Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

by Dionna on May 20, 2010

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Our son, Kieran, has been exceptionally tantrumless for the first 29 months of his life. Yes, he has screamed and cried. Once he fell and halfheartedly writhed on the ground. He’s even pulled the limp rag doll trick once or twice – letting his arms go up lifelessly so we almost drop him at the shock of his sudden heft. All 30 lbs of him.

tantrumsBut for the most part, we’ve not had to deal with “typical” toddler tantrums. By typical, I mean the ones harried veteran parents always stop to warn you about when they see you cuddling a sweet, drool-soaked little bundle of baby chub in the supermarket. And you would smile and nod sympathetically, edging closer to the clerk (because the parent’s wild eyes and twitchy left nostril are making you nervous) all the while knowing that your child will never be “typical.”

For 29 months we’ve been blessed with this easy-going little dude. Well, aside from the fact that he is rather attached to my side 23 hours of each day and would prefer something closer to, say, 24. But still, he’s pretty laid back. I attribute this primarily to Kieran’s extensive signing vocabulary. We are convinced that Kieran’s ability to communicate what he was thinking, wanting, and needing through sign language made his pre-verbal days pretty cakewalk.

Now that he has a great verbal vocabulary too, we still haven’t had a “tantrum,” but he is quicker to boil over with a flood of emotions when he is tired or overloaded. My husband and I have shared several bewildered glances, typically to express something along the lines of:

Where in the world did that come from?

But we expected it. It’s where he is developmentally.

Riding Out Tantrums

We do not believe in punishing tantrums. Toddlers are learning how to navigate the world – oftentimes, their emotions overwhelm them. A child in the midst of a tantrum feels powerless and out of control. Punishing tantrums does not “teach” a child anything, other than the fact that they cannot trust their deepest feelings to their caregivers.

Too often, I think Tom and I try to cajole Kieran out of feeling intense emotions. We change the subject, distract him, switch activities – anything to stave off a screaming, crying, uncomfortable (for us) five minutes. But that isn’t always appropriate.

Perhaps Kieran simply needs to feel those intense feelings every once in awhile. Think about it – have you ever just needed to have a good cry? I have. And I usually feel better afterward. Sometimes I need that raw emotion to process something I’ve been having a problem with. Children are no different.

In Lawrence J. Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, Cohen posits that children who tantrum a lot may not be experiencing any tantrum in full. If the child is never allowed to completely express his frustration and anger, he may believe that no one cares enough to listen to him. The tantrum will just keep repeating as the frustrations build. Cohen wonders if children might sometimes benefit from an adult sitting back and letting a tantrum “run its course,” then taking care to reconnect with the child after it is done.

To ride a tantrum out, Cohen recommends being physically and emotionally available for the child, but not interfering or pestering the child with questions or solutions. Cohen also reminds parents to examine their own reactions to a child’s tantrums. Do the parents always “give in” to strong emotion? Or do the parents take the authoritarian approach and consistently refuse to budge from their initial position? Either extreme is ineffective. Children do benefit when they know there are consistent limits, but we can also teach our children valuable lessons by reconsidering if we were hasty in our initial decision.

Cohen adds that punishing children for tantrums (by sending them to “time-out” or to their room, spanking, or by teasing or taunting) is ineffective. Not only because children are often helpless to prevent tantrums, but also because we do not want to convey the message that their strong feelings will isolate them from their family and community. Punishing a child for his feelings does not help him learn how to cope with them, it simply tells the child that he is “bad” or “wrong” for feeling.

Do you try to end your toddler’s tantrums quickly, or do you sometimes let the tantrum “run its course”?

Please read Riders on the Tantrum Storm Part 2, which will list a few other ineffective ways we often use to deal with tantrums, as well as some ideas to work through tantrums more effectively.

Photo credit: trexor14

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Dionna (20 Posts)

Dionna writes at Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

MamanADroit May 20, 2010 at 11:20 am

Very interesting. I definitely have times when I
just need to cry or rant for a minute! Hubby and I both have very intense emotions, so I’m sure Baby will too. Neither if us really had tantrums though-I’ll have to check with the grandmas to hear their “secrets” too!

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Marcy May 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Oh Laura!! I had the same experience with my then 22 month old. I wish I had known then what I know now. *sigh* http://fromanacorn.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/fits-and-fury-and-first-tastes-of-naugty-spots/

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Della May 20, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Empathy is a great skill and tool. I find with my children that on the occasions where they are overcome with great emotion, I try hard not to figure out ‘why’ using my adult reasoning (it rarely makes sense from a grown ups perspective) though I do check whether there is a simple solution to their frustration before it escalates. I then use empathy to tune in to how they are feeling right then and either vocalise it for them (“you feel really angry right now that you can’t have the toy”) or just be with them silently. I find that empathy can make the feelings more intense for a while as they really ‘feel’ their feelings, but then when they subside, they’re all done, there’s no residual angst or having to revisit it later etc. letting children feel all their emotions, not causing them, is healthy, and if handled calmly it gives the message… “I trust you and your ability to cope. All your feelings are valid and you are loved and safe”. It’s very empowering for parent and child to ride a tantrum well.

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Johanna S May 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Our daughter is 32 months. If she is throwing a tantrum because, say, I said no to candy, I say something like “I listen when you are sweet.” I briefly explain why she may not have whatever she wanted. I might also say “I cannot understand when you are crying.” Not trying to give her a hard time; I just don’t understand a lot of what she says while crying. I am always nearby and she is held if she wants to be. Other than that, I give her space and encourage others to do the same.

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Leslie S. May 20, 2010 at 7:23 pm

A friend posted this to her facebook.. enjoyed reading it. Thank you!

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Stephanie May 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I recently read a book, called Tears and Tantrums, and it goes into details about how we all need to express our emotions and how crying is a great stress reliever. It also promotes letting your children cry while holding or being physically there to comfort when they need it. It’s very informative and I feel it strongly resonates with AP styled parenting. I tend to try to change my son’s mind when he begins to cry, especially around my parents or other people. But at home, I will just hug him and let him cry if he needs it.

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Liz May 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

My 20 month-old has tantrums. Some days he goes without, but on a bad day he might have two or three. I really dreaded this stage when he was younger, but now I see that it is not a big deal at all. Riding it out with him is easy (though not necessarily pleasant). I’ve learned not to intervene – it doesn’t do any good.

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janetlansbury May 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Yes, children need to be allowed to cry and rage to release the stress of their frustrations, which are plentiful for a healthy child in toddlerhood. We pave the way for our children to be comfortable “feeling their feelings” when we don’t silence every infant cry by immediately offering a baby the breast or other pacifying device. Infants sense our discomfort with their feelings, and will adapt to please us at the expense of their authenticity. We all need to cry sometimes, and we need to be encouraged to do so by those who love us. Crying is healthy for an infant, too, as long as his needs for sustenance have been met, and he is in our comforting presence. When babies feel like crying, they should be allowed to cry. Distractions, shushing and breastfeeding to quiet tears teach our baby that his feelings (and therefore, parts of him) are not okay.

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Shen-Li May 26, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I completely agree! So many times with my older boy (when he was younger) I would feel the need to stop the crying immediately. Everything we did seemed to make it worse. Finally, one day, I just got down on the floor and lay there next to him waiting for the storm to ride out and it worked! He calmed down by himself and I continued to hold him until he was ready to get up again.

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mb June 20, 2010 at 11:14 pm

what about an almost 7 year old tantrum which evolves into violence for things like having to turn off a movie?

i have held space for all these years for her different phases of tantrums. i believe we all need to express ourselves.

but where do we draw the line and at what age?

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Dionna June 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm

mb – thank you for reading and commenting – I agree that we all need to express ourselves, of course I do not believe that our right to express ourselves comes at the cost of someone else’s physical safety.

I’m not sure I have a global answer to your question, and I have no specific recommendations for your child based on one situation. I do know that Aldort’s “Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves,” Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting,” and Cohen’s “Playful Parenting” applies to kids of all ages, so you might find some ideas for how to communicate with your child in one of those books.

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Reggie June 30, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Thank you for this. I am so uncomfortable with the crying and my 22 mnth old daughter has a tantrum, probably once every other day, sometimes she will have one a few days in a row and then maybe have a coupld days without. Most of the time it is tiredness – actually all the time. The intensity of them as reduced a little, but today she had her first day w/out a nap and seemed to fight it and cry on and off all day. I need to just let her be, she pleads to go out, she doesn’t not talk yet, being in a bilingual situ, so points to go out, but she does want be to hold her hand, but doesn not seem to respond to hugs; should i just hold her and say nothing? I often do, when I am just overwhelmed by it or irritated cos’ I feel helpless to do anything about it. I usually hold her and say I understand and walk down the road with her. She does not have supermarket tantrums or anything really like that… it is usally at home; meltdowns, after a nap when she still feels groggy or not quite rested up or before bed.

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