The Gift of the Tantrum
Many view tantrums as “misbehavior” and a negative experience to be disciplined and avoided, when in fact, tantrums are a natural and healthy part of normal development. A central struggle in growing up and thus parenthood is balancing the tension of a child’s emerging sense of themselves and natural drive toward autonomy, with a child’s need for connection.
These two basic, innate human drives of equal value run throughout the lifespan:
1) the need to move away from the parent for exploration, independence and autonomy… and
2) the need to move close to the parent for attachment, dependence, connection, and relationship.
These polar opposite energies create intense inner conflict leading to tantrums, especially in a young child’s brain, in which making sense of emotions is limited, and emotional regulation is underdeveloped.
As babies begin to move away from the parent, we see the beginning emergence of their own desires, preferences, and opinions start to unfold. As a parent, this is often met with surprise to witness their once relatively ‘compliant’ baby, who accepted limits and transitions easily, now have an opinion strongly expressed through their body language and intensified tears. Babies’ natural need to become independent drives the assertion of their will, and as toddlers and preschoolers, this need only gets stronger, with more inevitable tantrums.
Two ideas in conflict
Tantrums are essentially the conflict between two differing ideas. What ensues in a young child is an emotional ‘storm’ that must be experienced, expressed and expelled in order to dissipate to calm.
mom wants me to go to sleep, and I don’t want to!
dad needs to use his keys, and I want to play with them!
mom says it’s time to say goodbye, and I want to keep playing!
dad is serving eggs, and I want a cookie!
mom wants to go home after school, and I want to go for ice cream!
dad says only 30 minutes of TV, and I want to watch another show!
When a child experiences this conflict in which their desire, idea, or plan is not met for any reason, they not only feel the frustration of not getting what they want, but also the reality that they are a separate being with their own ideas. Defining themselves in the face of a different idea is a moment of separation from their parent, which adds to their distress, as they have an equal need to feel connected. This causes great emotional turmoil for a young child. With little insight, and limited ability to regulate emotion, they need help calming their feelings from a loving presence. This is where a parent’s understanding and perspective is critically important in turning this experience into a gift for the child.
A learning opportunity
When a parent appreciates the essential developmental need for the child to become their own person with a sense of ‘power’, they can empathically help their child to calm down. When instead a parent views a tantrum as misbehavior (eg. “bratty”) to be stopped or ‘punished’, the child misses out on many levels. The intuitive response is often to ‘fix’, distract, or ‘rescue’ the child’s feelings, so as to avoid the tantrum, but not only is this a missed learning opportunity, but also inadvertently sends the wrong message …a message that their feelings aren’t tolerable and need to go away. This is not helpful in building important skills. Rather what your child needs is to feel ‘felt’ or understood through acknowledgment, validation, and sometimes touch. They need you to be their co-regulator, and ‘container’…an accepting presence and space that can tolerate their big feelings. As you model your empathy and acceptance of ALL their feelings, they learn to tolerate their own feelings. This is the gift of the tantrum.
When a child learns that they can experience their idea not being honored in a given moment, wrestle with the conflict, have big volatile feelings with an inner collapse… but then, put themselves back together again, without getting what they wanted, and discover they are okay... they gain critical life skills…and the gift of resilience.
The gift is multi-layered
Within the resilience, children develop skills of emotional intelligence: handling delayed gratification, self-soothing, and frustration tolerance that will serve them well in life as they face the daily life obstacles, disappointments, and frustrations that are part of the human experience. This takes lots of practice over the months and years of a child’s life, but is incredibly fruitful in the long view.
Lastly, when a child experiences empathy and attunement to his/her feelings growing up, a secure attachment develops, which ultimately fosters executive functioning skills in adulthood of emotional and physical regulation, flexibility, insight, self-awareness, judgment, focus, planning and decision making.
The gift of a secure attachment is a foundation for life to thrive and meet one’s potential.
Truth be told, as parents it is not always easy or possible to choose this mindful road in dealing with your child’s tantrums.It takes insight and emotional resources, which may not always be accessible in the moment.The good news for parents is your child doesn’t need this experience every time to gain the gifts… they do need regular practice and demonstration of the empathic response to a tantrum over the years, but they don’t need it a hundred percent of the time.And of course, there is always the opportunity as a parent to revisit and repair a misattuned moment if needed.Progress not perfection and the gifts will still show themselves.