More Thoughts on Tantrums
I want to expand a little on Wednesday’s post about tantrums. I’d like to explain a little more why I don’t believe punishing a tantrum is effective.
What Is Our Ultimate Goal?
When addressing the question of “how to deal with tantrums,” I think it is important to ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish. What is our ultimate goal?
If our goal is to teach children that the parent is in control, that children are expected to act and behave specific ways, that children must submit to the will of the parent at all costs, and that if they “misbehave” they will be punished, then I suppose discipline might get compliance.
I just don’t believe that bullying a child – through threat or force – has any other effect than making a child comply out of fear and reluctance. You aren’t making them want to do the right thing, you’re making them want to avoid the wrong thing. Same thing goes for taking away a favorite toy or activity as a consequence for having a tantrum. What does that teach other than the fact that you have control, and that some random bad thing might happen if he “misbehaves.” That teaches him nothing about the correct way to act, it just makes him resentful and fearful. Punitive measures don’t make kids want to “behave,” they just make them want to not get caught “misbehaving.” Make sense?
We do not want Kieran to fear us.
We do not want Kieran to view us as people who can wield loving or hurtful hands at our whim.
We are not trying to force compliance.
What Is the Benefit of Discipline During a Tantrum?
In a comment I made on Wednesday’s post, I gave this (fake) 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 mean discipline in the traditional sense: spanking, yelling, putting Kieran in timeout, etc.
Here’s what I would do:
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.
But if we don’t “punish” him for throwing the bread, won’t he just continue to throw things when angry? What if next time he throws something bigger and breaks a window?
I’ll answer that with another question: what does spanking a child teach him about “next time”? What does putting a child in his room teach him about how to handle his anger?
We want to teach Kieran that throwing things might be dangerous, and that while he might get angry and *feel like* throwing, there is a more appropriate way to show his anger. (On that note, there are actually times it is *ok* to throw things. We’ll work on that too.) I don’t care if he yells or screams – sometimes I yell and scream when I get mad too. I hope that I can teach Kieran that his anger is an ok thing to feel, but that he needs to channel it appropriately. That’s why we discuss things later. By discussing it, Kieran will learn that throwing things is not appropriate. That way, our windows will stay intact.
Parent-Control Does Not Magically Turn Into Self-Control
Here’s another example I gave in a comment on Wednesday’s post (this one really happened): We were at Toys R Us 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.
But wasn’t allowing him to play for those 5 minutes “giving in to him,” you might ask?
Well, if you want to be in control of your child at all times, then maybe. But why does it need to be about who is in control, who is giving in, who is getting whose way?
We don’t need to have control over Kieran’s every move.
A friend made a great point the other day – she said that when we try to control another person’s actions, we are actually giving that person control over us. All the person has to do is ignore our will, and that opens the door for us to get upset, angry, etc.
Parenting does not have to be a control game.
Kieran knows we are the parents, he listens to us all the time. If control were an issue, we have plenty of it. But what does it take away from us to take his feelings into consideration? Nothing.
What did that 5 minutes take away from my life? If I had grabbed the trains, he would have had a 5 minute meltdown that would have turned into an hour long pout fest. The entire tone of our evening would have been tinged by tears and frustration. What would that gain me? Nothing.
Letting him play for 5 minutes let him know that I respected his wishes too. He is a person. I value him.
One last example (this also really happened):
Kieran took some water into the living room last week and set it on the floor. Tom said “Kieran, please put that up on the table so it doesn’t get knocked over.” Fast forward 30 minutes – the water was still on the floor and Kieran knocked it over.
What would happen in the house of parents who punish their child for messing up? Would the child hide the fact that he spilled? Would he hide himself? Would he shamefully avoid the fact that the glass had spilled, just like he had been warned? Would he be scared that he would be punished – sent to time out, spanked, have a toy taken away?
Do you know what happened in our house? Kieran walked in and cheerfully said “mama! NeeNee spill water!” I said, “thank you for telling me, let’s clean it up!”
And then we went in together, got a towel, and he helped by stepping on the towel. And then we got more water and I helped him put it on the table.
No harsh words.
We worked together, because we all mess up.
Tom and I choose to parent in the way we would want to be treated. I don’t want Tom to express his displeasure with me by striking me or sending me away from him, I want to have a conversation with him and come to a mutual understanding. Why should we treat our child as if he deserves less?
Do you feel that there is ever a time to punish tantrums?
What do you think punishment teaches children?
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"More Thoughts on Tantrums"
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