A Case for Tantrums

Parenting / Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

My daughter is 3, almost 4, so my husband and I have been deep in tantrum territory for quite some time.  And, I will admit – I have really struggled with how to handle her tantrums.

My daughter is a very…willful, spirited child.  I have gotten my fair share of meltdowns in stores when I grievously told her she couldn’t get something she wanted, and numerous times she has transformed into a puddle of tears when I asked her to do something she doesn’t want to do.  I tried so many different techniques from “experts” on how to avoid tantrums, how to diffuse tantrums, and how parents actually trigger tantrums.  Some of these techniques helped, but there were still days that I wanted to lock myself in the laundry room for some peace and quiet.

And, for a very long time, I just went along with the opinions of generations of other mothers – that tantrums are just a toddler’s way of manipulating and getting their way.  But, something always felt off to me about these beliefs.  Yes, there may be a kernel of truth to this belief, as I, too, will sometimes give in to my daughter’s pre-tantrum demands just for her to stop screaming (hey – sometimes it’s about survival).  But, I always felt like there was something about tantrums that are developmentally correct.

As a therapist, I am always talking to my clients about our perception about situations and how it can change our outlook.  I started to think, if this applies to my clients, why wouldn’t it apply to my kid?

Toddlers and children don’t understand how to interpret their strong emotions, let alone how to regulate them.  Furthermore, they have no frame of reference for life’s hardships.  They live only in the moment.  Here’s an example: a few weeks ago, I was trying to negotiate a treaty in which my daughter would clean up her toys before she took a nap.  Finally, after my wildly unsuccessful attempts, I said to her, “If you don’t pick up your toys, I am going to throw them all in the trash.”

Yep, the Board of Parents are definitely holding that Mother of the Year Award for me.

Well, you can imagine the nuclear fall-out after I dropped that bomb on her.  But, at that exact moment, that was the worst thing that she has experienced in her little life.

She was having an emotional reaction to bad news.  Yes, to us as adults, this reaction is extreme and ridiculous, but to a toddler, it’s not.  She really thought I was going to throw out her toys, and it was a tragedy unlike anything she had ever experienced.  She had no idea what to do with that flood of emotion and reacted the only way she knew how – to flip the hell out.

Don’t get me wrong – I am no fan of tantrums.  I do not welcome them with open arms.  But, I have found that by adjusting MY perception of what they really are, it has given me the opportunity to empathize with my daughter instead of bristling at the first whines of an impending meltdown.  I have chosen to see tantrums as something my daughter is going through, not doing to me.  My daughter’s tantrums do not mean that I am failing as a parent.  They are merely a necessary part of development and help children to understand and work through disappointment and regulate emotions.  Of course, this is a stage and this too shall pass, although I may have a few more grey hairs as a result.



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