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Responsive Parenting: Why Tantrums Matter

People make different parenting choices, and that's fine. We don't all want to sleep with our baby in our bed, carry them in a sling, or nurse them until they're three. We might not like the idea of routines, we might despise the thought of spoon feeding a baby purees. But whilst these issues are often a source of interesting and sometimes heated debate, none of them really matter, or at least, they pale into insignificance compared to the bottom line, which is this: Parents need to be Responsive. No matter what other choices you make, as long as you try your best to be consistently and lovingly responsive to your child, you are 'getting it right'.

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.


  1. Brilliant post, thank you. It's amazing how much you (my) intial responses to my childs tantrums, and how I feel about them tells me about my own childhood. Big feelings stuff for me too!

    1. Thanks Anon, yes, good point, that is often what it is all about. So very hard to override these responses too, that feel 'right', but aren't, at least not always. Good luck to you x

  2. I sooooo needed to read this today! We're creeping into tantrum territory with our toddler, and, you know, sometimes it's all I can do to scrape up those last shreds of patience and put them into empathetic parenting. I find myself repeating this refrain: "He's not giving me a hard time; he's HAVING a hard time." Thanks for the needed reminder! :)

    1. A very good refrain! Thanks for reading x

  3. I agree with everything above. When I get into trouble is when my toddler hits me when he's having a tantrum, and it hurts! He often hits my stomach and I am pregnant. I find it very hard to remain empathic and soothing in that situation. But, I keep trying! Thanks!

    1. Thanks Anon. That sounds really hard. I find it hard myself when one hits the other, that really pushes my buttons. you say...we keep trying! Good luck! x

  4. Years ago, when my eldest was a young toddler, she had a meltdown in Tesco. You know how they have high ceilings and a screeching child seems to echo all down the massive store? Yeah. It was epic.

    I was holding her, speaking softly in her ear, stroking her back, and a lady came up to me and said "You are doing a wonderful job." And then she walked off.

    That single moment has kept me empathetic during many more tantrums and meltdowns I've experienced alongside my four children.

    I wish I could tell her thank you! I don't even remember what she looked like.

    1. That's such a lovely story R4C! I so wish that happened more often, but actually if I'm feeling pessimistic I feel it's sometimes the opposite - the grown ups all rolling their eyes while the toddler goes for it alone. Actually funnily enough I wrote this post inspired by a debate that raged on a certain FB page - the owner had posted a picture of a child having a tantrum in a supermarket, she was prone on the floor and hanging off dad's leg. Most people said 'LOL - been there', but some others said, actually, I don't think that's funny, and a debate began to rage. Having read a lot of the comments defending the photo I felt I wanted to write this post and give a more child centred view of tantrums. I think very often they are still not taken seriously and the myth goes on that we must ignore them in order to prevent them reoccurring, which is nonsense! Perhaps we should all aim to become that supermarket lady, whispering in the ear of struggling parents. I will certainly take that up when I'm very old! Best wishes x

  5. Great read, we're just entering tantrum phase. So how do you recommend we should respond?

    1. Gosh Marissa that is such a big question. I hope some of the points in the above post help, and you might also like my post about responding to distress:
      Basically just follow your heart and assume the best of your child, be loving and responsive, help them to make sense of things, and be their rational brain until they build their own.
      Best of luck x

  6. I agree with everything except the whole don't walk away thing. As an adult when im pissed,i want to be left alone. it does not calm me to have someone on me. i get they are young i get it. but, all toddlers do not respond to things the same. my son starts freaking out and i cannot console him that's when i take him to his room,sit him on his had and crack the door. when he's done he may come out and try again. its better than having him scream at me and hit me and making the situation worse for all.

    1. It's really hard Anon. Of course only you know your situation fully and have to make the best decisions that feel right for you. But I do wonder if perhaps you could do all of the above, only when you walk away, say calmly, 'If you need me, I will be sitting in the hall'. And just go and sit quietly, and wait. Perhaps he might come to you, at which point you might just give him a hug.
      I don't really like 'Time Out' personally but I do love the suggestions in this post about a Calm Down Corner:
      Best wishes and good luck x

  7. Great post. I often perform this role as a father of a 3yr old, and her mother is suffering with a little PND following our second child, so she can find it more difficult. I take this approach to discipline too, as taking the chance to spend time with the kids, explaining things and helping them to work it out for themselves works for me... and is actually really good quality time with them (and i don't get much of that).

    I also agree with the post above, and do use time out. sometimes responding means giving them quiet time and a little solitude can really help when they get mental over-stimulation. I always end it with a little chat and a hug.


  8. Thank you for this. I needed it today, driving an hour with a crying child. When she started, I pulled over and just sat with her for fifteen minutes. Unfortunately I had to keep driving but she knew I was listening. Although she didn't stop crying we talked the whole way. I really value giving time and patience for a child who is emotional. Often it's just a matter of sitting quietly with them, or holding them if they let you. My daughter is pretty good a self-nurturing for a two-year-old. If she has a tantrum, I sit at her level and within minutes she comes to me for a hug, and tells me she feels better. And mostly there is a very logical reason behind it!

    I will share this on my facebook page - thank you.


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