a tantrum is not necessarily the time to talk through better strategies for handling emotions. Choose a time when your child is well past the meltdown to talk about how they might express themselves more constructively the next time the situation comes up. 

Many kids feel most communicative when they are engaged in an activity where they feel comfortable. Your kid may open up while drawing together, on a walk, listening to music, or floating side-by-side in the swimming pool. Talk about how they were feeling before the meltdown, reinforcing the idea that all feelings are valid, “It’s okay to feel sad when your friend has to go home, but it’s not okay to throw your toys.”

Model Talking Through Your Own Emotions

Even children who are too young to have a conversation about emotions can learn about how to handle emotions by watching how you handle your own. Talk to your child about how you are feeling in a way that they can understand, “I’m a little frustrated because I can’t find my keys.” Then talk through how you deal with your emotions, “I’m going to take deep breaths and look again.” 

Understanding Tantrums Can Help You Avoid Miscommunication

Tantrums are going to happen. But by understanding that temper tantrums and meltdowns are your child’s way of communicating a need or want, calmly validating their feelings during the tantrum, and talking about emotions and strategies afterwards, you can help your child handle hard situations in the future.