The word tantrum occupies a prominent place in the jargon of parenting.
“Stop throwing a tantrum,” “Don’t have a fit, “My child never stops whining,” etc…
These assertions are usually made in reference to more or less intense behaviors that children manifest in reaction to hearing “no” or when things do not go as expected – or even at times, for no apparent reason.
This is what people think and say and we tend to accept it.
But what if none of this were true at all?
What if tantrums were merely invented by adults as an easy answer to their sense of powerlessness and bewilderment in the face of the needs their children express and which they are incapable of understanding?
The innumerable anecdotes and stories I have collected over the years have led me to believe that there actually is no such thing as a tantrum!
I would call them, instead, messages or announcements of indignation, dismay, anger and frustration at the inability of adults to understand the needs and desires of children.
Children are very tolerant, receptive and reasonable, but, like everyone, they demand respect and demonstrate this openly, by fighting for it to be recognized.
In analyzing the stories I’ve collected, two main triggers emerge for what we often call “tantrums”: the creation of a precedent that we no longer know how to manage, and the misunderstanding of a specific developmental need that has arisen.
”Every time we go to the grocery store, George has a tantrum. He throws himself on the floor demanding I buy him a candy bar”.
This is an example of a precedent that comes back to haunt you!
Be careful when creating exceptional circumstances that you do not want to be repeated.
Handing a child your phone because you want her to behave, giving her a pacifier because she is crying, turning on the television so you can have more time to yourself, etc… These are all examples of precedents that, once set, are difficult to break.
Don’t fall into the trap of turning to the easy solution because it will likely come right back at you like a boomerang. A child’s natural mechanism for adaptation and survival drives her to build her world based on the events that take place.
In creating a precedent, children believe that events that have occurred will be repeated and become a constant. Up until about age 3, it is very difficult for a child to comprehend the idea of exceptions and special occasions because of an intense need for consistency and repetition. In order for her to step out into the world, she needs stability and the certainty that whatever has already happened will happen again.
In this case, therefore, the child who is asking for something that she has already been given in the past is not throwing a tantrum, but is instead laying bare the fragility of her parents who at one time gave in.
It happens, of course. Everyone experiences moments of exhaustion and the desire to run off to the Caribbean, leaving the kids behind with their grandparents; but grit your teeth, at least for the first 3 years. Remember these two key words: consistency and patience, consistency and patience, consistency and patience, ohm….
So-called “tantrums” can also be triggered when parents may fail to comprehend a developmental need.
Throughout a child’s first three years, she needs repetition – it gives her a sense of stability and safety. Therefore, a child is not throwing a tantrum when she always wants to drink out of the same cup, or put on her clothes in the same order, or eat the same number of cookies, etc. This behavior does not mean she will grow up to be stubborn, arrogant, finicky or meticulous. In truth, it would actually be nice if she would maintain some of the order and rigor that characterize her first years, but – I hate to break it to you– she probably won’t.
What certainly will happen, however, is that if you do not embrace her need for repetition, she will protest vigorously.
This does not mean that you should bow down to your child and become her servant.
Understanding a child and accepting her needs does not mean there will never be moments of frustration. The difference between respectful and superficial parenting is that the former seeks to support the child in her fragility, while the latter either seeks to avoid uncomfortable emotions at all costs or allows them to overwhelm the child while providing no support.
Getting back to our examples, obviously there will be times when changes to a routine or the color of a cup are inevitable, but understanding the foregoing discussion will help you comprehend the intensity of your child’s emotional response to these situations and find the best way to help her.
Even simply openly expressing your understanding of the need she is experiencing at that moment can be a solution. The first step should always be connection: when a child feels seen, heard and accepted, it is much easier for her to reason. Don’t you find that the same goes for us adults?
Try looking at your child with a sense of deep comprehension; tear down the barrier that separates us from them – the one that has been verbally constructed as a “tantrum”. Try to read each situation: What is your child asking you? What message isn’t getting through? What could be disturbing her this deeply? She can’t be this emotionally ravaged because of a cup or a candy bar; there must be a more profound, complex reason behind her reaction. With a bit of good sense, you can figure it out.
Abandon for an instant your authoritarian adult self and use the language of love and respect.
If nobody ever did this with you as a child, you may find it it very difficult, but don’t fall into the same trap. Put the books down, stop Googling “the terrible twos” or “how to handle tantrums”, etc. Nature has provided you with all the tools you need!
Every single child that is born brings with her the possibility of building a better society for future generations, and in so doing, provides her parents with endless opportunities for reflection and improvement.
Don’t squander these opportunities, it would be a real shame…