Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

by Dionna on May 27, 2010

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feelingsIn Part 1 of this two part series on tantrums, I talked about the reasons you might want to sometimes “ride out” your child’s tantrums. While it is sometimes therapeutic for kids to simply vent their feelings, more often parents need to work to find the source of the frustration and put a label on the child’s feelings. But dealing with tantrums is not easy, and many of us (myself included!) may sometimes be uncomfortable helping our toddler work through their big emotions.

Allowing Children to Feel Their Emotions

In Naomi Aldort’s book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Aldort discusses parents’ “need” to stop tantrums. A parent may believe that ending a tantrum is in the child’s best interest, but it is usually based on less altruistic motives: avoiding an unpleasant “scene,” a desire for the child to be happy, the parent’s own discomfort at seeing her child in pain, or the parent’s discomfort in being out of control or in the presence of intense emotions.

But how will our children ever be able to resolve emotional difficulties and become resilient if we do not allow them to experience the full depth of their emotions? Aldort discourages cajoling or distraction by using this analogy:

imagine that you have just learned that your mother is dying or your partner is filing for divorce. In desperation you visit a friend, yearning to talk, cry, or rage in a supportive environment. No sooner do you begin letting out your emotions than your friend offers advice or suggests a distraction: ‘Let’s go to a movie, that will take your mind off of it.’ You are more likely to wish that your friend would listen to you attentively, ignore telephone calls and other intrusions, and focus on you. A child is a person with the same needs.

Aldort lists several strategies parents use to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions:


Denial of a child’s emotions can take the form of silence, avoidance, or distraction. Examples of denying your child’s emotions are expressions such as: “It wasn’t that bad”; “It’s not the end of the world”; “You’re all right”; “But you love to play with Susan”; “Don’t be scared/shy/upset.” Children are perplexed at such admonisions, because they contradict what the child is feeling.

Rather than denying uncomfortable emotion, try validating: “Does the scratch hurt?” or “Are you afraid it will stay like this?” Then reassure: “It is painful right now, but it will stop hurting soon.” Don’t be afraid of your child’s tears, hug her and listen without adding drama.


A child’s pain or sadness will not go away simply by engaging him in another activity. Distraction only serves to teach a child that his feelings are wrong and should not be expressed. “I am supposed to get busy quickly with something else. I should avoid all emotional discomfort and take no risks . . . .” Distraction in the teen years and adulthood takes a much more dangerous turn, when people turn to drugs, alcohol, or other escapes from their emotions.

Our children are better served by learning how to work through their problems. Instead of distracting your child from her upset, point it out calmly, without attaching unnecessary emotion to it. “Your crayon broke, and you are frustrated because you wanted to use it to color.” You have probably noticed that children are able to move on from their upsets very easily, especially when their upset is acknowledged. Allowing them to feel their emotions fully makes it easier for them to come up with solutions and find alternatives instead of dwelling on the hurt.


Parents who pretend not to notice a child’s emotion are usually trying not to “reinforce” the behavior; this is avoidance. Again, parents should ask themselves why they are uncomfortable with the emotion. Isn’t it healthier to allow a child to work through her emotions?

Stifling the emotional expression doesn’t make the hurt go away. Again, talk about your child’s frustration or hurt calmly. Help him work through it and come up with his own solutions.

Inducing Fear

Parents who scold, lecture or demean, or punish children for tantrums produce children who are insecure and submissive, or who may even experience increased rage and aggression. Children should not be taught to bury or suppress emotions, otherwise they are not able to move on from them.

We’re Working On It

I’ve recently re-read Aldort’s chapter on self-expression, and I handed the book over to my husband so he could read it too. We realize that we need to do more to respect and value our toddler’s emotions. He may be two years old, but he is a whole person.

When addressing the question of “how to deal with tantrums,” it is important to ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish. What is our ultimate goal? In our home, we want to make sure everyone’s feelings are respected, even the big ones. Even the tough ones. We want to help our son learn how to identify his emotions and deal with his feelings, so he does not feel overwhelmed by them later.

How do you handle tantrums? Do you have ideas on how to overcome the urge to deny, distract from, or avoid our toddlers’ big emotions?

Photo credit: SWQBRA

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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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