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.
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
One may survive distress, but not disgrace.
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
and ally ourselves with our children, giving them the gift
of a more open,
compassionate, and understanding parent.
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.
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.
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.
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.