How to: Truly tame toddler tantrums

How to: Truly tame toddler tantrums

Ever found yourself smirking when your toddler has a tantrum and throws her teddy across the room? Well, Professor Matt Sanders says that doing this is an 'accidental' reward and could teach our tots inappropriate behaviour. The founder of the Triple P Positive Parenting Program® shares his secrets


We moan about our children "behaving badly", but Professor Matt Sanders sugggests there's a bigger issue. The hidden story is that even parents with the best of intentions might be accidentally teaching children to misbehave.

Sometimes we're not aware that we're rewarding certain behaviours in our children without meaning to. These "accidental" rewards could include things like:

• Reacting with a laugh the first few times your child throws a toy

• Videoing them when they cry or behave badly

• Regaling others with stories of your child's latest "outrageous" behaviour, within their hearing

• Ignoring your young child when they're doing the right thing, but then spending ages trying to reason with them when they misbehave (i.e. rewarding them with attention).

Professor Sanders suggests bad behaviour can be a result of self-esteem issue. We find out more from Professor Sanders.

What is healthy self-esteem for a child?

True healthy self-esteem is something we build up ourselves, as we work to master new skills, stick to our values, and show pro-social behaviours such as care and concern for others.

Are babies born with all this? Of course not. So while we'd definitely expect a youngster's temperament to play a role in all this, for example where some children are just more easily upset than others, or might have a more naturally attention-seeking temperament, as parents, there's a lot we can do to encourage healthy self-esteem without overdoing it.

What are the most common things parents do that can affect a child's self-esteem?

Busy or stressed parents can get into a cycle where children are constantly being told "don't" or "no". So the children learn that the kind of behaviour that gets them the most attention is exactly the kind of behaviour that upsets their parents.

And parents might have learned some undesirable parenting behaviour from their own childhood, so that might be, for example, calling children "terrible" or "useless" or that kind of name-calling or insulting. Tragically, a lot of children who misbehave already think of themselves in a very negative way. So adding to that by repeating those kinds of criticisms doesn't help the situation, but unless parents can learn some new strategies they're often just caught in this cycle.

Parents can encourage children to develop healthy self-esteem by doing things like giving genuine and specific praise when children are learning new skills; by using appropriate praise and also phasing it out once a skill has been developed.

You can get a situation where children become overly reliant on their parents doing too much for them. When you cross the line to the extent that you're trying to prevent anything disappointing or difficult ever occurring in a child's life, what you're doing is preventing the child learning through their own experience. Within reason, children need to be allowed to make mistakes; to learn through their mistakes and not repeat them.

What signs can parents look out for to show self-esteem is low?

Many parents may already be aware that children can develop low self-esteem through things like:
• Physical or emotional abuse
• Hurtful, blaming comments or actions
• Lack of praise, affection or attention

But not all parents realise that children can develop overly critical and destructive ways of thinking about themselves as a result of:

• Frequent arguments and conflict between parents
• Lack of appropriate limits and discipline
• Unfavourable comparisons with brothers and sisters /not having achievements (including learning and practicing new skills) recognised
• Lack of regular exercise and physical self-care

As well as being more likely to misbehave, children with low self-esteem may be anxious or depressed. So if you think your child's low self-esteem is causing them problems, or they've been worried or sad for a long time, it may be time to seek professional advice.

How can you regain the balance if your child shows signs of too high self-esteem?

It's important to work out whether your expectations are realistic. Young children in particular will need a lot of time, patience and good role-modelling to develop their ability to do things like share, be considerate of others, and understand what their level of skills and abilities are. Even older children won't all have the same temperament or experiences, and as parents we're also learning and hopefully improving as time goes on.

Setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries and limits on children is important. This can be easier than what you may think once you're able to put the right strategies in place, so if you find you're struggling to manage behaviour, for example, that's aggressive or your child seems unable to accept appropriate limits, ask for some help from your doctor or school for example to access parenting support that can help.

If you think your child doesn't have a realistic picture of their skills and abilities, is this because you've been over-protecting them from disappointment? Teaching children to manage feelings of disappointment and even failure, and to overcome them and try again, is a much more solid foundation for genuine self-esteem than an unrealistic belief that they're brilliant at everything.

What are your top tips for maintaining a good level of esteem in a young child?

Encouraging self-esteem in children basically comes down to a consistent, positive approach to their upbringing.

Praise children for effort, and recognising achievements

Praise and encouragement helps us to feel good about ourselves, and children are no different. Notice when they're trying and making improvements, and they'll be more motivated to continue trying at a difficult task.

Praise should be genuine, and specific. If you need to talk about weaknesses, make sure you talk about strengths first, for example: "You're doing quite well at [particular skills or tasks], but we might need to spend some time practising your [skill that needs work]".

Tell and show your child that you care

Children need to be told often that you love them and care about them, not just verbally but through your actions. Spending time with your child and being available when they need you helps your child feel worthwhile and lets them know you value them as a person.

Encourage a healthy lifestyle

Encourage good hygiene, grooming and regular exercise to help your child feel good about themselves.

Teach your child how to be a good friend

Children who like themselves find it easier to like other people, and that's an important part of healthy self‑esteem. Encourage your child to make friends, and help them get started by practising things like introducing themselves to another child and asking if they can join in or play together.

Share a laugh

Laughter is a great emotional release, and develops your child's sense of humour, which will help them enjoy life. Encourage this skill by listening to your child's stories, playing games and having fun together.

Encourage talking about ideas

Children need to learn to express themselves. Listen to your child's ideas, feelings, thoughts and hopes. Summarise what they've just said, and ask questions to help them develop their own opinions.

Encourage goal-setting

Follow and support your child's interests and talents. Start off by helping your child set some goals that are fairly easy to achieve. Keep expectations realistic, and help them get started by breaking the goals into smaller steps or a plan of action. You can offer suggestions and encouraging comments, but don't do everything for them.

Encourage independence and decision-making

Show confidence in your child's abilities by letting your child do things for themselves as soon as they're ready. Encourage your child to take on new tasks, such as jobs around the house, to help them develop a sense of responsibility. And allow them to take reasonable risks so they can learn and also know that you believe in them.


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