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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

Kittens, Pink Unicorns, and Trucks

When I was pregnant, I had all kinds of ideas about how I was going to raise my child without enforced gender roles (such as “girls wear pink + play house” and “boys wear blue + play football”). I was determined to only have gender-neutral colored clothing + toys. But at some point I realized that banning the color pink was just as foolish as FORCING it upon a daughter. I realized that I can provide a full spectrum of colors + styles + themes, and let my child decide what s/he actually likes.

As it turned out, I had a daughter. This makes the whole situation easier, since (for the most part) girls are allowed to have “boy” clothing + toys + activities without seeming weird. Her tastes are all over the map, but I’ve noticed that most people are very selective in what they notice about children. Pretty much all toddlers like mud, toy balls, cuddly animals, and sparkly things. But adults observing children playing with such things tend to see it through a filter of “boy” or “girl”. People focus on the girl when she’s playing with a dollie and say “what a sweet little princess”, while dismissing the fact that this same person was covered in mud + throwing rocks moments earlier. If a girl is playing with a ball, it is more likely to go overlooked. But if a boy is playing with a ball, people make “cute” comments like “he’s practicing for the NBA!”

My daughter IS pretty stereotypically girly in many ways. She likes to give her dollies hugs + kisses, and try on jewelry. She is also small + dainty looking (and when dressed in something frilly + pink, it is probably very hard to see her actions through anything but “girly” filter). But she also is obsessed with trucks, toy balls, and trains. Pretty much anything with wheels is fascinating to her right now, but she favors her yellow dump truck + her front loader. When we pass by construction sites and sees REAL excavators + bulldozers + loaders, she becomes EXTREMELY EXCITED and insists that we stay and watch for a long while.

My daughter is now starting to take an interest in what clothes she wears. Her clothing drawer is close to the ground, so she is able to go through it and select what she wants to wear. When she finds something, she hands it to me and insists I change her into it right away (otherwise she tries to put it on herself, then generally gets it stuck on her head and becomes very angry). So far, she’s been favoring things with BRIGHT colors, but sometimes prefers brown or black. When I laid out an assortment of bathing suits for her to choose from (including “boy” swimming trunks, “neutral” colored full body swimsuits, and “girly” swimsuits), she immediately picked one covered in hot pink cherries with a frilly skirt + bow on it. Then as soon as I helped her put it on, she went over to a puddle and began splashing in it, laughing with glee as mud splattered all over her face, hair, and pretty pink swimsuit. Toddlers of all genders are like little cave-people that are amused + amazed by every new experience. I’m happy that we aren’t limiting hers by keeping her away from “boy” things OR “girl” things.