By Patty Wipfler
Issue 115, November/December 2002
The man at my parenting talk is exasperated by his two-year-old son’s behavior.
“First, he wants a glass of milk,” he tells me. “I pour the glass and hand it to him, and he gets upset and says he doesn’t want it. So I say, ‘Okay, then, I’ll drink the milk.’ I’m trying to show him I’m flexible. But he fusses and says, ‘No, don’t drink it, I want it!’ I offer it to him again, and he swats it away! What in the world is going on?” He adds that these episodes are increasing. What could end this cycle of contradictory wants that is spiraling out of control? What is he doing wrong? What does his son need?
This child was teetering on the edge of a tantrum, a very uncomfortable place for him and for his parents. Every child I know has moments when nothing he asks for actually helps, and when every attempt to fill his needs seems to make things worse. I offered the father a fresh perspective on tantrums that makes parenting young children much simpler, if not easier. The headline is that you can safely and serenely allow your child to have the tantrum he is heading toward. That tantrum is necessary. It’s healthy, and it’s healing. All you need to add is your warm attention. The tantrum you permit him to have clears a jam in his mental and emotional system so he can think well again.
Let’s look at this approach in more general terms. Most of us evaluate our parenting in a very straightforward way. When our children are happy, cooperative, loving, and polite, we take pride in them and in ourselves as parents. When our children are unhappy or unreasonable, we figure that something has gone wrong, and we tend to blame ourselves or them. In short, we’ve been trained to think of children’s upsets as “bad.”
When an upset arises, we want to put an end to it as quickly as possible. Some parents try distraction or reasoning; others use intimidation and force. Whatever our methods, conventional wisdom has it that it’s our job to end the upset. We require our children to tuck their upsets away and be “good” again. We don’t want them to grow up to be uncivilized, and we don’t want to feel or look like “bad” parents with “bad” children.
But what if, contrary to what we’ve grown up believing, tantrums and other expressions of feelings are actually useful? What if a tantrum is like an emotional sneeze–a natural reaction meant to clear out foreign material? Perhaps the usual struggle of parent versus child at emotional moments doesn’t have to take place. Perhaps we can throw away the mental chalkboard on which every meltdown is a mark against our children or ourselves.
There are four pivotal perceptions that can help us see tantrums in a new light.
- Children enjoy being easy-going, loving, cooperative, and eager to learn. Children are built to take in lots of good experiences, and to operate with joy and enthusiasm.
- Children’s good nature can be obscured by bad feelings. When they are sad, frightened, bored, frustrated, or embarrassed, or when they feel alone or unappreciated, their good nature becomes encrusted with bad feelings. This emotional tension pulls their behavior off track, away from trust, cooperation, and enthusiasm. When they are loaded with bad feelings, children literally can’t think.
- Hurt feelings confine a child to unloving, fearful, or irrational behavior. A child will openly present this behavior in order to signal for help. The child who wanted milk, then didn’t, then did, then didn’t, was signaling as plainly as he could that his ability to think was compromised. He was asking for help with a knot of unruly feelings.
- With a little help, a child who is upset or inflexible can recover his ability to reason and to be pleased. To do this, he needs a supportive adult close by, while he works through his upset.
A child cries, throws a tantrum, or sometimes trembles and struggles, to expose and offload her bad feelings. During her upset, she’s doing her best to dig herself out of an irrational state. My suggestion to the father whose son was on the verge of a tantrum may seem counterintuitive, but it works. He could stop trying to solve the unsolvable glass of milk problem, move close to his son, and pay full attention to whatever happens next. His son will lead the way. Usually, when a child feels that the parent has slowed down and is interested in her rather than in solving a practical problem, the feelings rise up and spill out, just the way they’re meant to. Feelings spilled are feelings resolved. Feelings spilled are not a child’s permanent assessment of the quality of our parenting. The father could listen with care to the tantrum, keeping his son safe throughout, trusting that he will soon make his way back to a reasonable state of mind.
It takes courage to listen to your first tantrum from beginning to end. It’s usually an emotional wringer for the parent who tries it. Like opening your eyes underwater for the first time, you may worry that you are doing damage. But the results are almost always thoroughly convincing. Your child feels heard. She sees that you’ve stayed with her through the worst of how she felt. Her mind clears, and life satisfies her again.
As parents gain experience staying close through their children’s emotional storms, they find that the trip no longer feels quite so risky or grueling. Their child’s upsets, which once seemed to point to a serious failure, now simply signal the need for a good cry, or a good tantrum. The child’s system is on the fritz, no blame or shame involved, and the remedy is wet and wild, but simple.
Tantrums Are Integral to the Learning Process
Tantrums arise as children’s expectations become more ambitious and more detailed. Their ideas of what they want to do are grand, yet their abilities grow only through the messy process of trial and error.
You know the scenario. Your child can’t make things go her way and, to her credit, won’t give up trying. Eventually, she runs out of new approaches. She wants to succeed, but can’t figure out how. Your well-meaning suggestions don’t help, because in this emotional state she can’t make use of any guidance; she must either fall apart or abandon the effort. Distracting her from the effort sometimes heads off the tantrum in the short run but doesn’t help in the long run. When she returns to that learning task or that expectation (or when, five minutes later, she finds another pretext to ignite her feelings), frustration will flare again, because until a tantrum dissolves it, the frustration stays pocketed inside her, agitating to be released. Feelings of frustration are an everyday glitch in the learning process, an unavoidable result of the clash between what children expect and what turns out to be possible.
As director of an infant-toddler day care center, I saw tantrums happen for each and every child. We built very close relationships with the children. We saw all of them go through periods of time when they could meet challenges without losing their equilibrium. Inevitably, however, a time came when it seemed that any small disappointment would trigger a tantrum. We saw that children who were about to walk, children who were about to talk, and children who were moving toward closer relationships with each other were likely to have regular tantrums. Actually, we usually noticed the tantrums first, and observed carefully to figure out the leap the child was working hard to make. We adults are trained to be so dependent on verbal language that we tend to be on the slow side in reading the language of children’s behavior fluently.
I remember Janna, who was beginning to say her first words. Suddenly she would scream, throw herself down on the floor, and press her cheek into the soft carpet. She crawled, crying and plowing her cheek across the floor, for five or ten minutes. I would stay close and be the bumper that kept her from hitting her head on the furniture as she worked her way noisily around the room. I would murmur that I saw how hard it was, that she was doing a good job of showing me how she felt, and I stayed ready to welcome her into my arms when her explosion was completed. Finally, she would sit peacefully on my lap, let me meet her gaze and stroke her sweaty head, and then she was ready to play. After a few weeks of many meltdowns, more words were at her disposal, and her tantrums subsided.
When he was two, my younger son had a set of tantrums that are etched in my mind. He was intently hitting a balloon toward the ceiling over and over again. I thought nothing of it until he suddenly collapsed in an active frenzy. I came closer and gave him my attention, not knowing what had happened to set him off, but knowing that once he had begun, he needed to finish, and needed me there. After five minutes or so, his mind cleared and he got up, we connected, and he went back to hitting the balloon high again. One hit, and he threw himself back down, kicking and thrashing. At that point, I realized what was going on: he thought he ought to be able to make the balloon hit the ceiling, and he couldn’t! His expectation stretched beyond his ability. After another, shorter blast of frustrated energy, he finished, connected with me, and picked up the balloon to play with it again. He was finally happy with what he could do with the balloon. These “learning leap” and “expectation adjustment” tantrums are vital, integral parts of the learning process. When your child’s learning curve is high, when she’s hopeful and active, tantrums may be frequent; she is regaining her ability to try again when she has failed and adjusting her expectations of herself, of what she’s permitted to do, and of you. She is learning by experience and blasting away the negative feelings that sometimes come with trying so hard and meeting disappointment. Tantrums are the “sneeze” that ejects the foreign material of frustration from your child’s mind and body, so she can be proud of her abilities and her circumstances again.
Tantrums Can Lead to Work on Core Issues
Some explosions that look like tantrums are directly connected to big, scary feelings that the child has internalized but not yet offloaded. They remain stored inside her, with lots of little trip wires holding them in place. When life is good and safe, and a small difficulty arises, a trip wire can jangle her with great big feelings that are appropriate to the earlier threat, but far out of proportion to the tiny pretext of the moment.
For instance, I have a niece who would panic, then explode in wild reaction whenever she found herself in a tiny space. I remember playing with her one day in the kitchen. We crawled happily together underneath a small child’s table, which was where she wanted to go. We were laughing and enjoying each other. She looked up, saw how small the space was with both of us there, and her eyes grew wide. She began thrashing and screaming in an instant.
This initially looked like a tantrum, but it quickly became an attempt to work through wild feelings of panic. I held her and reassured her that she was okay, that she could get out, and I calmly got the two of us out. Once in the open, she continued to scream and writhe and cry for a long time–the feelings had been triggered, and it didn’t matter much where we were. When her mother came, her emotional work intensified–Mommy meant added safety, and even bigger feelings. When she was finished, she relaxed, connected, and we played some more.
My niece had been having similar “sessions” related to being in tight places since she was six months old. Her father and mother learned to hold her close and support her during these times, guessing that she had become terrified during her birth; she’d been lodged in the birth canal for three hours before her mother could push her through. Her parents’ listening helped her work through the leftover fears she carried from that experience. For a couple of years, she signaled for a long screaming, struggling session almost daily. She began life as a wary, coolly watchful baby. By the time she was three, she had become relaxed and cuddly–a total transformation of personality that our whole family witnessed with wonder. She’s now a teen, an athlete, a scholar, and a fearless young woman.
Getting Comfortable in Tantrum Territory
Probably the most important step you can take to handle a tantrum well is to plan for it. Generally, if your child has a tantrum every evening in his high chair, you should simply include that tantrum in your dinner plans. You can keep the oven on and put dinner back in when the tantrum begins, so it’s still nice and hot when it’s over. Or if sharing the fairy wand drives your daughter wild, you can decide in advance to stay close to where she and her friend are playing, ready to gently keep her from grabbing the fairy wand from her friend.
Now you’ve prepared yourself. When your child becomes edgy, move closer. Sometimes, the beginning part of listening to a child’s tantrum involves deciding not to placate her. If your daughter has chosen a dress to wear today but starts a fuss when you try to put it on her, you could ask her what other dress she wants. If she gets upset about the second dress she chooses, you can be sure you have a child who is seeking emotional relief. All you need to do to help her recover is to stop bringing dresses. Gently say, “I think you’ll have to choose one of these two you picked out.” This gives her permission to begin the tantrum she needs to become reasonable again.
Here are some general guidelines for weathering the storm that follows.
1. Stay close to your child, keep him safe, but don’t try to stop him. Let him move.
A tantrum is full of noise and movement. Your child will become very hot and may perspire. He needs to writhe, wiggle, and throw himself around to get the frustration out of his system. You can be the safety manager, making sure that he doesn’t bump into anything as he proceeds. If he bangs his head or hits himself, gently put your hand between his head and the floor, or between his hand and his body, so that he can use force without hurting himself. His struggle with unseen forces is helping him recover from the insult of not being able to make his ideas and expectations work. Let him know you’re on his side by saying things like, “I know you want to play with the tin cans. They look so good. But they’re too sharp.” Or, “I’ll stay with you. I’ll help you wait for the fairy wand.” Or, “No one’s going to hurt you while you’re in the car seat. I promise you’ll get out. You’ll always get out.” Most tantrums are relatively short. You might expect to listen for five to 15 minutes. Once it is listened through, a tantrum clears rapidly, perhaps with some giggles and warm affection between child and listener. This transformation of your fallen-apart child into a gently reasonable person is one of the real wonders a parent can work. He will often gain a large store of patience that you’ll appreciate during the following hours or days.
2. If you are in a public place, you may want to carry your child to a more sheltered spot to ride out the tantrum.
Children often pick public places to initiate tantrums. It may be that they feel safer to explode with lots of people around, or perhaps the strain of being in an adult environment finally overloads their tolerance. Often, it’s worth the trouble to carry your writhing child to a less public spot, so you feel freer to handle things thoughtfully. If you have no car nearby, the delivery side of the grocery store, the less crowded underwear and socks section of the department store, or the front steps of your temple or church may have to serve as a makeshift refuge while your child works things through. Ask for help if you need it: “Would you move my grocery cart to one side? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” If you can manage it, a touch of humor helps: “Looks like we have technical difficulties! I do want to buy this. I’ll be back when my friend here feels better.” Most onlookers will be glad that you look like you know what you’re doing. In fact, most have at one time or another faced the same situation you are facing. Don’t worry too much about them.
3. Try to remember that your child’s frustrations aren’t your fault, or hers, and that this tantrum is a good and healthy event.
Often, being exposed to our child’s raw emotions makes us feel the raw emotions that we have shoved into cold storage over the months and years. And often, we parents seem to bring up our feelings by reflection, that is, by positing that we know how our child must feel. Actually, if we are having a feeling, the feeling is ours, and it may have only a vague resemblance to what our child is feeling. (Our children often take their deepest feelings and attach them to tiny pretexts. We often take our deepest feelings and attach them to what our children do.) To be able to feel pleased with ourselves and supportive of our children at these emotional moments, most parents need a chance to explore and express their own feelings. Talking to a good listener about how our lives are going is an excellent way to sort things out and to build the safety to have a good laugh or cry (or tantrum!) for ourselves. In my parent classes, I encourage parents to pair up in Listening Partnerships, where each parent takes a turn to talk, uninterrupted, without advice being given. Parents who have been listened to gain more confidence in their children’s wisdom during emotional release “sessions,” and feel less guilty when these inevitable outbursts happen, because they are experiencing the relief of a good laugh or a good cry for themselves.
Is This Approach Too Permissive?
This is the big question. If I listen to tantrums, will my child ever be well behaved again? It feels like there are too many times when messy upsets arise. If we listen every time, won’t life become an uproar? Aren’t we reinforcing lack of control?
Supporting a child to complete a tantrum looks permissive, but it isn’t. Permissiveness is ignoring misbehavior or failing to set reasonable limits on behavior. It doesn’t help children when their misbehavior is ignored or when reasonable limits aren’t set. Children rely on us to keep them safe and on track. This listening approach says, “Step in when your child is going off track, and gently but firmly prevent any hurting, grabbing, hoarding, throwing, destruction, withdrawal, or giving up. Go ahead and bring the limit to your child, physically stopping the behavior that’s not working well. But allow the feelings while you are holding those limits.” Tantrums, crying, trembling and perspiring in the release of fear, and all the loud noises that go with emotional release are not misbehavior. They are a healing process that sets your child right with herself again.
In the long run, when children are treated too permissively, their behavior can become bigger and more drastic. A child who is frightened, for instance, needs someone to stop her just as she is about to hurt someone, and let her express the feelings that underlie her aggression. Without limits, that aggression will increase. Permissiveness (and punishment, too) results in patterns of behavior that grow in depth and difficulty as the child desperately signals that she can’t think and needs emotional release.
Enjoy the Progress You’ve Helped to Create
When you first allow your child to have full tantrums, she may have quite a few, because you’ve opened the doors to a storehouse full of unexpressed feelings. She’s been waiting for this opportunity to get free of old upsets, and she’s eager to catch up with herself! Take close notice of how well your child connects with you afterward, how affectionate she’s able to be, how hopeful and flexible she is directly after a good outburst. You’ll see heartening signs that her mind is clearing and new abilities are being gained. You’ll have gained a power every parent wishes for: when your child’s experiments have failed or her expectations have been dashed, you can help her recover her pride and hope.
Doesn’t Allowing a Tantrum Destroy a Child’s Trust in You?
We parents are devoted to building and keeping close emotional ties with our children so they will have the foundation of trust and support that they need to thrive. It makes sense, in fact, to center our parenting around building and rebuilding that closeness. But closeness doesn’t protect children from all the frustrations or fears that accumulate in the course of a day. And closeness, by itself, isn’t a complete antidote to the assorted fears and frustrations children acquire. If it were, our beloved children wouldn’t be coming up with frustrations and upsets as often as they do!
When we dread the times our children tantrum and cry, it is often because most of us were left alone or actively attacked for showing our feelings openly. Our memories of emotional moments are not ones of gentle support and acceptance. If we were very lucky as children, there may have been times when someone patiently listened while we felt pure frustration, but this is a culturally rare event. So we can’t help having fears about supporting our children while they express their feelings.
Those fears are tied to our own experience, not to the experience of our children, who visibly benefit from the listening we do if we can remain with them through the whole emotional ride. In fact, when your child is falling apart emotionally, it’s actually a highly effective time to strengthen the attachment between you. He won’t look like he hears the love and acceptance you offer–he’ll be very busy with his work–but every word you say and every loving tone in your voice and touch will seep in. He’ll see that you’ll stay with him no matter what. This is the best reassurance a parent can offer.
For additional information about tantrums, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Parenting Without Punishing,” no. 88 and “The Disadvantages of Time-Out,” no. 65.
Patty Wipfler, the mother of two grown sons, is the director of the Parents Leadership Institute (www.parentleaders.org) in Palo Alto , California , which she founded in 1989 to help parents develop listening, parenting, and leadership skills. She has written 12 booklets on listening, parent-to-parent and parent-to-child, and leads Re-Evaluation Counseling weekend workshops for families in the US and abroad.