In this article I discuss what a tantrum is, why the typical responses are incorrect, and a method for handling tantrums that will help families in the long-term. Contrary to popular belief, a tantrum is not a means for a child to piss you off, but rather to express overwhelming emotions that the child is struggling with. The ideas of “trying to get attention” or “only trying to get what s/he wants” ignore the most important point of a tantrum: communication. The typical means of dealing with a tantrum—ignoring or giving in—are far from ideal. Looking at research in empathy and empathic development, both of these methods are more akin to a means of avoiding personal distress than actually helping the child (in either the short-term or long-term). Dealing with tantrums in an empathic way does not involve “giving in”, but rather involves being supportive of a child’s emotional needs while maintaining boundaries and then teaching new methods of coping. Put simply, standing ones ground while acknowledging a child’s feelings and providing love and support during a hard time are critical to a child’s emotional development.
Recently the following picture led to quite the debate on Facebook:
If you read here regularly then you probably guessed that I sided very squarely on the side of this being the wrong way to handle tantrums. Not only do I struggle with the use of the sign, but the sharing of the photo on a page asking how people handle tantrums (putting this up as a laudable example) was a bit too much like public shaming of a toddler. [As an important aside, people and research suggests these methods are appropriate for some individuals with certain disorders, but (a) it was not shared with that intent and most of the people applauding it were not doing so for that reason, it warrants a discussion for those of us who do not have children with particular special needs and (b) those with these special needs may very much disagree and feel the approach herein is better.]
The comments that disturbed me the most were those that suggested that you must ignore tantrum behaviour because the only alternative is to “give in”. This saddens me because in the black and white view, I can understand why people so vehemently support ignoring “bad” behaviour (we’ll get to the “bad” part soon), but it ignores that there is a middle ground in which you do not give in and do not ignore. It’s that I want to talk about here.
Is a Tantrum “Bad”? Or What is a Tantrum?
So often the first response when we think of tantrums is that we don’t want to reward “bad” behaviour. The idea is that the child is having a tantrum simply to be bad. At no stage in development do I believe a child who is otherwise emotionally calm will decide to throw a tantrum just to be “bad”. They may be upset and showing it in an inappropriate way, they may have even learned it gets the type of attention they are looking for, but they aren’t trying to be “bad”.
Let’s start by looking at the argument of: “My child is trying to get attention”. For some reason we think of “getting attention” as “bad”. We all strive to be seen and heard by those we love. For many of us, now that we are adults, when we can’t get those we care about to hear us (not give in, just hear us), we shrink back. We have learned for years that we won’t be heard, that love for us is conditional upon us doing what other people want us to do. Our children still haven’t learned that and they are trying, desperately and likely inappropriately, to be heard. This is not “bad”, rather it should be a warning to us that something has gone amiss and our child isn’t feeling heard. I know many people think that they don’t want their children to believe that “acting out” is what gets them attention, but it depends on the attention they get (we’ll get to this in the dealing with it section). There are ways of saying, “I hear you, but this isn’t the way to get my attention.” Ignoring a child isn’t one of those ways. When we get to the discussion of how to handle a tantrum (at any age), dealing with this type of tantrum should mean that you don’t “give in” but also that your child gets to feel heard and loved.
Now what about the other argument: “My child has to learn s/he can’t get whatever s/he wants”? One of the problems today is that people believe the only alternative to ignoring a child is to give in. Many tantrums will come not from a plea for attention, but simply because a child isn’t getting his/her way, what s/he wants, etc. It’s normal. It doesn’t mean that you have to give in and buy your children everything they want or let them watch as much TV as they want or eat all they want. It really doesn’t. It means that you accept that when you say “no”, you may face resistance, and more importantly that saying “no” does not mean you need to also deny your child the comfort and care that they associate with you. It is horribly sad to me that we have hit a stage where parents view the only alternative to giving in as ignoring their child. These seem like polar opposites and yet (as we’ll get to) are actually quite similar in how we deal with tantrums, but neither is effective if we want to teach our children how to actually regulate emotions so as to help them down the line.
So… what is a tantrum? Well, neurologically we can think of a tantrum as a child being on emotional overload. It may have started with one thing the child wanted and you said “no”, but quickly, to the child, it became more than that. It may be a combination of tiredness, hunger, or simply frustration at not feeling understood (this is especially common in younger years), but the additional layers simply made one moment the perfect storm to act out. When this happens, your child is trying to communicate with you, to explain, to be heard, even if it’s done in what we would say is an “inappropriate way”. The problem is that for them, it’s not inappropriate, it’s the only way they currently have at the moment to express themselves. (This is important and we’ll talk about this later because it acknowledges that we can help give our children other means for later moments.)
Importantly, tantrums happen. No matter how great a parent you are, you can experience a tantrum. It does not mean you haven’t met a child’s needs. It does not mean you are a bad parent. More so, if you fail to stop it in a moment, it does not make you a bad parent. Tantrums happen. I can’t repeat that enough. In the toddler-preschool period, our children are developing rapidly and they are taking in so much information and can’t necessarily process it all. We are putting expectations on them that they may not be ready to meet, and we don’t always know what they can take and what they can’t. They are asserting independence while feeling still quite dependent, and as much as they want to walk away, they don’t want us to walk away. These things all combine to make tantrums happen, so let’s just accept that fact now, okay?
One of the things I feel is most important to clarify in this section is our expectations of toddler-preschool behaviour. At this age, behaviour is going to be limited in part by the development (or lack thereof) of the brain. The problem for toddlers and preschoolers and children is that the area of the brain that assists with emotion regulation is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. This isn’t to say areas don’t come online that allow for a variety of behaviours that include elements of emotion regulation, but when we’re talking about emotion regulation during periods of high distress, we need all the regulation we can get and younger children don’t have it. Furthermore, as many parents often realize, tantrums are far more likely to occur what a child is in a stressed-out state already from being hungry or tired or overwhelmed. These states predispose a child to becoming even more overwhelmed and that’s when tantrums tend to hit. Being aware of your child’s state can help parents avoid tantrums before they start.
Why Are the Usual Methods Wrong?
By “usual methods” I refer to the plethora of people suggesting that we ought to ignore children when they are having a tantrum. I understand why people feel this way as behaviourism is rampant in our society, especially with children. I don’t particularly care what you’ve done in the past or why, but am hoping to help clarify things for you moving forward. Unfortunately when you speak against this, as I mentioned, people believe the only alternative is to “give in” and this leads to a cycle in which people think that those of us against ignoring must be promoting permissiveness. We’re not. In this section I want to talk about why these two actions are actually two sides of the same coin and what it means for later emotional development.
To talk about this I need to talk about empathy and its development and components. The development of empathy starts in a very egocentric manner with the appearance of emotion contagion, also known as that moment when one baby in a room of babies cries and suddenly they are all crying. The initial crying serves as a trigger for the baby that someone else is in distress. Interestingly, this is the one of the main findings that has served to tell us that we are hardwired to empathize with others; that it is a skill we are supposed to develop and should not need “teaching” so much as just the right experiences and modeling. The problem with younger babies is that they hear the cry and they don’t have the mental capacity to realize it’s another infant and then to respond to them, so instead they experience distress and cry themselves.
This reaction of being upset at the distress of another is called personal distress and remains a component of empathic reactions for all of our lives. The problem is that when we experience too much personal distress in response to someone else, we are unable to act out of empathic concern, the other component that allows us to separate our feelings of distress from the other individual’s and work to alleviate someone else’s pain. What happens when personal distress overpowers empathic concern? We act in a way to alleviate our own distress and not the other persons. Sometimes these overlap and the only way to help our own distress is by helping another, but as long as there’s an easier way out, most people will take it.
How does this related to handling tantrums? I don’t know anyone who would say that a tantrum does not bring out feelings of anxiety and discomfort for themselves as well. We get flustered because we want it to stop, the screaming grates at our every nerve, and the tears make us want to both hug and shake our children to make it stop. You can probably double the discomfort if you’re out in public and you see all people turn to you with condemnation in their eyes.
The issue now is that we can respond in a way that stems from personal distress or we can respond in a way that stems from empathic concern. As different as ignoring or giving in may seem, they actually both represent responding out of personal distress. In giving in, the tantrum is stopped immediately and anxiety is reduced. In ignoring, the parent is actually shutting down their own awareness of the event. Many parents walk away to put physical distance between them and the tantrum, whereas others are capable of simply tuning out what is happening around them. However, neither response acknowledges or assists the child emotionally or behaviourally moving forward.
I know people will say that ignoring “stops the behaviour” but I would say that even if it does that, it does it at a cost and the cost is this: You have made your love conditional to your child. When you ignore a child in distress (and yes, tantrums are distressing events for your child), you are telling them that they aren’t worthy of being loved when they act like this. It has nothing to do with “giving in” but rather offering support (which we’ll get to next). Not only that, but you have failed to give them tools to help them deal with their overwhelming emotions except to try and shut them down, and this cycles us back to the personal distress-empathic concern issue. Children who cannot cope with their own emotions often struggle to offer empathic responses to other individuals; therefore, we are not only not helping them in the moment, but actually inhibiting the development of their empathy for later years.
In sum, giving in all the time can lead to entitlement and an inability to handle boundaries. However, ignoring your child can lead to an inability to regulate emotions (especially negative emotions) and in turn prevent the development of empathic concern. I don’t know a single parent that has these as long-term goals for their child.
What You Can Do
So here it is, what do you do? I’m here telling you not to give in and not to ignore, and I imagine most of you are thinking I’m insane. First, we have to talk about separating the physical from the emotional. They manifest in each other, but a child who is in distress is emotionally vulnerable and in need of help whereas the (presumably) physical need (or want) does not need to be fulfilled. Too often we parents feel that if we give our children any emotional contact, we are somehow telling them that a particular behaviour is “okay”.
It’s not true.
Believe it or not, but our children are capable of understanding the difference between emotional support and “giving in”.
Here is the basic plan: You acknowledge and support your child through this emotional period without giving into the boundary you’ve set. Radical, right? Sadly, yes, in our society, but not really when we think of behaviour over a longer period of time. It is actually okay to hug a child that is upset you said no while also maintaining that “no”.
What does this look like? Well, a while ago I shared this incident that I had with my daughter on Facebook and I think it’s relevant to the discussion here today:
Last night my daughter asked to watch The Aristocats after we went to the library to take it out. Of course I said yes, but reminded her that afterwards it would be time to get ready for bed. After it ended, she wanted to see it again. I said “no”. She asked again, and again, and again, all met with no’s. Finally she broke down. Full on tears and screams and telling me that she wanted the movie.
I realized in that moment it was one where many parents would drag their kid upstairs, kicking and screaming most likely, and say that was that. I didn’t. I sat with her. I told her I understood that it sucked when you couldn’t watch something you want. I hugged her. After about 5 minutes she asked to nurse and I said yes. She calmed down while nursing. Then she asked one more time and again, I said no.
Here we see a child whose emotions are accepted and validated, but where the boundary is reinforced. At no point was my daughter going to watch the movie again, but I was not going to ignore the tears and screams that came from her. She was upset and I understood why so I offered the comfort I could while maintaining the boundary. I’ll be honest that frankly this was harder. It would have been so much easier to either put the movie back on or tell her I’m ignoring her and go do something for myself or drag her to bed. I didn’t. I took the hard road and sat with her and was there when she was ready.
(Notably, 5 minutes here was WAY less than previous because this has been our tactic for years and our max time was an hour before she would come cuddle and calm down. That’s okay – she’s a child learning her emotions. She spent an hour trying to regulate herself before she accepted she couldn’t and she should never be penalized for it.)
What did I get for my efforts?
She then told me, “Don’t worry, I’m not angry. I’m frustrated” (though it may have sounded more like “fustated”). I again told her I understood and then explained why too much TV, especially before bed, isn’t a good idea because of how it affects the brain. Not sure how much she understood as she tried to argue that the movie would help her stomach, but she accepted and then we played for a bit. Then we went upstairs, got ready for bed, cuddled, and slept.
This morning she woke up and started talking about it. She said she was frustrated when she wanted to watch her movie. She asked if she made me frustrated last night and I said no, not at all. She told me I made her frustrated. I said I was sorry (and I am, I know I have to do it as a parent, but it doesn’t mean I like it) and then she said, “That’s okay. I love you.”
This is what I want for my child long-term and what I hope you all want for yours: A child that understands their own emotions, feels comfortable sharing even the most negative of emotions, and knows that I, her parent, will be there to help in a time of need. I want to reiterate here that this experience came after years of implementing this method, not always to such quick and wonderful results, but when it came to this stage, I realized how well it had worked. It was not easy, it was freaking hard. Every time a tantrum came on, it took all I had to put my own feelings of anger/sadness/anxiety/discomfort aside to realize my daughter was reaching out. In a socially inappropriate way, but reaching out nonetheless, and then to reach out back to her.
It doesn’t end here though. Once you have been there for your child and your child is calm (this is critical), this is the time to talk about alternate strategies. It can seem frustrating that you share alternatives only to face the same situation the next time. And the time after. And the time after that… But you will hit a stage in which it clicks. When it clicks will vary child to child and it won’t be a reflection of your parenting but rather the fact that every child is different and emotion regulation doesn’t kick in on a set schedule. However, the more you provide your children with these alternatives and work with them when they are calm to practice them, the easier it will be for them to use them when they are in a state of distress. Positive learning when distressed is, quite simply, an oxymoron. They will not, however, be able to practice these tricks if you don’t teach them and if they don’t feel that you are there to help them when they need it. It’s like asking someone to walk a tightrope when you’ve proven you won’t be there to catch them if they fall. It just doesn’t work.
Tantrums happen, especially to younger children. They are not trying to harm us, but are simply in a state of high distress themselves and are trying to communicate with us. Ignoring them or giving in are not the only solutions and in fact if we can learn to separate the emotional from the behavioural response, we have a chance to support our kids while maintaining boundaries. If we hope to raise emotionally healthy children who can manage their own emotions while caring for others, being there in times of distress is essential. Please remember that.
You can follow-up here with a piece on how to approach the “finding alternatives” and avoiding tantrums to begin with.
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