Tantrums - which mostly happen at the toddler age - are a difficult area for all parents and it's sometimes hard to know what to do. But how we respond to our children in these testing moments is very important. I've written a detailed post about responding to distress in general here: Everybody Hurts: Ten Ways to Help Children Grow Into Adults Who Cope. But let's look specifically at why tantrums matter - by which I mean, not foot stamps or pouts, but full blown, out of control, toys out of the pram, lie on the floor and beat your fists stuff. You know the one.
Tantrums are not 'Bad' behaviour
When a child is having a tantrum, they are not being 'naughty' or 'spoilt' or behaving badly, although it can seem that way to us as the parent, particularly if we were repeatedly told as children that we were being bad or naughty when we behaved in this way. But what we now know, thanks to advances in neuroscience, is that tantrums are not deliberate, manipulative or naughty - a small child's brain just isn't yet developed enough to make any other choice.
As the Adult, we need to Look Beyond the Tantrum
Often tantrums are triggered by something as simple as hunger or tiredness. Small children usually prefer to eat little and often and tantrums can be prevented by offering plenty of healthy snacks throughout the day. It's also worth looking beyond the tantrum to the surroundings (boring? over-stimulating? frightening? strange?) or to what is going on in the child's - or indeed the grown-up's - world. Have you just moved house, started something new, or been separated for the first time for longer than normal? Has there been a big change, loss or transition, for either the child or the parent? Just like grown-ups, sometimes a small thing like a broken toy or a spilt drink can be the 'straw that breaks the camel's back' and tips us over the edge. Understanding the bigger picture in this way can help us to feel more compassionate to our child and offer comfort.
A Tantrum says 'I Need You' - and you CAN help!
Faced with a child in full blown tantrum, particularly in a public place, we can often feel overwhelmed and helpless. We might feel that we just want to throw up our arms, turn our back, and despair of them. But actually, a child in the midst of a tantrum is really crying out for the input of an adult who has a more developed brain and can help steer them through and beyond these awful feelings. By responding consistently and lovingly instead of walking away, you will actually help your child to develop neural pathways in the brain, which, over time, will help them to calm themselves without help.
How you respond - MATTERS!
It really is time that the world dropped the outdated idea that children turn out pretty much the same no matter what you do. It might seem like a heavy load to bear as a parent, but this simply isn't the case. How we respond and relate to our babies and children, particularly in their first four years when so much brain development is going on, is absolutely critical to their future mental health. Genes play a part, but scientists are increasingly learning that much of who we are is epigenetic rather than genetic - that is to say, that our environment and our experience influence the way our genes behave.
Tantrums are Golden!
It might not seem this way sometimes, but it's the moments when our children are most 'difficult' that they really need us the most. When we manage to respond to them in a way that is warm, loving, soothing and helpful, we are helping them to build within themselves the resources to be warm, loving, soothing and helpful to themselves - to 'internalise' the role of 'Soother' or 'Mother', so that it exists within them and can be accessed always. People who have not internalised this experience often feel a lack of it their whole lives, and can try to fill the emptiness with addictions or other destructive behaviour. In other words, if they can't find comfort on the inside, they will look for it in places outside of themselves. As a parent, you can help them build their Inner Comforter.
Responding to Tantrums is not 'Giving In'
Some parents are concerned that responding to tantrums will result in so called 'permissive parenting' and that their child will be 'spoiled' as a result. But being kind and loving to our child when they are in the midst of a tantrum does not mean that we have to give in to their demands. We can offer them comfort, without feeling we have to give up and buy them the lollipop they wanted. We can acknowledge their disappointment at not getting what they wanted, we can help them understand and find words for their emotions, and we can teach them that love and hugs are actually much nicer than lollipops anyway!
'Tantrum it Out' is just as bad as 'Cry it Out'
Turning our backs on our small children at the very moments they need us the most is not acceptable, regardless of how frustrated, embarrassed or over-whelmed we might be feeling. We absolutely owe it to our children, regardless of the fine details of our other parenting choices, to respond to them lovingly and consistently as much as we possibly can. This means taking their emotions seriously, and not dismissing them as naughty or manipulative. It means seeing the good in them, and taking seriously our role as their grown-up helper. 'Being there' doesn't mean 'censoring' children's emotions or putting a lid on them. We can't always prevent our babies from crying or our toddlers from having tantrums, but we must not leave our babies to cry alone, and we must not leave our toddlers to tantrum alone.