An angry toddler in the throes of a meltdown, raging and flailing, is a parenting challenge that is sure to unnerve even the calmest parent.
A parent faced with an angry child may go through some intense emotions themselves. It may range from sheer helplessness to a rising sense of their own anger and rage.
Despite how challenging and frustrating this behavior may seem, the display of intense anger by a toddler is not only normal, but also developmentally appropriate. Here's why.
Toddlers are often in between phases of their cognitive and emotional development. On one hand, they are constantly seeking autonomy and control over their environment and themselves. They want to explore new challenges and assert themselves.
At the same time, the part of the brain that is the socio-emotional center is still developing. And therefore, their limbic system shuts down when it feels threatened, or in the face of disappointment or disconnection with their significant care provider.
They temporarily lose the capability to effectively self-regulate their emotions. So it can be pointless to ask a child who is having a meltdown to “use their words” or to “think about what they’ve done.”
It’s not because they don’t want to, they are simply unable to do it.
As with all my work on parenting, the goal is not to “fix” the child, control the behavior or worse, stop them from feeling angry. Remember, there are no right or wrong emotions. You feel what you feel, the same way that a child feels what he feels.
Rather, the goal is to guide them through the times that they momentarily lose their sense of control, and to help them offload those big, intense emotions in a safe and healthy way.
The trouble with stopping an emotional display or "nipping it in the bud", either through distraction, timeouts, force, fear, threats of punishment, is that you are giving a message to your child that it’s not okay to feel what they feel.
Over time, if this message is continuously reinforced, you will have a toddler that is now a young child, teenager or adult who has not learnt what to do when she or he feels an intense rush of emotion.
Here are some steps you can take to help your child while they are in the midst of an intense emotional release.
An angry toddler may also be physically aggressive. Most toddlers develop the ability to use their hands and bodies to express themselves before they can use words effectively.
So it’s no surprise that angry toddlers may lash out either at themselves or at those within arms reach. The first step is to move your toddler to an area where you can get some privacy. Also ensure no loose items within arms reach so you can help them safely pass through the intense phase.
Firmly but gently step in
Toddlers are often quick to go from 0 to 10 within seconds, and before you know it, you may find that your toddler is physically harming himself, another child or you. In that case, you can hold her or his hand and gently say “I won’t let you hit me. It hurts.”
You can physically restrain your child till she or he is able to calm down. The reason I emphasize on being gentle is because toddlers are very perceptive to non verbal cues.
When they sense that you are feeling calm and in control of your emotions and trying to help them regain a calm state, they are more likely to feel safe and reassured that you have their back.
If you are triggered by their physical display of force, and respond roughly to them as you scoop them up in frustration or squeeze their arm a tad bit too tight as you pull it away, they sense your frustration and it may further heighten their own emotional state.
Let them offload the stress
This is a big one and will require a shift in perspective on how we generally view emotions as a culture and society. It will also take practice and self reflection on the part of a parent.
As a parent you can help your child feel emotions safely. When your child is feeling intense anger, empathy is a great response.
Empathy means acknowledging and understanding an emotional response and the need for it. Empathy can be practiced while you still hold on to your set boundaries. Empathy doesn’t mean you are weak, giving in or being manipulated by your child.
Rather, you are sending a message that implies “No I can’t get you ice cream and I understand that you feel disappointed and angry about it, and that is ok.”
When a child can experience his emotions while being in loving and safe environment, it help lay foundation to build a healthy attitude towards managing strong emotions and gives them ability to develop tools to cope and manage their emotions in life.
Identify your own triggers
Parenting is a constant journey of reflection and self awareness. Sometimes, our child’s intense emotions evoke strong emotional responses of our own.
It is worthwhile to explore what is awaken in us as we watch our child show their raw and honest emotions. You can do this at the moment or at a different time when you are calmer.
Our own experiences about our emotions and what we were made to believe about them (good versus bad, hide versus show) subconsciously influences how we now parent and respond to our children.
While parenting an angry toddler seems hard, it is a wonderful reminder that your toddler displays such intense emotions at your presence because they perceive you to be their safe space to off load their stress.
You are doing vital work in laying the foundations for emotional health for years to come. More than that, parenting from a place of connection and empathy ensures that your child has a wonderful approach to model off of when they are faced with intense emotions from peers, spouses and their own kids in the future.
Namrita is on a mission to create a supportive community for parents and provide resources, tools, and a safe space to help them on their parenting journey. You can join her free Facebook group here www.facebook.com/groups/connectedparentingmalaysia
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