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When a Child Has a Tantrum

As John Donne wisely wrote, "no man is an island"; we are always responding to the world around us, as well as to all that is happening within us. Yet it can be easy for us to look at a child's behavior as though it is unrelated to anything else - as though the child is living in isolation from the world around him. Yet all of a child's behavior can be seen as a response to the circum­stances present at the time. Those circum­stances may be external, such as over­stimulation, preparations for a move, stressful events, or sibling conflict, or they may be internal, such as teething, food allergy, lack of sufficient sleep, or a developing illness.

We all know there can be many causes of "misbehavior", yet it can be surprisingly easy to see only the behavior without regard to what may have brought it about. One day when my son was two, we were about to enter our house when he wandered off to explore a neighbor's yard. This was frustrating for me, because I had numerous chores I needed to do inside. I tried to convince him to leave, but he was determined to remain there and continue his explorations. The more frustrated I became, the more determined he became, and we began to have a real power struggle. Then I reflected for a moment and remembered that this was a particularly stressful day for us all - we were moving in to a new house, and had just arrived there after a long trip! It seems amazing to me now as I recall the incident that I could have momentarily forgotten such a critical piece of information, but it is surprisingly easy to focus entirely on our child's behavior and our own frustration, even when there is a ready explanation. In fact, my son was actually doing a very understandable thing: getting to know his new surroundings. 

When a child has a tantrum, we may feel sorry for ourselves and puzzled about the causes, especially if we have been diligent in meeting our child's needs in the past. Despite reassurances from attachment parenting books and advisors, we may easily begin to wonder whether the rest of the world isn't right - that children can become "spoiled" and that our child's behavior shows that we have been wrong to trust him to grow to responsible adulthood without punishment and disciplinary measures. 

At those times, it can be helpful to stop thinking about all the reasons why our child shouldn't be behaving in this way - such as all the love and attention we've given him over the years - and focus instead on the present moment: After all, the present moment is where each child lives. What has happened that day, that hour, the previous moment? Just as I momentarily forgot that it was moving day, we can also forget such matters as a toy being broken, another child getting more attention, a meal with too much sugar, a noisy environment, a lengthy shopping trip, a visitor taking up our attention, a poor night's sleep, teething, a cold developing that hasn't shown itself yet, and so on. We also need to consider the effect our own response is having - are we helping the situation through validating feelings ("You want to learn about all the new things here! Let's spend a few minutes now, and then come back soon."), or have we simply responded with our own frustration ("Come on! We have to go inside now!").

In addition to looking at the circumstances present just prior to a tantrum, we can also learn something from looking at the circumstances present when the child is happy and relaxed: what has happened prior to that behavior? Has he enjoyed a relatively quiet day following a restful sleep? Have his parents recently solved a problem of their own? Have there been no trips and few telephone calls that day? Has he had an especially nutritious meal? Has he just had plenty of one-on-one time with us? 

It is all a matter of focus. We tend to focus on the entire history of our parenting ("I've been such a good mother! I've given him so much time, attention, and love. Why is he behaving like this?") But this type of thinking is unrealistic, since no child behaves perfectly at all times - neither does any adult. It is also unhelpful, because it doesn't lead us to solutions. If we can focus on the present circumstances - the knocked-over Lego building, the noise, the fatigue of shopping, the numerous telephone calls that day, the teething - we are then able to answer the "why" question and move on to a helpful response of empathy and validation ("It's so hard for you when I have lots of phone calls, and now your sister knocked over your building. You must be feeling really frustrated by now!). 

If we respond with anger, punishment, or rejection, this can only make things worse, as we then give the child even more reason for feeling angry and frustrated, just when he is least able to handle it. The best approach is to express empathy while validating the child's feelings: "Oh, dear - the baby knocked over your beautiful Lego house! How frustrating!" or "It must be hard for you to have to share me with your sister. You wish you could have me all to yourself right now!" "Time out" may appear to work as a short-term solution, but removing the child from the rest of the family can give an unintended and harmful message of conditional love: "We love you when you behave, but if you misbehave you're no longer welcome in our family." It also means that no positive solutions have been tried.

When a child is having a tantrum, the key word is helplessness. A tantrum develops when a child feels that he has no control over his circumstances: he wants things to be different, but he is helpless to bring about those changes. And helplessness brings fear - after all, he is then at the mercy of other people's wishes. Helplessness also affects the child's self-esteem; when he feels powerless to change things, he may begin to believe that he is not capable or not deserving of having his desires fulfilled. 

When a child continues to insist that his needs be met, in some ways, this is a good sign: he trusts his parents to listen to him, he believes in himself, and he believes that he deserves to be heard and to have a say in the way his life unfolds. When a child is thwarted too often, he may stop asserting himself altogether. Unfortunately, such passive acceptance can be misinterpreted as a healthy response, when in fact the child has simply given up, suppressing feelings of anger and frustration until he feels strong enough to resist in adolescence. Thus in a way, tantrums are not entirely a bad sign - the child still believes in himself and in his own desires. He is still attempting to communicate the best way he can at the time. And he still believes that he deserves to be heard, and that his parents care about his feelings.

Tantrums are a signal of helplessness and fear, even though they may give the opposite impression: that the child is trying to be more powerful than we are. Unfortunately, because few of us were given understanding words and validation of feelings in our own childhood, it can be easy - especially when we are feeling overwhelmed, upset, or powerless in our own life - to focus on the behavior rather than the feelings. After all, that is the example so many of us have had. It can be especially difficult for attachment parents who "lose it" during stressful times, because we expect more of ourselves and of our children. We may in fact be expecting too much of ourselves, considering our own upbringing and current stress level, and too much of our children, considering their age and lack of experience. It may be most helpful at those times to consider that every parent does as well as he or she can, given all of the circumstances of their life. The same is true of our children.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.