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Temper Tantrums

How do you handle temper tantrums? What about when one child doesn't want to go somewhere and you have to go?

Well, to begin with, I don't think of them as tantrums, which to me is a word with a heavily negative connotation. Instead I think of them as times when my child is expressing how she feels in the best way she knows how. By assuming that my children are always doing the best they are able to at any given time, I am able to approach each situation as their ally.

I believe that there is always a reason behind a person's behavior, and often a "tantrum" comes about because the child's needs were not considered in advance by her parent. Rather than getting angry or frustrated with my child, I think about what I may have overlooked. Is she hungry or thirsty? Was she too tired for this errand? Am I not paying enough attention to her? More importantly, if I consider her needs ahead of time, we can avoid the problem altogether. No child wants to have a meltdown. It's our job as parents to meet and anticipate our children's needs and to make doing so a priority.

In Teach Your Own, John Holt wrote, "I would insist that much of the seemingly irrational and excessive anger of little children - 'tantrums' - is in fact not only caused by things that happen to them or that are said and done to them, but that these things would make us angry if they happened or were said and done to us." I'm careful not to treat my children in ways I would not want to be treated.

Many times parents become embarrassed at their child's behavior and focus on stopping her from acting the way she is acting as quickly as possible, rather than on helping her to feel better. I consciously remove myself mentally from whatever environment I am in, blocking out my relative watching me or the cashier waiting for me to "take control," and focus on finding out what is bothering my child and making it better for her. I show her that my attention is on her and that I'm not worried about what anyone else thinks about what is happening. Quite often if I quietly say, "Remember that I'm on your side and that I'm going to help you with whatever the problem is," it is enough to calm her.

A common reaction to a child's "tantrum" is anger on the part of the adult. How can we, who sometimes have trouble dealing with our own feelings even with many more years of experience, expect a child of only a few years of age to have perfect control over her emotions? Is controlling feelings and not expressing anger and frustration something that we should be encouraging in the first place?

What messages is a child receiving when told to be quiet or stop crying? That it's not ok to convey emotion? That her feelings are not important to you? What message do you want to give? I want my children to know that how they feel is of utmost importance to me. I want them to know that expressing emotion is one of the things that makes us human and helps our relationships to grow.

Common wisdom these days says that the best way to deal with a tantrum is to ignore the child. I vehemently disagree. A person who is upset needs to feel love and connection, not desertion.

As far as the specific scenario you mentioned, we talk over our plans ahead of time so that, if Rowan or Dagny doesn't want to go somewhere, we can figure out another option for her. If she's agreed to go and doesn't want to when the time comes, I first determine whether there's any way for her not to have to go. If there's no way out of it, I've said I'm really sorry but it's too late now to change this. I've said that next time we can make a backup plan. But today we just need to go, and I hope we can try to make the best of it and enjoy each other's company. I'll offer to do something she'd like to do after the required activity. We often bring a game in the car if she's in the middle of playing with it or think of something that will make the car ride fun and not seem like such a letdown from what she was doing.

Dagny and Rowan are pretty understanding in these situations. By the time they were two or three, they knew that I didn't want to make them do things they didn't want to do and that I try to be sure I never say we "have" to when it's simply that I want to. I believe that, if you treat your child respectfully and take her wishes seriously while she is a baby and toddler, you will develop a relationship in which you will both feel that you are working together to find solutions to the problems that arise.

Excerpted with permission of the author from Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life.

Rue Kream is living happily ever after with her husband, Jon, and two children, Rowan and Dagny. She is a passionate advocate of unschooling and respectful parenting.