Why Tantrum-throwing Children Aren’t “Brats”


Imagine that you have just heard the most upsetting news of your life (your best friend died, your home town was bombed, etc.) and picture yourself totally LOSING IT. You’re on the ground crying, overwhelmed by suffering, and not even noticing/caring if anyone else is witnessing it. Now picture your partner responding to your suffering by angrily whispering “Be quiet! Behave!“, and maybe even smacking you a few times. Picture a crowd around you frowning, saying “What a spoiled brat“!

We generally think of a child’s tantrum as different from REAL suffering, because the child’s reasons for being upset “aren’t valid”.

It’s been a while since we were that small, and most adults have forgotten what it actually felt like to be a toddler. But people who DO remember describe it the same as the scenario above– as if they’d just heard the most upsetting news of their lives, and had no ability to cope with the resulting intense emotions.

If someone is experiencing suffering, then they are experiencing suffering. The reason behind it absolutely doesn’t matter, but we often dismiss people’s suffering if we don’t agree that they SHOULD be upset (especially if that person is a toddler). But if someone is upset, they SHOULD be. Here’s why:
* They don’t have the skills of dealing with stress in any other way yet (or in that specific moment).
* There may be factors that we aren’t aware of that are adding to the upset. The reason you can see might have merely been the “last straw”.
* What is upsetting to one person might not be upsetting to another. Just because you don’t understand WHY it is upsetting, that doesn’t mean the other person isn’t experiencing real grief.

So I’m just supposed to GIVE IN or I’m traumatizing my kid?
No that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that once a tantrum has begun, the best way of dealing with it is by giving the child the sort of interaction someone would want if they were experiencing REAL GRIEF (hug them and show them genuine love). Of course, showing genuine love is sometimes a difficult task if YOU are also upset in that moment. An “I love you” coming from a stressed parent just isn’t going to cut it. Kids pick up on your stress, and then escalate.

How do you LOVE when stressed?
Love is an action, and so is stress– they are not just happening to you at random. You can decide in the moment which one you want to embrace. It is unrealistic to expect a toddler to be able to recognize that their tantrum is something they are DOING (instead of happening to them), but YOU have a better chance at realizing this and turning your own silent tantrum back toward the direction of calm + peace. It is easy to think of a child’s tantrum as a problem that demands an immediate solution. But really, the best thing you can possibly do is be aware of your emotional state– be aware of the physical sensations in your chest– breathe– and notice that you can be present and compassionate in the middle of the storm.

Other resources:
Here’s what Dr. Sears has to say about tantrums
And here’s some tips from “Happiest Toddler on the Block” Author Dr. Karp

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About Tikva Adler

Hello! My name is Tikva Adler, a full-time mom, nanny, and artist. This blog is a place for me to share my adventures in consciousness and awesomeness. Being of the baby-wearing, co-sleeping, hula-hooping, tree-hugging, moonlight-dancing, paint-splattered sort, my advice and stories tend to revolve around those types of themes. Stay tuned!

Posted on June 5, 2011, in awareness, parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Excellent advice!

  2. Great timing, Tikva! Jeff and I spent much of the last couple days trying to figure out how to best help Max (and ourselves, and Thea) through a sudden stormy phase… it’s always helpful to be reminded to breathe! Great resources, too – I think Sears and Karp both have a LOT to offer parents looking to provide gentle discipline.

    • Thanks! A little while after writing this, I got the chance to put my own advice to the test. It was helpful that these thoughts were fresh in my mind 🙂

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