If you’ve had a toddler, it’s likely that you’ve experienced a tantrum. To us adults, these meltdowns of often epic proportions can come across as entirely nonsensical – and highly frustrating. I’ll give you an example: Just the other day I was walking through a mall with my 20-month-old boy when he suddenly insisted – through a combination of grunts, whines and arm flinging – that I needed to pick him up immediately. So I did. As soon as he was in my arms, he changed his mind and moaned at me to put him back down again. So I did. On this went – up and down, up and down – until I, in fact, wanted to lie on the floor and throw a little tantrum of my own. Instead of losing it (which, I admit, I was close to doing), I took a deep breath, got down on one knee and gave him a little cuddle. Result! Baby’s little blow-up passed and he walked ahead of me as though nothing had happened. But I was left wondering: what did just happen, and how can I stop it from happening again?

Little scientists

According to Amy Vogelaar, lactation consultant, licensed BabyCalm and ToddleCalm teacher and co-founder of Love Parenting UAE, this type of behaviour is usually indicative of seeking a connection – and it’s totally normal.

“Babies and toddlers, in particular, do not have the cognitive ability to see things from another person’s perspective — they are egocentric because of their limited brain development,” she says. “Though they do things that seem naughty to us, or that we might think intend to hurt or irritate us, they don’t really understand how they affect us. As children are not very good verbal communicators at this stage of life, all behaviour is a form of communication, and all troublesome behaviour is generally communicating a need. Kids aren’t “naughty” unless that is the only way they have found to get their needs met. Or they might seem naughty but are really just curious. We should view children as “little scientists” – as Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget called them – because they’re constantly investigating the world around them, including human behaviour. Even an older child “who knows better” is still communicating a need if they engage in forbidden behaviour. If you understand what the need is and try to satisfy it in productive and positive ways, the “naughty” behaviour will stop. It’s likely that your little boy was insisting that you pick him up and put him back down again because he wanted some kind of reassurance from you, which is why, when you gave him your undivided attention and a cuddle, he calmed down.”

Every parent will respond to a similar situation differently – and often because of the way that they themselves were brought up. Some may shout, others might spank, others may inflict time-outs. If the latest research is anything to go by, it turns out that none of the above are ideal – or even very effective.

Time-in rather than a time-out

A two-year study released in 2013 by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, revealed that verbal discipline from parents has the potential to lead to behavioural problems and emotional development issues, with severe verbal disciplines being particularly destructive to tweens and teens.

Another study – released this year by The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan and focusing on the effects of spanking – looked at over 160,000 children and found that the more children are smacked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and experience increased anti-social behaviour, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties in the long term.

Time-outs – which are one of the most popular discipline techniques used by parents and recommended by paediatricians and child development experts – aren’t very good either. Why? Time-outs – that intellectually and emotionally mature adults think is simply giving their child time alone to dwell on what he or she has done wrong – is actually experienced by kids as rejection. It tells the child: “I’m only interested in spending time with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all figured out.”

The issue here is that children have an intrinsic need for connection. When they’re anxious, or when they lose emotional control, they actually need to be comforted by the people who care for them – not sent away. Brain scans done in the name of punishment research reveal that relational pain – that is caused by isolation during time-outs, for example – can appear the same as physical abuse, with recent studies in neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability) now showing that repeated experiences can actually alter the physical structure of the organ. Since discipline-related interactions between children and caregivers make up an enormous part of childhood experiences, the way we respond to how our kids behave has to be more considerate.

But if we’re being advised to ditch the traditional disciplinary methods of shouting, spanking or doing time-outs, what’s the alternative? Amy says positive parenting – or gentle parenting – is a good way to move forward.

“Positive parenting means that you parent with connection and empathy rather than imposing discipline or using punishment. While this type of parenting style is gentler than more traditional methods, it doesn’t mean letting your child run wild. It’s about setting limits and boundaries that are age-appropriate and realistic based on the child’s developmental stage, but it also means that you meet a child’s tricky behaviours with compassion and understanding rather than trying to ‘win’ the battle and come out on top.”

That sounds fantastic, but when you’re standing in the grocery store check-out line surrounded by chocolates with a child in active tantrum mode at your knees, it’s easier said than done. Amy agrees. “If you’re in a situation where your child is not behaving how you think they should,” she says, “the first step is to change how you think about and react to your child’s behaviour. Rather than launching into yelling at them, disciplining them, or trying to correct their behaviour, take a moment – take a deep breath perhaps – and think about what is going on. Think about how you are feeling in that moment, and how your child is feeling. Try to understand why your child is acting this way. Think about times when you have felt like this, and consider what kind of response you would have found helpful. The next step is to connect with your child and show them that you understand how they feel. Show them that you love them, unconditionally, regardless of their behaviour in that moment. Show them that you are there to help them get through this tricky moment, together. This may mean giving the child a hug, a cuddle, a breastfeed, or another form of physical comfort. It may mean talking quietly, saying, “I know you are feeling angry about…” It may mean standing or sitting nearby and making it clear that you will be there for them when they are feeling ready to be held or spoken to.”

While this type of connected parenting is crucial when children are acting out, this kind of “time-in” – as Amy calls it – should also be given even if a child isn’t having a hard time. Taking as many opportunities throughout the day to connect with your little one can really help to reduce and shorten conflicts and tricky behaviour in the long term.

Good vs bad attention

But how realistic is positive parenting for mums and dads who have school-going children, or kids that are being looked after by relatives or a nanny while the parents are at work?

Kimberley Taylor, an academic adviser at Clarion School, says that while most modern families are dual income and therefore spend less time with their children, the concept of treating little ones with kindness and love remains unchanged. While it’s quality of time and not quantity of time that’s the most important thing, if you don’t get much time with your kids there are ways to encourage your children’s teachers, relatives and nanny to jump on board, too.

“It’s important for parents to become part of the school community and help teachers and other caregivers to recognise that their role in the children’s lives is equivalent in importance as that of the parent when it comes to shaping the child’s behaviour and growth. With that in mind, these people – especially teachers – become the second role model in a child’s life and contribute greatly in guiding good behaviour and growth. Traditional or industrial methods of education – based on a teacher, a text book and exams – are no longer sufficient in preparing our children for the expansive economic landscape that awaits them in the 21st century. And there is certainly no benefit in driving them to accomplish tasks by instilling within them a fear of failure; if they don’t study, they won’t pass the exam; if they don’t pass the exam, they won’t get into college; if they don’t go to college, they won’t get a job, and so forth. Using these methods to justify punishment does not result in confident and joyful children who carry within them a love of learning and the ability to tackle any challenge with a positive approach. In fact, research has proven that fear and anger only result in aggressive behaviour.”

What’s the best tip that parents, teachers, nannies and other caregivers can use when it comes to encouraging good behaviour in children? “We find that what parents tend to do is leave their children alone when they are well behaved and give them a lot of attention when their behaviour is bad,” Kimberley explains. “If the reverse were to take place – giving children attention when behaviour was good and no attention when behaviour is bad – parents, and in turn teachers and other caregivers, would see a shift in the child’s behaviour. When children recognise that there is nothing to be gained through bad behaviour, the behaviour disappears. Both adults and children are happier when their interactions with each other are pleasant, unrestrained and calm. And that makes for happier, stress-free children, parents, teacher, relatives and nannies. Win win…”