tantrum noun [ˈtæntrəm] (often plural)
A childish fit of rage; outburst of bad temper
Fall has hit St. Louis, and along with the beautiful changing colors of leaves, the cool breeze and, at least today, the overcast skies and rain, have come a new level of tantrums. This of course has made me think. Tantrums are an interesting and, like many of the things I write about, widely misunderstood and mis-parented aspect of toddlerhood. Parents hate tantrums, we become flustered, embarrassed and want to magically get them to disappear. Sometimes we fight fire with fire, allowing our child’s “fit of rage” to flame one of our own. Other times we nonchalantly try to ignore the tantrum all the while questioning whether we are doing the right thing as our child maliciously tears his room to pieces and yells violently.
Tantrums cause us to questions ourselves as parents, they make us wonder if our child will ever be ok, we desperately seek answers. We cross our figures and hope that our child will outgrow this phase at 3, or 4, or maybe 6. All the while, have we ever considered the purpose of tantrums? Have we embraced that they may be a sign that our child is learning and growing? Could it be possible that the ugly gut reaction to the way we are handling tantrums might be a sign that we do need to re-think the way we parent? I am hoping that you might consider starting to embrace tantrums rather than run from them.
Let me note again: my children have tantrums. They have some BIG tantrums. Cadence has become a drama queen who throws herself violently on the floor. Taking away a toy, not allowing her to play in the outlet, or putting her down before she so desires all trigger a forced cry to which even Maddie says “is not so that bad Cades.” Madeleine has a blood curdling scream that neighbors three buildings down can hear. Due to some of her sensory issues, even the thought of putting on a pair of pants a seam in the wrong place can equal a half hour session of meltdown and than another 20 minutes of recovery. They both drive me nuts at times. However, I have found that I can react to these tantrums in a calm and neutral way when I consider the foundations of tantrums in child development and neuropsychology. Let me explain further.
According to Erik Erikson (a Developmental Theorist), children develop through a series of ongoing psycho-social crises. What this means is that as a child grows, they are navigating through some set dilemmas. As an infant Erikson proposes that children are learning to either trust people and the world around them OR they develop a global sense of mistrust. I child who does not resolve this successfully resolve on trust will have trouble navigating the subsequent stages. Next, Erikson proposed that a toddler deals with the issue of autonomy (being my own person, having a voice and opinion) versus shame/doubt (I don’t matter, no one listens to my thoughts, I’m never right). Let’s think about this crisis in terms of tantrums. A tantrum is a frustrated child trying to get their voice heard, to express their dissatisfaction in hopes that someone will listen (and fix) the problem.
Now, from a neuropsychology perspective, a tantrum a a sudden overtaking of the lower two brain systems (the limbic and survival systems) when a is reacting to a perceived threat. What does this mean (a good Lutheran question)? When you re-direct a child from danger he may interpret this as a threat to his survival and his brain will take over either in terms of rage (the emotional limbic system) or in terms of fight, flight or freeze (the survival system). A child in either of these two states is not capable of reason. This is why sermonizing or threatening does not work mid-meltdown (I question whether these are ever good tactics). We have to calm the system before we can move on to a resolution.
Here comes the issue, if we always ignore the tantrum, we tell the child that her voice is not heard. She could resolve in shame/doubt. We may escalate the emergency response system in the brain. HOWEVER, if we give in as an attempt to placate, we give the message that this child is in control and that screaming and yelling are the best way to get your way. We are saying in effect, “be as out of control as you need to be and then mommy will fix it”. We are not encouraging self regulation. The solution: Compassion and Calibration. We listen and hear the child’s need. We reflect the feeling and then, with a calm presence (or an attempted calm presence) we affirm and re-direct. We do this sensitively and adjust based on the situation and our child.
My example for today: Cady wanted Maddie’s big girl cup of chocolate milk. She can’t have it. I took it away. She threw herself on the floor in a rage. I have options:
My knee jerk response: Say sarcastically “Cady, give me a break”.
My marshmallow response: Give her the milk.
My C-3 Parenting response, “Cady its frustrating to be the little sister sometimes. Use your words and say Please and mommy can get you your own cup”.
Resolution: She continued to cry, I went through the routine two more times, and she finally looked up with tears and said “Peesee”. I got her milk. She didn’t want it and threw her cup at Maddie :).
Tantrums are not always about a spoiled child (although they can be). They are about a new independent little person emerging from what once was a very dependent infant. They are about a child learning that getting your way isn’t done by forcing but is accomplished through socially appropriate behavior. They are about learning that sometimes the answer is no (and that just stinks). They are about learning that mom and dad (and grandma and grandpa) are the boss…fair and kind bosses….but still the boss. Finally, they are about an opportunity to teach and guide your child through their toddler Eriksonian crisis so that with Autonomy behind them, they can take on the next challenge: Initiative vs. Guilt.
If we don’t fully embrace the tantrum stage and skillfully parent our child through them, we could end up with one of two problems:
1. The spoiled child who throws a fit to get what they want and a parent who feels that his child runs the show.
2. The angry child who continues to tantrum past the toddler years because of their deep seated frustration at not having a voice with a parent who is increasingly angry with the child.
Either one of these creates a preschooler that is difficult to manage and a parent who is tired and at wits end. I don’t want this for any of you.
Your homework for the week:
Embrace your child’s tantrums as an opportunity to shine as a C-3 Parent. Email me or post your experience here! I’d love to hear about your adventures in parenting as well.