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When It All Falls Apart: Toddlers, Tantrums and Turmoil

The pasta for dinner isn't right. Or the puzzle piece won't fit into its outline. Big sister won't share her new pen. Or you need to make an important phone call. Suddenly, your calm little child begins to spin out of control. Call it what you will - tantrum, outburst, meltdown, or fit - it is a scene familiar to almost every parent. You may feel embarrassed, angry, frustrated or confused, but no matter what you're feeling, you're not alone. Tantrums are a common occurrence for children between 18 months and 4 years old. They are noted among the most common behavioral problems reported by parents. In fact, recent research indicates that 90% of parents say that their 3-year-old has had a tantrum in the last month!

"Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness."

- James Thurber

Tantrums tend to occur when a child is hungry, tired or already upset. They often coincide with moments when parents are distracted, stressed or trying to accomplish something that interferes with child-centered connection, such as getting the grocery shopping done. The majority of tantrums last between 1.5 and 5 minutes, though they can be as short as 30 seconds or as painfully long as two hours.

When researchers study children and tantrums, they find that tantrums have common features and flows that can help parents understand when they occur, why they happen and how to intervene once they do.

When analyzed, tantrums unfold in stages and appear to have an early turning point, before which they can be forestalled by appropriate intervention but after which they must be waited out. Tantrums involve the expression of strong emotions and typically begin with loud physical expressions of anger and then progress to intense demonstrations of sadness, withdrawal and often comfort-seeking.

"One may survive distress, but not disgrace."

Scottish proverb

Little children have big feelings but almost no experience in managing those feelings. They typically don't have the words to name their emotions, much less the ability to understand them or the capacity to control them. As children reach toddlerhood, they are increasingly able to move autonomously and explore their world. While this affords them great opportunities, it also leaves them wide open for frustration, confusion and overload. In the bid for independence, a young child continually encounters an adult world that often stifles natural inclination. Often the things a two-year-old wants to pursue are the very things that are either not allowed or are beyond their abilities. Without the capability to calm their minds and bodies in the face of such disappointment and perplexity, they tend to spin out of control. Instead of holding the feelings in, their anger and sadness become all-consuming and are unable to be contained. With empathic assistance, the feelings can be transformed from something overwhelming into something understandable.

"The angry people are those people who are most afraid."

- Dr. Robert Anthony

The core of a child's emotional and social development involves learning how to make sense of and handle feelings. When a child throws a tantrum it is a strong yet simple message that their ability has been exceeded and they are in need of help. A child in the throes of such emotional turmoil is not having any fun. It is scary to lose control, to be trounced by one's own mounting distress.

If we can shift our perspective and see the tantrum through the eyes of our child, we open ourselves up to understanding, and intervening in helpful ways. As the data indicates, tantrums have a preliminary build-up when children give both subtle and overt signs that things are heading toward meltdown. Reading and responding to those early cues - and getting to know what they are for your particular child - is essential in preventing a tantrum. If you can learn the early warning signs that your child is becoming overloaded, it may often be possible to provide the rest, change of scene, snack, focused attention, or distraction that your child needs before reaching the point of no return.

"In any moment, we can choose to set aside the armor that has protected us, and ally ourselves with our children, giving them the gift of a more open, compassionate, and understanding parent."
Jon Kabat-Zinn

If the window of opportunity closes and your child has a tantrum, remember two key things: stay calm and stay present. Children tend to act their worst when they need us most. The sheer intensity of a tantrum is a window into the level of distress a child is experiencing. This can be a learning opportunity if handled right. If handled insensitively, it furthers a sense of isolation and shame.

Most parental interventions during tantrums have been found to actually be responses to a child's behavior, not actual interventions. In other words, most of what we do as parents is react. Instead of staying focused on our child's feelings and what we need to do, we tend to reflexively respond in typical ways. Hence, if our child is showering us with an ear-piercing yell, we walk away. If the behavior is hitting, we put them in a room and shut the door. Unfortunately, the more a parent is reactive, the more the tantrum tends to escalate and the longer it persists. Punishment is not helpful; neither is isolation. What calms a child - and teaches a valuable skill - is empathy and validation.

Mainstream advice can often challenge this wisdom and sets well-intentioned parents on a path toward escalation instead of settling. Recommendations that call for punitive responses and admonishments to parents to stay "in control" contradict empathic reactions and develop an expectation that a child is simply prone to tantrums, high strung, difficult or naughty. Not only is this untrue, but it undermines the very strategies that promote healing and change.

"If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow."

Chinese proverb

So keep your internal peace and stay by your child's side. Adopt a soothing, even tone of voice. It may take a while for your child to allow you a cuddle, but be patient and available. Don't expect a child to "use words" when in the middle of a tantrum. If the event overwhelms you, remove yourself for as long as it takes to regain your own calm, and then return to your child. It may be helpful to you to use the time when your child is in the grip of a tantrum to focus on centering and calming yourself. Notice your own feelings, take some deep breaths, and observe what your child's intense feelings are triggering in you. By looking after yourself and restoring your own equilibrium you will be healthier and better able to reconnect with your child in a compassionate way. Time-out is not appropriate for children struggling with overwhelming emotions, but it is occasionally necessary for adults to take our own time out when we need to settle our bodies or minds.

"I've come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy."
Anthony Robbins

Once your child has regained equilibrium, spend time with him to talk about his feelings. Even a preverbal child benefits from hearing a parent identify the emotions and explain what has just happened. Keep your language simple and age appropriate, e.g. "You were so mad with me," or "You really wanted that toy so much." Validating the frustration, showing understanding, and offering a kind explanation for why it can't happen (and perhaps a plan for how to accommodate the wish in another way) can go a long way toward instilling a sense of well-being, trust and emotional stability.

Research into attachment and development tells us that children and parents will always have rocky times in their relationships - times when both child and parent feel angry and disconnected from each other. This is a normal part of healthy relationships. In order to keep the relationship strong, what matters most is the ability to set things right again. Parents who are able to weather their children's emotional storms, manage their own reactions to their child's big feelings, stay calm and available to their child, and help their child to reunite with them are providing an excellent basis for life. In these experiences, a child learns that relationships can survive tough times, that emotions are safe and manageable, and that who they are and what they feel is okay. When a child expresses intense feelings and then recovers with their most important relationships still intact, the brain wiring for relating to others and for regulating emotional states is developed and strengthened, building capacities in the child that will contribute to psychological well-being for life.

"The purpose of the journey is compassion."

- Joseph Campbell

Using tantrums, and the frustrations from which they are born, to propel our children toward a deeper understanding of their emotions and a greater sense of trust in our love as parents allows us to demystify the episodes and lay the foundation for future stability. We all feel a greater sense of wellness and connection when someone provides support, kindness and guidance during our most trying moments. Extending this intelligent compassion to our children allows us to loosen their ties to tantrums and upset and, instead, to strengthen their bonds to happiness and their relationships with us.

Lauren Porter, BA, MSW, is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a specialty in children and families. She is the founder and co-Director of the New Zealand Centre for Attachment.

© Lauren Porter. Reprinted with permission.