When children come into this world they are small and so dependent on us. They have so much to learn and it is our job to facilitate that learning; the problem is there is so much parenting information how are you to know what to dismiss and to listen to? This is especially true when it comes to tantrums.
The BEST advice is one that comes from evidence based research, based around your child’s brain development. When we understand ‘why’ our children are reacting in specific ways, we are able to respond appropriately to enhance that development.
Tantrums are a part of your child’s emotional developmental. When they are born they do so with the capacity to feel the same emotions as we do as adults.
‘By the end of the first year, children usually have displayed the primary emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and surprise. The secondary emotions such as embarrassment, empathy, envy, pride, shame, and guilt appear later when the child has reached a higher level of cognitive development’. Barb Grady
When a child has a tantrum they are releasing emotions that they haven’t the ability to verbalise yet; they have not yet found a strategy for coping with.
Children can either repress, express or release their feelings. Repressing their emotions is not good for their well-being and therefore it is important to remember that tantrums are healthier than a child repressing their emotion.
As adults we can find it hard to open up and talk about how we feel, often we ignore our primary emotion until it explodes into a secondary emotion like anger or sadness. Children are the same. There are SO many emotions to experience yet being able to name them, recognise how they feel in our body and then be able to talk about it is a skill we often expect our children to do when we are unable to do so ourselves.
‘The Anger Iceberg’ from the Gottman Institute is a great visual for helping us see just how many feelings can be underneath the surface of our anger.
Young children do not have the capacity to deal with primary emotions, their brains are developing cognitively so it is to be expected that as they begin to experience these primary emotions for the first time it overwhelms them.
‘The tantrum you permit your child to have is a way of releasing emotional energy and clearing her emotional system so she can think again. When an upset arises, we want to put an end to it as quickly as possible (especially if we are in public or at our in-laws). Some parents try distraction or reasoning; others use intimidation or force. Whatever the methods, conventional wisdom says that it’s our job to end the upset. We require our children to repress their upsets and be “good” again. We don’t want them to grow up uncivilised, and we don’t want to feel or look like “bad” parents with “bad” children.
Contrary to what we’ve grown up believing, tantrums and other expressions of feelings are actually useful. A tantrum is like an emotional sneeze and the usual struggle of parent versus child at emotional moments does not have to take place. We can throw away the judgement that meltdowns are a mark against our children and ourselves. Then we can begin to change our perceptions and the way we handle our children’s emotional outbursts.’ Barb Grady
I love the term ‘emotional sneezes’ it’s a fantastic way to describe them. Barb says it all so well...
‘If you now believe the truth that tantrums are healthy emotional releases, what is your role? All you need to provide is support and warm attention. It takes courage to listen to your child’s tantrum from beginning to end. It’s usually an emotional wringer for the parent who tries it. However, the results are thoroughly convincing. Your child feels heard. She sees that you’ve stayed with her though the worst of how she felt. Her mind clears, and life is OK 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 gruelling. 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.’ Barb Grady
So we know that tantrums are a good healthy stage of development but how do we deal with them knowing that? The first important thing to remember is to share your calm and not to join their chaos. Take deep breaths and remember that this will pass and you are helping your child learn with a stage of development just as you were through weaning, crawling and walking.
Below is Barbs advice on how to deal with a tantrum.
1. Stay close to your child and keep him safe, but don’t try to stop him. A tantrum is full of noise and movement. Your child may become hot and perspire. He needs to writhe, wiggle, and throw himself around to get the frustration out. Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, gently put your hand between his head and the floor, so he can use force without hurting himself. Let him know you are on his side by saying things like, “I’ll stay with you.” Most tantrums are relatively short. Once it is listened through, a tantrum clears rapidly, perhaps with some giggles and warm affection between the 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.
2. If you are in a public place, you may carry your child to a more sheltered spot to ride out the tantrum. Children often pick public places to tantrum. It might 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 move your child to a less public place, so you feel freer to handle things thoughtfully. Most onlookers will be glad that you look like you know what you’re doing. In fact, most have been there at one time or another. Don’t worry too much about others.
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 children’s’ emotions makes us feel emotional. Set good boundaries and realise that your child has a right to express his emotions and to release them through tantrum.
‘Aren’t we reinforcing a lack of control? This is a common question. Supporting a child to complete a tantrum looks permissive (if we believe what our parents believed), but it isn’t. Permissiveness is ignoring misbehaviour or failing to set reasonable limits on behaviour. It doesn’t help children when their misbehaviour is ignored or when reasonable limits aren’t set. Children rely on us to let them know what is OK and what is not OK. Step in when your child is going off track and gently but firmly prevent any hurting, grabbing, throwing, destruction, withdrawal, or giving up. Go ahead and limit the child, physically stopping the behaviour, 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 along with that release, are not misbehaviour. They are part of a healing process.
Permissiveness and punishment result in patterns of behaviour that grow in depth and difficulty as the child signals that she can’t think and needs emotional release.’
When your child is expressing an emotion this way, respond with love and acceptance. We know so much more about brain development in the last 20 years than ever before and it’s important to listen to this new evidence. We now know the importance of emotional development. We used to want children to be seen and not heard but we now recognise that as being unhealthy, the way we have dealt with tantrums in the past has also been unhealthy.
Using emotional literacy from a young age helps children develop this important part of the brain which is so vital for long term health, resilience and well-being.
Name your primary emotions to them, name all of their emotions for them. Vocalise your own strategies for dealing with emotion, be consistent and make it habit. Read books that allow children to experience emotions that are difficult to process for them, don’t protect them from the hard stuff. Use role-play with small world toys to explore the world of emotions and give them opportunity to come up with their own solutions e.g. “Oh, he’s fallen over. He looks sad. I wonder what his friend could do to help?”
Have fun! Play is the best way to learn anything and the same is certainly true for emotional learning. We need to understand how to support this important area of development the same way we do the physical areas.
It is the foundations for life that we build upon; let’s make them strong.
Jennifer Wyman is founder of Bridge the Gap and is an Emotional Literacy trainer. Jennifer is married with 2 children and has over 21 years of experience working within child development and early years.