Riders on the (Tantrum) Storm

January 27th, 2010 by Dionna | 19 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, My Family, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

Kieran has been exceptionally tantrumless for the first 25 months of his life. Yes, he has screamed and cried. Once he fell and halfheartedly writhed on the ground. He’s even pulled the limp rag doll trick once or twice – letting his arms go up lifelessly so we almost drop him at the shock of his sudden heft. All 30 lbs of him.

But for the most part, we’ve not had to deal with “typical” toddler tantrums. By typical, I mean the ones harried veteran parents always stop to warn you about when they see you cuddling a sweet, drool-soaked little bundle of baby chub in the supermarket. And you would smile and nod sympathetically, edging closer to the clerk (because the parent’s wild eyes and twitchy left nostril are making you nervous) all the while knowing that your child will never be “typical.”

For 25 months we’ve been blessed with this easy-going little dude. Well, aside from the fact that he is rather attached to my side 23 hours of each day and would prefer something closer to, say, 24. But still, he’s pretty laid back. I attribute this primarily to Kieran’s extensive signing vocabulary. Like I’ve said before, we are convinced that Kieran’s ability to communicate what he was thinking, wanting, and needing through sign language made the last year pretty cakewalk.

Times, they may be a’changing.

We still haven’t had a “tantrum,” but he is quicker to boil over with a flood of emotions when he is tired or overloaded. Tom and I have shared several bewildered glances lately, typically to express something along the lines of

“Where in the f*** did that come from?”

But we expected it. It’s where he is developmentally.

Riding Out Tantrums

We do not believe in punishing tantrums. Children are learning how to navigate the world – oftentimes, their emotions overwhelm them. A child in the midst of a tantrum feels powerless and out of control. Punishing tantrums does not “teach” a child anything, other than the fact that they cannot trust their deepest feelings to their caregivers.

Too often, I think Tom and I try to cajole Kieran out of feeling intense emotions. We change the subject, distract him, switch activities – anything to stave off a screaming, crying, uncomfortable (for us) five minutes. But that isn’t always appropriate.

Perhaps Kieran simply needs to feel those intense feelings every once in awhile. Think about it – have you ever just needed to have a good cry? I have. And I usually feel better afterward. Sometimes I need that raw emotion to process something I’ve been having a problem with. Children are no different.

In Lawrence J. Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, Cohen posits that children who tantrum a lot may not be experiencing any tantrum in full. If the child is never allowed to completely express his frustration and anger, he may believe that no one cares enough to listen to him. The tantrum will just keep repeating as the frustrations build. Cohen wonders if children might sometimes benefit from an adult sitting back and letting a tantrum “run its course,” then taking care to reconnect with the child after it is done.

To ride a tantrum out, Cohen recommends being physically and emotionally available for the child, but not interfering or pestering the child with questions or solutions. Cohen also reminds parents to examine their own reactions to a child’s tantrums. Do the parents always “give in” to strong emotion? Or do the parents take the authoritarian approach and consistently refuse to budge from their initial position. Either extreme is ineffective. Children do benefit when they know there are consistent limits, but we can also teach our children valuable lessons by reconsidering if we were hasty in our initial decision.

Cohen adds that punishing children for tantrums (by sending them to “time-out” or their room, spanking, or by teasing or taunting) is ineffective. Not only because children are often helpless to prevent tantrums, but also because we do not want to convey the message that their strong feelings will isolate them from their family and community. Punishing a child for his feelings does not help him learn how to cope with them, it simply tells the child that he is “bad” or “wrong” for feeling. (1)

Allowing Children to Feel Their Emotions

We’re not always trying to cajole Kieran into a happier state of mind. Tom and I are actually very good at helping Kieran identify the source of his frustration and put a label on his feelings. In Naomi Aldort’s book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Aldort discusses parents’ “need” to stop tantrums. A parent may believe that ending a tantrum is in the child’s best interest, but it is usually based on less altruistic things: avoiding an unpleasant “scene,” a desire for the child to be happy, the parent’s own discomfort at seeing her child in pain, or the parent’s discomfort in being out of control or in the presence of intense emotions.

But how will our children ever be able to resolve emotional difficulties and become resilient if we do not allow them to experience the full depth of their emotions? Aldort discourages cajoling or distraction by using this analogy: “imagine that you have just learned that your mother is dying or your partner is filing for divorce. In desperation you visit a friend, yearning to talk, cry, or rage in a supportive environment. No sooner do you begin letting out your emotions than your friend offers advice or suggests a distraction: ‘Let’s go to a movie, that will take your mind off of it.’ You are more likely to wish that your friend would listen to you attentively, ignore telephone calls and other intrusions, and focus on you. A child is a person with the same needs.”

Aldort lists several strategies parents use to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions:


Denial of a child’s emotions can take the form of silence, avoidance, or distraction. Examples of denying your child’s emotions are expressions such as: “It wasn’t that bad”; “It’s not the end of the world”; “You’re all right”; “But you love to play with Susan”; “Don’t be scared/shy/upset.” Children are perplexed at such admonisions, because they contradict what the child is feeling.

Rather than denying uncomfortable emotion, try validating: “Does the scratch hurt?” or “Are you afraid it will stay like this?” Then reassure: “It is painful right now, but it will stop hurting soon.” Don’t be afraid of your child’s tears, hug her and listen without adding drama.


A child’s pain or sadness will not go away simply by engaging him in another activity. Distraction only serves to teach a child that his feelings are wrong and should not be expressed. “I am supposed to get busy quickly with something else. I should avoid all emotional discomfort and take no risks . . . .” Distraction in the teen years and adulthood takes a much more dangerous turn, when people turn to drugs, alcohol, or other escapes from their emotions. Our children are better served by learning how to work through their problems.


Parents who pretend not to notice a child’s emotion are usually trying not to “reinforce” the behavior; this is avoidance. Again, parents should ask themselves why they are uncomfortable with the emotion. Isn’t it healthier to allow a child to work through her emotions?

Inducing Fear

Parents who scold, lecture or demean, or punish children for tantrums produce children who are insecure and submissive, or who may even experience increased rage and aggression. Children should not be taught to bury or suppress emotions, otherwise they are not able to move on from them.

We’re Working On It

I’ve just re-read Aldort’s chapter on self-expression, and I handed the book over to Tom so he could read it too. We realize that we need to do more to respect and value our toddler’s emotions. He may be two, but he is a whole person.

How do you handle tantrums?


(1) Cohen, Lawrence, “Playful Parenting” at 216-17, available in part at http://books.google.com/books?id=45EdmajNtzIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false
(2) Aldort, Naomi, “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves” at 105-117, available in part at http://books.google.com/books?id=QDzn8XR9BHwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false

19 Responses to:
"Riders on the (Tantrum) Storm"

  1. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll subject you to the same opinion again: every time I read something like today’s post, I think to myself: “Wow, how logical.” But I realize that it’s not the common thought process of adults when dealing with their children. It’s weird that just because they’re ‘little’ or ‘young’ or ‘immature’ or , we treat children like completely different types of beings instead of choosing to respect them as humans. Thanks for the well-written insight!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I so look forward to the day you have a baby :) Not only because s/he will be ridiculously cute, but b/c I already know it will take our friendship to a whole new level!

  2. Hey there, stopping by from SITS! What a great post. I will have to keep this in mind when I have children someday. I’m sure my natural tendancy will to do all those things you listed as not helpful. :)

    Have an Extraordinary Day!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Ha! I’m glad to have put a bug in your ear before you have kids :) There are a lot of things I assumed I would do when I was childless that are definitely not the case now. We change so much when we become parents!

  3. Hi! Popping by through SITS. Love the content of your blog, especially your post about how a boob tastes! Great job and keep inspiring others to breastfeed!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you! And thanks for looking around at the other posts. I loved that breastmilk series, particularly the little kids’ comments on what breastmilk tastes like (rainbows and butterflies! that’s like 5 shades of awesome!).

  4. When I was raising my daughter I was very aware of her feelings. Even when she was little I would try to have her “talk” out her feelings. It worked for us. What a cute boy.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Isn’t it so beneficial to help kids identify their feelings? I’m really starting to see Kieran think about what feelings are. It’s amazing watching him learn such an abstract concept.
      Thank you for stopping by!!

  5. Stopping by from SITS – I have to agree that 90% of the time its good to let the tantrum ride… but my exceptions are … in places like restaurants or stores where other people are affected by the behaviour, where my son is in danger (ie the middle of a parking lot or street) or when his actions threaten someone else (ie the nurse in the dr.s office who is trying to give him a check up..)


    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I definitely agree that where safety is an issue, distraction might be a better option ;) We can’t create an “ideal” situation all of the time, that’s life!
      Thank you for stopping by today!

  6. Great topic, and you cited two of my favorite authors! :) I always recommend ASL for babies and toddlers. It is my opinion that it has saved both us and our children from so much frustration. When we do deal with frustration, my children all have their own unique styles of how they prefer to address it and how they prefer to have us address it.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      We’re having to learn new tactics. Kieran used to be pretty cool with having me hug/hold him when he got upset; now he is showing increased signs of independence in all areas – including in the way he experiences emotions. Definitely normal, but it’s a learning process for us.

  7. Melodie   bfmom

    Great post. Today I’m having a hard time dealing with this sort of thing. I have 5 kids under my charge today and everyone is off. Right now they’re having a tea party (with real herbal tea) and feeling good but this morning was nuts so this is timely. I do think I follow these guidelines most of the time, but like TammyM says above, this isn’t necessarily how things get dealt with in the heat of the moment. But it’s important to post things like this to continue to remind ourselves how to do it “right.” Thanks Dionna. :)

  8. Monty

    Sis, question; Is it wrong to discipline after the tantrum (for the emotions) when the cause of the tantrum was because he knew the violation and still persisted. You know our situation with being two households.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Hmm . . . I guess I’d question what the “discipline” is – like I said, why do we need to discipline the emotion itself? It’s perfectly ok for kids to experience anger, rage, frustration, sadness, etc. – it’s our job to help them learn how to deal with those emotions. Instead of discipline, I try to have the mindset that it’s our job to help Kieran sort through what happened.
      let’s take a for example:
      Kieran wants to paint, but because we’re going to leave in 10 minutes, I don’t have time to pull out the paints and then clean up the inevitable mess. Kieran screams and cries and throws a piece of bread that he’d been eating.
      What good would “discipline” do in that moment? I use discipline in the traditional sense: spanking, yelling, putting Kieran in timeout, etc.
      Instead, I would get down on Kieran’s level and affirm what he is feeling:
      “You are mad because you want to paint and we don’t have time.”
      Usually, Kieran agrees with me.
      “You wish we could paint, and you are upset that we have to leave in a few minutes.”
      “I understand that you would like to paint now, but right now is not a good time for us. How about we paint later this evening when we get home?”
      Usually, this calms him down – we’ve compromised. Now how to deal with the bread? I will ask him to pick it up. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, I might say “ok, mama will get it, but next time it would really help me if you either didn’t throw it, or you picked it up.”
      (Alternatively, I might leave it, he’ll pick it up in a little bit. That’s not always possible, but sometimes it is and I can thank him later for taking care of the mess.)
      In the aftermath of intense emotions, it’s not worth the power struggle to force Kieran to pick up what he’s messed up in the throes of a tantrum.
      And even later, we might talk about how it isn’t always appropriate to throw things when we are angry – but we talk about it AFTER everyone has calmed down.

      I think what it comes down to for me is this: toddlers might “know” that they aren’t supposed to do something. But talking about “violations” and two year olds isn’t practical – two year olds lack the requisite self-control to always do the right thing. What good does it do to make them feel like a bad person when they don’t do something “right”? We can’t expect perfection from toddlers – we’re sure as heck far from being perfect. How would an adult feel if their superiors constantly yelled at them, hit them, and sent them off into solitary confinement for minor infractions?

      Ok, one more for example, and then I’ll end this lengthy comment.
      We were at Toys R Us today to get Kieran a new train for his train tracks. Toys R Us has a display train that kids can play with. Kieran played with the trains while I looked at what we were going to buy. When it was time to go, Kieran did not want to put the display trains back – he clung to them and said “NeeNee trains! Take home!” Well, that obviously wasn’t going to happen.
      I could have ripped the trains from his hands, which would have resulted in a meltdown and made an unpleasant ending to what had been an enjoyable outing.
      Instead, I talked about why the store needed the trains (for other kids to play with), I let him know that they’d be there the next time we visited, and I pointed out that we had a train of our own to buy and take home. Initially, he still didn’t want to give them up. So I planted myself next to the train table and let him play for a few more minutes. In 3-4 minutes, Kieran put one train on the table (he had two) and said “NeeNee put one back.” I said “Yep! Thank you, when you’re ready to put the other one down too, we’ll go.” He played for one more minute and finally put the other train down. He was ready.
      I let him have some choice in how the trains were going to get put down. He needed time to process the fact that he really liked those trains, but we couldn’t take them home.

      I think a lot of tantrums/meltdowns happen because the adult forgets that toddlers don’t have our reasoning ability. They don’t process as quickly, they don’t understand why we ask the things we ask, etc. It is our job to teach them *why*, not punish them when they don’t conform to our will.

      I have no idea if I answered your question . . .

  9. Heather   xakana

    I advise parents to consider how they want their relationship to be with their teenager in responding to their toddler. If you ignore their emotions or invalidate them, why would your teenager come to YOU when they need help or emotional support? By ignoring a tantrum, it’s just a form of CIO (for the first three years of life, this rewires the brain in a negative fashion). By punishing it, you’re teaching them that you not only don’t respect their feelings, but you will hurt/reject them for having them.

    All kids have different needs during the tantrum. Sometimes, it’s just to be heard “Mad, mad, you’re mad!” for young tantrums (naming the emotion they are learning to express), or, “Wow, you’re upset, huh? That wasn’t how you wanted things to go!”, some want Mom/Dad to sit by while they get it out, close enough to choose to go to if they want to, but not ignoring them, some want to be held and comforted.

    I don’t necessarily think that applying adult needs to children is appropriate though–what if we only “need to cry” because that’s how we learned to deal with our emotions? What if believing that is akin to believing it’s okay to hit a child as “discipline” because that’s what we were raised to think?

    I think a child won’t be comforted if they need to cry and if they really need it, they’ll do it and the best thing Mom and Dad can do is listen and empathize, or at least validate that the feelings are real and it’s safe to express them, even if Mom/Dad doesn’t agree with (the strength of) them. Sometimes we don’t agree with the reason they’re upset (such as because they needed to wait because it was impossible to do what they wanted right then, or because they can’t have a diet of pure chocolate, lol–not that any child would actually stick with that), but that doesn’t mean that the emotion isn’t real or the child isn’t entitled to express their feelings. We need to understand not to take it personally, either. It’s THEIR emotion and they have the right to feel it. It’s a frustrating world, totally out of their control and they really just don’t understand sometimes.

    It can be really hard to change the way you look at something, too, but that can make a HUGE difference in living with a toddler/preschooler.

  10. Lauren @ Hobo Mama   Hobo_Mama

    This is so helpful for me. I think I veer toward distraction a lot, too, because of my own discomfort with strong emotion. I like the ideas you’ve given from the books and the examples you outlined in the comments. I’m going to concentrate on riding out today, being present and empathic. It’s hard, isn’t it, when you know your toddler is being so very illogical from an adult perspective? But I remember back to when I was very young and even the tiniest things were a big, big deal to me. I try to keep that in mind when I feel like dismissing Mikko’s emotions.

  11. Dionna   CodeNameMama

    Heather – such good advice about thinking ahead to the teenage years. Really, toddlers and teenagers aren’t that different :)

    Lauren – it is easy to dismiss emotions when we know they are “illogical.” I do feel like Kieran and I get along better when I take the time to remember that he is a person with very valid wants & needs, even if I don’t always understand (or agree with) them.

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