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.

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