Parenting Twin Toddlers

Laura Markham's picture

QUESTION

Dr. Laura,
I am the mother of fraternal twins, Duncan and Peyton. They are 19 months old. Duncan is the more active of the two. Lately, he has been throwing tantrums, hitting, falling out on the floor, hitting his head on the floor or wall, and repeating "no."

He gets very tired throughout the day because he is always on the move. He plays hard all day. He has at least 1 quiet time at daycare when he sits in his high chair and looks at a book or the daycare provider reads a story to him. I have asked that she try this at least twice a day.

How do we handle his tantrums? I know it is only going to get worse. Help.

Thank you,
Justina

ANSWER

Justina,
Your idea of having the daycare provider read to him more often is terrific. Active kids like Duncan often need extra down time throughout the day to recharge their inner resources. When they don't get that time, they just don't have the internal resources to handle life's challenges and they tantrum more.

Biochemically speaking, kids build up stress hormones all day. They have higher levels of these hormones if they're in daycare situations than at home. These hormones (adrenalin, cortisol, etc) are what allow them to keep functioning when they're pushed past their natural limits. The result of having these stress hormones circulating in their bodies is that kids are in fight or flight mode. So naturally they erupt into tantrums.

Tantrums, banging himself around, and hitting are all expressions of frustration. Your son is still very little. He doesn’t have the verbal capacity to express himself very well. He has big feelings and wants whatever he wants at that moment with great passion. It will take him years to learn to manage his emotions; right now they overwhelm him and he can't help himself, especially when he is tired, so he explodes with frustration, hitting and tantruming. We all know what that feels like. In fact, most of us have had the experience of bursting out yelling at our partners even as adults!

When you ask how to handle his tantrums, my general advice is that you should first try to avoid them. Once he gets into one, you can't give in to whatever caused the tantrum, or he will think that's the way to get what he wants. But there is a myth out there that parents should ignore tantrums. Research has shown that strategy is misguided; it just causes the child to tantrum more frequently. Which makes sense, because he's tantrumming because he has such big feelings and no other way to express them. If you ignore him, he is doubly frustrated because he's not getting his point across. If he felt that you understood what he was feeling, he might not need to act his feelings out so graphically.

Of course, he will sometimes need to resort to tantrums to blow off stress, and that is fine. Toddlers just need to cry sometimes. If you can stay close to him and reassure him, and comfort him afterwards, it will help him enormously. What he really needs at those times is just to cry to get out his stress, while receiving your attention and love, which helps heal that hurting place inside him. (And no, it won't make him tantrum more, as long as he is also getting plenty of your attention when he isn't tantrumming.) You will be amazed at how much his behavior improves once he's had a good cry with you as a compassionate witness.

So what can you do to stop your son from hitting and from hurting himself when he tantrums?

Reducing or eliminating this behavior requires us to work on five fronts at once:
1. Give him more internal resources to handle frustration.
2. Reduce the amount of frustration he has to handle.
3. Help him develop EQ, or emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage his emotions.
4. Give him alternate means of expressing his frustration.
5. Teach him how to relate lovingly to other people, especially in the way you discipline.
6. Make sure he gets to cry when he needs to.

Let's take each of these in turn.

Give him more internal resources to bear more frustration.

You've already noticed that his behavior is worse when he's tired or hungry. Feeding him before he's starving, and putting him to bed before he's tired, are the most effective ways to avoid tantrums. But kids have another basic need that we often overlook: connection. When they don't feel connected enough to us, they get stressed and can't tap into their own internal strength. So if you see him getting a little cranky, offer a hug, or some cozy time on the couch with a book, to re-fuel him.

Reduce the amount of frustration.

Toddlers find the world an exciting but frustrating place. Parents order them around. Towers fall down. Other kids take their toys. They can't manage so many things they want to do themselves. As he becomes better able to express himself verbally he will be able to blow off steam by putting his feelings into words. But over the next six months or so, you can help him by reducing the things that frustrate him to a level he can manage more easily.

How? Give choices when you can, so he doesn't feel pushed around. Try to say yes rather than no whenever possible. When you do need to set limits, do it empathically so he has your help in dealing with his upset about the limit you’ve set. That doesn't mean you have to agree with him, or that you stop setting limits. It means you acknowledge his feelings and offer empathy.

"You wish you could have that candy. It's almost dinner time, so no candy. I know that makes you sad. You can have some milk if you're hungry, and I can give you a hug to make you feel better. We can snuggle on the couch and read your book. I see you're too sad and mad to read right now, you want that candy so much you're crying. It's hard to be so sad and mad. When you're ready I'll hold you and give you a big hug."

Remember also that anger is always a response to hurt or fear. Your little guy gets frightened by many things in the course of a day. The more you can recognize those incidents and empathize, the less he will need to act them out with melt-downs later in the day.

Your morning might be peppered by comments like "Oh, you couldn't find me? I was in the bathroom. I'm so sorry I scared you. You don't have to worry. Mommy always comes back." Or "Wow, that barking dog is scary! Don't worry, I will always keep you safe."

Remember also that TV is full of scenes that scare little ones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids younger than two years not watch any TV at all, partly for this reason.

Help him develop EQ, or emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage his emotions.

Parents lay the foundation of emotional intelligence by empathizing with their child's feelings, as described above. Simply put his emotions into words so that he knows you understand. He may or may not be able to express himself in words yet, but he will certainly understand your words and tone. Not only does offering him empathy teach him a language that helps him learn to understand and manage his emotions, it also reduces his frustration: "You worked so hard on that tower, and then it fell down. That is so hard. Of course you're mad."

Research has shown that many tantrums can be nipped in the bud by simply getting on the toddler's level and saying emphatically "You are mad! You are showing me just how mad you are! Mad!"

We can also hasten the development of EQ by giving our child words and explanations as we move through daily life: "Henry is mad because he wants the ball." "The baby is so sad. Do you think she wants someone to hold her?"

Give him alternate means of expressing his frustration.

Many moms find that when they stop their little one hitting them, he instead begins to head bang or hit himself. What he needs is an alternate way to let those feelings out.

  • You could say "People are not for hitting. You are so mad. Show me how mad you are by hitting this pillow."
  • When he's feeling good, say "Let's make mad faces. Then you can show me when you're mad."
  • Offer him a squeeze ball and tell him to fill it up with his mad feelings.
  • Teach him to take a "calming" breath when he's frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips).

Later, when he starts to lose it, you can hand him the squeeze ball or pillow, or say: "Wow, are you mad! Show me how mad you are with your mad face." The trick with all of these things is to teach him the skill while he's feeling good, then remind him when he's upset. You’ll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he's under stress.

Teach him how to relate lovingly and respectfully to other people

, especially in the way you discipline.

Obviously, kids learn how to treat others lesson mostly from their interactions with us. If we are reliably loving and respectful with them, that becomes their mode of behavior. This is why hitting our kids when they hit backfires. It is also why timeouts, which rely on our greater size, won't work with many kids, and stop working as soon the child is big enough to physically challenge us. Disciplining a toddler with timeouts has been shown to increase tantrums.

Make sure he gets to cry when he needs to.

Often when toddlers get mad and hit, they are so full of feelings that they just don't know what to do except strike out. So what should you do when your son hits when he gets mad? Letting him hit you doesn't teach him about loving relationships. In fact, it undermines your closeness to him.

He does not want to attack you. When he hits you he is actually crying out for connection. The best way to stop his hitting is to reconnect, which is why the most common recommendation to eliminate hitting is to get down on your son's level so you make eye contact, and hold his hands together while you say calmly "No hitting. Hitting hurts. We keep our hands on our own bodies."

The key to this is to be very serious and really make contact with your child. If he is angry, say, "You are very mad, but we don't hit. Here, show me how mad you are with this pillow."

However, often this approach doesn’t work because logic can't heal the disconnection that our child is feeling from us at that moment when he is filled with all the stress hormones of fight or flight. Sometimes kids respond by laughing, or continue hitting, in which case he is testing you, pushing you to reconnect with him.

But his aggression will often melt away if you can move close and take him lovingly in your arms, saying warmly, "Hitting hurts Mommy. You must be very upset to hit me. I know you feel bad right now. I will keep things safe. You need a hug from your mom who loves you."

He may well go limp in your arms at that point and cry. If so, that is exactly what he needed. Remember that anger is always a defense against hurt, sadness or fear. If your son has been storing up those "yucky" feelings all day, the only safe way to express them is with the person he he feels safest with. So he hits.

When you don't let him hit you but you also stay loving with him, the anger vanishes and the hurt, sadness and fear are released, which is what he needs.

What if he struggles? Hold him securely so he can't hit you, and say "Mommy will keep everyone safe. It's ok to cry. Mommy's right here. Mommy loves you. Let him move into an expression of all those feelings he's built up that led to his hitting you, which means he will begin to cry.

Again, he may well melt into your arms and just sob at this point, and your job is just to let him sob as long as he needs to, offering him a compassionate safe haven.

If he keeps struggling, and is too big to hold without your getting hurt, put him down on the rug and stay far enough away that he can't hurt you, but close enough to keep him enveloped in your love. Keep talking while he tantrums. "You are so sad and mad. Right now you just need to cry. It's okay, everybody needs to cry sometimes. I am right here. I love you very much and whenever you are ready I will hold you."

Don't lecture or try to reason with him while he's in the throes of emotion. Just let him cry and struggle, which will let off all the tension he's feeling, especially with your loving presence to help him feel safer.

Most parents find this challenging at first. It is hard to just be a compassionate witness for someone else's pain, particularly our child's.

How to stay calm yourself? Use the same loving, nurturing tone to remind yourself that everyone needs to cry sometimes and you are giving your child a priceless gift: the loving acceptance of the full range of his feelings, and an opportunity to heal all that yucky emotional stuff he's unloading.

When he's done, he will want to be close to you and reassured of your love. But -- full circle to where we began -- by giving him this safe space to express himself you will find that his tantrums lessen in severity so that he doesn't need to hurt himself, or you. And you'll find that your relationship with him will deepen. In fact, as much as this attentive parenting is a gift to your son, it is even more of a gift to yourself, because your son will become much more cooperative, not just during the terrible twos, but throughout his childhood.

Good luck, and enjoy your little guy. He'll be through this phase and in kindergarten before you know it!

--Dr. Laura Markham