Riders on the (Tantrum) Storm
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?
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.
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
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"Riders on the (Tantrum) Storm"
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