4 Steps to "Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First" When Your Toddler Tantrums

This week we are going to hear from my friend and colleague,  Asheville, NC therapist Laura Torres, on how to manage the dreaded toddler tantrums: 

      We’ve all had those moments where our toddler is screaming “I want it! I want it!” or “No! No! No!” or throwing things and is pretty much losing control.  Many times, we’re able to hold it together and stay calm and grounded, but then there are those times where we get hooked and we start to feel out of control ourselves.  And if you’re anything like me, your tendency is to try even harder to control the situation, putting your foot down, sending your toddler to their room because now you’re feeling out of control too!  So here’s the thing, our toddlers need us to be regulating our emotions so that they can calm down. Once we start to escalate, they will continue because our limbic systems (emotional control systems) are open systems and we are affected by one another’s emotional responses.  You can see the cycle it can create: your toddler loses control, you get triggered and try to control your toddler even more, they continue to escalate because your emotions are ramping up, and you try harder to get them to calm down.  

      Paradoxically, this is one of those ‘put-your-oxygen-mask-on-first’ moments.  Instead of trying to control our toddler and get them to calm down, we want to notice and honor our own emotions first, and then we can more easily attend to our toddler’s emotions.  It may seem counter-intuitive in the moment, especially when we’re triggered and we just want the trigger to stop. Or we feel selfish attending to our emotions when our toddler is really struggling. But remember, the thing that’s going to have the biggest impact on calming our toddler is us staying calm ourselves. 

So how do we do this?  


1) We notice we’re getting triggered.  

What happens in your body when you start to get triggered?  Getting warm, heart racing, shallow breathing/holding your breath. What thoughts are you having? ‘Please stop!’ ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘I shouldn’t be triggered.’ What emotions are you feeling? More often than not, when we get triggered by our little ones, whatever they are doing is tapping into some of our own core stuff—bringing it up for us to attend to.  As parents, we are also often especially vulnerable to getting triggered due to stress, lack of sleep, low blood sugar, hormones, or lack of self-care.  The good news is that just being aware of our vulnerabilities and the fact that we’re triggered has a huge impact on our ability to stay grounded!


2) We get curious about what’s happening.  

Once we notice thoughts like ‘No one listens to me’ or ‘If I were a good mom, this wouldn’t be happening’.  We might explore whether these thoughts are really true. What other thoughts could we have about this same situation? What about this is so triggering for me? What story am I making up about this situation?  What core beliefs are getting triggered? ‘People walk all over me’ or ‘No one respects me’.  What important learning is in this for me? What do I need right now to feel more grounded?  What’s happening for my little one right now?  This curiosity engages a different part of our brain and helps us shift out of our survival brain.  Sometimes when we’re really triggered, it’s hard to get curious so if this doesn’t help you feel grounded or you’re not able to get curious, just move on to step 3.


3) We feel acceptance and compassion for ourselves.  

Again, this may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very hard to feel compassion for someone else when we are in pain and not acknowledging our own pain.  As Kristin Neff describes, there are three essential components of self-compassion: kindness to ourselves, noticing our common humanity and non-judgmental awareness.  So this might look like telling ourselves ‘It’s okay that I’m frustrated’ or ‘Phew, I’m feeling really impatient this morning—it’s so tough to feel impatient’ or ‘Even the most amazing parents get triggered sometimes.’ Imagine saying to your self what you might say to a good friend who’s feeling really overwhelmed with emotion. Because that’s what’s happening for you right now—your system has gotten overwhelmed and has shifted into survival mode. What kind words can you offer yourself to help yourself relax? ‘You are doing a good job’ or ‘This is just part of parenting a toddler and parenting a toddler can be challenging!’


4) We notice what’s happening in our bodies as we start to relax.  

You may notice yourself spontaneously taking a deep breath or sighing, you may feel tingling or a sense of wanting to shake it off (this is how our body discharges cortisol and other hormones that are triggered by our survival brain). Noticing what’s happening in your body as you relax is an important step to resourcing, really taking in this calmer state and anchoring in your parasympathetic response.  As your system calms down, it’ll be much easier to help your toddler calm down.  Here’s an example of what all of these 4 steps might look like together: ‘Phew, I’m feeling really triggered! I wonder what it is about this situation that’s triggering me?  Oh, I’ve been on all day with no down time for myself.  I’m feeling exhausted. I'm going to take a bubble bath after my little one goes to bed.  <Spontaneous deep breath> I notice I’m breathing more deeply. My muscles are feeling more relaxed.’  

     So here’s my challenge for you: Take some action on this today! Perhaps put a post-it note that says: ‘oxygen mask on you first ‘or ‘notice what’s happening for you’ or ‘it’s okay to feel overwhelmed’ or post a picture that will help you remember these simple steps to calming yourself down in order to help your toddler calm down.  Lastly, this is a work in progress so please be gentle with your self!  We all get triggered, and our children are our biggest teachers.



Laura Torres is a licensed professional counselor, certified life coach and yoga teacher who specializes in supporting women in navigating life transitions from a space of deep connection with their essence and a sense of groundedness, intentionality, and clarity.  Although this is her specialty, Laura also works with a wide range of individuals who are longing for more fulfilling, authentic, and engaged living.  Her practice is based out of Asheville, NC.  Check out her website to get more information!