What is a tantrum?
Before we see how to handle our children’s tantrums, let’s first understand what it exactly is. A tantrum is an uncontrolled, unregulated outburst of anger or frustration. There may be various causes for the frustration at various ages.
For a toddler, it may be caused by their inability to communicate with their parent. When she tries many times to communicate something but fails to make the parent understand, she might feel frustrated. This is also the age where the child begins to develop their motor skills by imitating the hand movements of adults around her. So, for example, when she tries to pick up a toy but is unable to grasp it properly, she might experience frustration. This frustration she experiences will motivate her to continue on her journey of self-construction and mastery over her body and mind.
For an older child of around 6 years, which is the age of establishing his individuality and of justice, a tantrum may be caused when his wishes are not fulfilled or when he feels he’s being treated unfairly. Since his reasoning mind is developing, he’ll identify any inconsistencies with our behaviour and may get upset.
If we do not understand this, it is easy for adults to say that she’s crying for no reason at all. We need to understand that we still struggle with identifying and regulating our emotions as adults. Let alone these tiny people who have such big emotions in these tiny bodies.
Tantrums are not negative behaviour
An outburst, by definition, is a release of bottled-up emotions that previously did not have a chance to be expressed in a healthy way. A tantrum is your child’s last-ditch effort to break free and express their emotions, establishing their existence and individuality. If we accept that a tantrum is actually a form of unregulated expression of powerful emotions rather than a negative behaviour, we can help them navigate the ups and downs safely without being judgemental about our children or our own parenting.
Better out than in
It has been medically proven that suppressed emotions and consequent psychological conditions are causes of conditions like anxiety, depression, hypertension, stroke, high blood pressure and various heart-related illnesses. And since tantrums are just expressions of strong emotions, it is important that we give the space for children to express them and vent them out of their system, instead of storing them within their frail bodies.
This is true even for adults. When we release our pent up emotions through crying, shouting or throwing a fit, we feel lighter. This is the mind’s mechanism of releasing suppressed emotions for a healthy body and mind.
Handling a tantrum is hard
Having a 6 yo at home, we know first-hand how hard it is to patiently handle a tantrum. We find it especially hard to be fully present with them as they go through these intense emotions. But why?
In the traditional control-based parenting style of our previous generations, we were never allowed, let alone encouraged, to express our emotions. Boys grew up believing that only girls cry and were shamed when they did. Women, when they cried, were shamed and told to be strong like men. We were told not to feel too happy because something bad will happen. What were we even supposed to do? We were labelled a “good boy” or a “good girl” if we sat in a corner without making any sound as if we didn’t exist.
We were raised to believe that expressing our emotions is an inconvenience to others. We were forced to believe that others’ comfort is more important than our emotions; more important than us. That’s why our child’s tantrum in a public space is much harder for us to handle. We give more importance to others’ comfort and what others will think of us rather than supporting our children when they are experiencing an intense, uncontrollable surge of emotions.
With all these beliefs ingrained in us, it is no surprise that we find it hard to handle tantrums.
So then, how do we handle tantrums?
First of all, we need to become conscious of how we have been handling it in an unconscious mode; a mode based solely on our own upbringing and beliefs. Until we do this, we tend to resist opening ourselves to an approach that is based on compassion and love. Until we do this, we will continue to treat our children the way we were treated as children by the adults in our childhood.
You need to decide what is more important and pick a side. Is it the old beliefs forced upon you or your child’s physical and mental health? Is it others’ comfort or is it giving your child a safe space to experience and express their true emotions?
With this conscious approach, we can now handle it from a place of acceptance and groundedness.
1. Sit near them and be fully present with them
It’s best to let her vent it out rather than distract her and suppress the surge of emotions. If she tends to move around while throwing a fit, ensure her physical safety by gently moving her to a safe space. Once she’s safe, just sit with her and fully witness her emotional ordeal for as long as it takes. When the intensity reduces, ask if she wants to come to you with open arms.
At any point, if you feel triggered and see that you are about to shout or manhandle her, take a deep breath. Observing your breath in your chest anchors you to the current moment and helps you to fully be with her. If you are with your spouse or a trusted adult, step back for a few minutes and let them handle it until you collect yourself. We do this at home when one of us feels impatient when handling our daughter.
2. Remember that your child’s emotions are more important than others’ comfort.
It is ok if others glare at you or your child. Ignore them. It is ok if she shouts at the top of her voice. It is ok if she rolls on the floor. Sit down with her. It is ok if others think you are not “disciplining” your child properly. Others don’t matter! You do. Your child does.
3. Help them learn how to self-regulate their emotions
If the tantrum is caused, for example, when he demands a toy at the store, it can be tempting to give in and bring the tantrum to an end. But if he gets his way immediately after throwing a tantrum, it’ll reinforce that behaviour as a means to attain what he wants.
When you give in to tantrums or go out of your way to soothe him when he gets upset and acts out, he’ll have a hard time developing self-regulation. In those situations, your child is basically looking to you to be external self-regulators. If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and he’s able to ‘outsource’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop as a habit.
Instead, just be present and available for her. When you approach the impulsive, unregulated behaviour calmly and give her time, she can learn to choose better ways to respond to that situation. The feedback she needs is non-judgmental and non-emotional: what went wrong, why, and how she can fix it next time. When you think of emotional self-regulation as a skill to be taught — rather than just bad behaviour — it changes the tone and content of the conversation with her.
When you think of emotional self-regulation as a skill to be taught — rather than just bad behaviour — it changes the tone and content of the conversation with your child.
4. Talk about the behaviour later
Since a tantrum is the behaviour of a fully engaged mind, it will be hard for your child to be aware of it when he’s going through it. To help him reflect on his behaviour, talk to him about what happened when you think he’s relaxed and receptive. It’s better to talk about it the same day or the next day when the events are a bit fresh in his memory. You can also choose a time of the day when he’s more communicative. For our daughter, she tends to be more open and talkative on the bed just before sleeping. Find when that time is for your child.
Can tantrums be avoided?
With the understanding that tantrums are outbursts of emotions that your child wasn’t able to express previously, we can avoid the bottling up of these emotions by listening to them and acknowledging their emotions as and when they surface.
Once you see that their emotions are valid, you can accept your child along with the whole wide range of emotions they are capable of experiencing. By saying, “It is ok to feel angry. I also feel angry at times.”, we actively validate their emotions as opposed to passively ignoring them.
In spite of your best efforts to acknowledge and validate their emotions regularly, there may still be occasional, less-intense tantrums. And that’s perfectly ok. With you by their side as their emotional anchor, tantrums eventually pave the way for meaningful conversations rooted in connection rather than control.
But what about me?
I hear you, mummy. I hear you, daddy. What we spoke about now is not easy to do. It takes a lot of effort and self-reflection to come to a point of fully accepting your children’s emotions without getting triggered by them. Our children are here to heal us as much as we are here to take care of them. Look into parts of yourself that need healing. Is a particular behaviour of your child triggering you? It is likely that you were hurt in a similar situation as a child. It is likely that your emotions were invalidated and you were left to cope by yourself. You did the best you could at that time. By creating a safe space for your child to express and experience their emotions, you also give yourself that safe space. I want you to know that all your emotions are valid and it is your birthright to express them safely. If you weren’t allowed to, I’m so sorry about that.
Just know that you are already doing the best you can. This is the best starting point to become a better parent for your child’s sake and heal yourself for your own sake.