Tantrums: A Cry for CONNECTION

Parenting is tough as it is. Then suddenly as time trickles on, our little babies grow into independent explorers trying to make sense of the world they live in. When working with parents with toddlers or preschoolers, the biggest worry is how to handle their child’s tantrums.

Let’s understand tantrums first. What is a tantrum? It is a very physical expression of stress. Something has happened to cause a child to feel overwhelmed with feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment. Suddenly, the stress hormone, cortisol, floods a child’s brain and this state is unbearable for children. They will feel out of control and even as adults, we know how scary that feeling can be.

The first mistake that parents often make is to discipline a child when they are having a tantrum. When a child is experiencing all these feelings as well as an influx of cortisol, their cognitive ability is compromised. This means that a child is unable to reason during this time. Instead, what they are experiencing is that their feelings are dismissed and are intolerable to the parent as they cannot be held by the parent.

In many of the parenting talks I give about Positive Parenting, I start with discussing the ‘dance’ that a baby and mother have. This is a very important process for a child to feel contained and safe. When a mother holds a baby, she may gaze into her baby’s eyes. The baby may then respond with a sound or looking back. This is connection. When the baby cries, the mother picks up the baby and softly soothes the baby with her eyes, tone of her voice and the way she holds the baby. The baby’s anxiety has been held and the baby has now learned that they are safe. This very interaction matures with time as that baby grows. When the baby is now a toddler and having a tantrum, the mother needs to ‘hold’ the baby parts of their child for them to feel safe. This is not an easy task when your child is throwing a fit in the middle of the grocery store. For parents who have not been able to safely express their anger as children, this is a very scary interaction so naturally, parents try and discipline which is in fact dismissive of those angry feelings.

So what do you do? When your child is throwing a tantrum, you need to remember that this very moment is terribly overwhelming for them. You get down to their eye-level and just like how you would respond to them if they were hurt, you look at them with concern, have a gentle tone of voice and reflect the feelings behind the tantrum. Statements like this often work well:

  • “Oh Hannah, I can see just how cross you are right now. You are showing me and I can see it. It is making you so upset that Mom said no and won’t buy you that toy. It feels unfair”
  • “I can hear that you are so cross right now. Maybe even a little sad that this is what happened. Sad and cross feelings can feel very scary and mommy/daddy is right here. Why don’t we hug this out and then jump around to get the sad and cross feelings out?”

Reflecting the feelings is the act of connection. Your child feels understood, therefore they no longer need to ‘show’ you their feelings by having a tantrum. Moreover, it is important to reflect the feeling, and if they are not ready to be hugged, you get them to move around to help model healthy ways to deal with anger. If you are not home, star jumps, frog jumps or a quick little race can help. If you are home, jumping on a trampoline, swingball, throwing or kicking a ball with you are other activities you can do. You can see that ‘time-out’ is not a step as when a child is overwhelmed and having a tantrum, they NEED you and not to be cast aside to “think about what they have done” on their own. This exacerbates their feelings of being dismissed and now feeling abandoned.

Now is when parents ask me: “okay so then do we not discipline them?”. Boundaries are vital. Positive parenting is not about letting your child roam free and do what they want. It is about moving away from punishment and introducing responsibility. So, once your child has calmed down, you can then begin the reasoning process. Example: “Hannah, you have to brush your teeth every night so that we can make sure they are very healthy. I know that when it is teeth brushing time, it means that it is bed time and maybe you wanted to spend more time with me and dad/mom. So tomorrow night, if you decide to brush your teeth when we ask you too, you can choose two books for us to read together.” So, what you have done, is reflected why she may have felt the way she did and you have come up with a solution for next time by instituting a choice. Choices are very powerful parenting tools as they not only teach responsibility but they are empowering as they help your child to feel in control. Another example: “Hannah, I can see that when we go to the shops together that you want the toys we see. Sometimes, as your mommy/daddy I have to say no because the toy costs too much money. So next time I go to the shops, you get to decide that if you come with me to the shops, that we are not buying toys but we get to spend time together or you can stay at home and we will spend time together when I get back. What do you want to do? Now remember, if you choose to come with me and you get upset that I can’t buy you something, this means that next time I can’t bring you to the shops with me. Its up to you!”. So now you have put in a boundary and created a choice.

So remember: stop, remember a tantrum means a cry for connection, reflect the feelings, give a hug, do an activity and then when your child is calm, explain the boundary.

Children who feel connected to their parents will want to please their parents and if you can find moments in your day to truly connect (play or talking), your children are less likely to act out.

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