How tantrums are a lot like traffic jams

Have you ever noticed how tantrums are a lot like traffic jams? There are three basic ways tantrums and traffic jams are similar: in the “before” phase; in the “during” phase; and in the “after” phase.

In the “before” phase, you may or may not notice signs of trouble brewing. If you do notice that cars are starting to slow down or that your toddler is starting to escalate their behavior, you might still be able to change course. In the car, that means you get off at the next exit and find a nice quiet country road to carry you to your destination. It might take a little longer, but it will be more pleasant. In the case of your toddler, you might try some strategies that can keep them calm (and we’ll talk about some in my next video) and on track so that the day proceeds relatively smoothly.

BUT, if you miss the off-ramp, then you’re committed. You’re stuck for the duration of the traffic jam, and no amount of anything will change that. Anger, frustration, rage, reasoning, logic, bribery, blackmail are all useless in the face of a traffic jam and in the face of a tantrum: they don’t make anything better, and they only make it worse…. For you. No amount of talking will help when your toddler is melting down. Save your breath and your words for later.

In the “after” phase, you might notice that traffic just picks right up and proceeds as if nothing ever happened. Have you ever noticed that your toddler does the same thing? It seems incredible: they’ve just experienced this major event and yet once it’s over - while they may have some lingering physical symptoms (red eyes, catchy breathing) - they are on about their business again. They don’t hold a grudge (unless we teach them to).

So, what to do if you get stuck in a tantrum jam? Here are three simple (but maybe not easy) things to do:

Take a deep breath. Seriously. Deep breathing will calm your nervous system and will help you think. We often forget to breathe deeply when we start to become upset. Taking a purposeful breath can change that.

Count to 3… or 10...or 100. Create some quiet space where you remember that you don’t have to talk in a crisis. You’ll have time to talk later.

Stay calm and accepting of what is. It’s ok to watch a tantrum and stay calm yourself. You don’t have to “get in there” with your child. Being a calm, soothing presence will help you, but it will also help your child know what to come back to.

Tantrums are a very typical part of child development. However, if your child is injuring himself or herself during tantrums, or if they seem to have tantrums that are very very frequent, very very long (consistently longer than 30-45 minutes), or very very intense, speak with your pediatrician or another child development professional. Tantrums are typical, but they shouldn’t be dangerous or scary experiences for you.

I’d love to hear from you about your tantrum experiences. What works for your child before it hits? What works after? Are you able to use these strategies while you’re in traffic?

Till next time -