Children will get angry.
Children will get upset.
Children will get frustrated
Children will have tantrums!
As parents, we accept these home truths about our little darlings, and ride out the storm when it occurs (www.madeformums.com has some useful advice for toddler tantrums!). But when your child doesn’t have the language skills to explain to you why they are feeling this way, the frustration can be doubled for both of you.
Tips for a toddler with communication difficulties and tantrums
Whilst we can’t make toddler tantrums a breeze for children with communication difficulties, these ideas can help to make everyone feel that little bit more understood:
- Can you show me?
If your child can point to what’s wrong (e.g. what hurts, what they want, who hurt them), you can often work out what happened and how to help. Teaching your child some basic signs (https://www.makaton.org/) for their everyday wants and needs, or having some photos and pictures of these things pre-prepared, can help your child point to what they want when it’s not easily accessible. For example, if your child starts crying at dinner time because you’ve given them pasta, you can whip out your ‘meal time moans’ picture sheet and they can point to the picture of ‘baked beans’. Or, if you’ve been learning signs together they can do the sign for ‘beans’ to show you what they wanted instead. The MyChoicePad app (www.mychoicepad.com) is one way for you and your child to learn some of these basic signs together.
- Use clues in the environment.
Take a moment to look around. Think – what’s changed? What’s different? If your child doesn’t normally get upset when playing at the park, but a dog has just appeared, maybe that’s what’s scared your child. If this gives you an idea, then you can…
- Ask simple, yes/no questions, accompanied by gestures and pointing
If you think you might know what’s wrong, ask simple yes/no questions such as:
- Are you hurt?
- Are you feeling scared?
- Are you hungry?
- Is that the problem? (pointing at the thing you might think is upsetting them)
Make sure you keep your communication as clear and easy-to-understand as possible, by using short simple sentences and pausing so your child can understand.
Some children will know why they are angry or upset, others won’t! They will be in the midst of the emotion and won’t even know exactly why – we’ve all been there. If this is the case, don’t keep asking questions, instead just make sure your little one is safe and wait for them to ‘ride out’ the feelings and calm a little.
- You might need to wait until your child has calmed down a bit before talking to them – and you might need to wait until you’ve calmed down too!
You are your child’s best example of how to manage strong feelings. Staying calm yourself when your child is upset will help them calm down. Reassure your child that it’s ok to feel angry/upset/frustrated/sad, we all feel this way from time to time. Let them get out their feelings in a controlled, safe way, and let them know the feeling will pass. Learning to understand and accept emotions is the first step in learning how to make yourself feel better.
Look at what the causes were of the tantrum
Talking about what has happened after the event can be tricky for children who are ‘in the moment’- they may not even appear to remember or care about what happened earlier! If you think it will be helpful to find out what caused the tantrum, try the following:
- First remind your child of where they were when they were unhappy – using a photo or picture of the place if possible
- Show your child photos of the emotions happy, sad, and angry, and see if your child can point to how they felt. At a time when you’re both calm, you could play a game acting out these three emotions, and taking photos of each other making different emotions faces, so you have these on stand-by.
- You can then ask simple yes/no questions, or show pictures for choices, to try and find out what made your child feel sad or angry
For example, “Look at this, this is the park (show photo). We were at the park this morning. How did you feel when we were at the park? (showing photos depicting happy/sad/angry). I’m sorry you felt sad. Did you want to play on something? Point to what you wanted to play on”
- Move on
Your child will! Do something silly, have a big hug, then get back to your day. Regardless of your child’s language skills or age, being positive, consistent in your rules and boundaries, and communicating clearly with your child will help them learn to express and manage their emotions.
Download a takeaway guide to tantrums.
Click Here to Download PDF
Remember, all children, regardless of their communication skills, will have tantrums! And it’s normally the parents that bear the brunt! You are not alone – if you’d like to share your own tantrum experiences below in the ‘comments’ (or via social media) we’d love to hear them.
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Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist