A tantrum is what some of us learn to live with as part of raising children, as part of our daily routine. A tantrum is not what we rush to tell our friends about. Most of us want to forget it ever happens, and often we think it only happens to our children. A tantrum is a frightening entity that when not handled delicately can grow to be a monster.
Some of us may see a tantrum as a form of disobedience or a child out of control, and thus fail to understand the reasons behind its existence. And when we fail to handle the tantrum appropriately, we can end up falling into its vicious mouth and brutal claws.
Here are some of the fundamental steps to understanding a tantrum:
- A tantrum is a form of discovering and establishing independence;
- A tantrum reflects the child's feelings, not the child's behavior;
- A tantrum is not the parent's fault;
- A tantrum belongs to the child: the child begins the tantrum on their own, and therefore needs to finish it on their own;
- A tantrum that is handled right can become a tame little puppy.
Let's explain the points listed above:
1. Independence is a vital step in a child's growth and emotional development, and therefore should be allowed to have "life." Since the growing child is becoming more aware of his or her environment, of the options and of the relationships with their caretakers, he or she is being exposed to the ways they can manipulate their surroundings to benefit themselves. Children are extremely self-centered beings (that's not a wrong thing), and they see their environment as there to serve only them. Our job as responsible caretakers is to guide and teach them the appropriate, and the positive ways, to influence it.
2. "You made me angry!" Cries (or screams) a child during a tantrum. "You don't give me what I want!" The child seems to be yelling, or actually is. What the child is communicating are feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment - all feelings that need to be acknowledged and validated. Validating a child's feelings is one of the most important stepping stones on the road to a strong and reliable relationship. Think of how much you want your spouse; your parent; your best friend to validate your feelings and how strong it makes you feel when someone just simply "understands you." Your child is asking for the exact same thing. Saying: "I know you're angry that I didn't give you . . . that you didn't get" or "I'm sorry you couldn't have . . . I know how disappointed you must feel" is compelling and powerful. It allows the child to feel validated, and most of all it makes him or her feel respected by you.
3. Now, saying you understand how your child feels, should not, by no means, be traded for your child getting what they want, for you giving in to their demands, or even agreeing that their behavior is appropriate. You need to separate your child's feelings from their behavior and while validating their anger, disappointment, or frustration, you can let them know their behavior is not appropriate. It's important to understand that your child's anger at you is not your fault. Their anger belongs to them and is a result of a very real feeling they are feeling. Try not to feel guilty when your child lets you know (by throwing a major tantrum) that they are angry with you. Your child being angry is not the end of the world, it's merely a way of expressing themselves.
4. Since a tantrum acts like a cycle - it has a beginning, a middle, and an end - you need to treat it that way. It has to go through its complete cycle. The tantrum belongs to your child, only your child begins the tantrum as a result of their own feelings, it would only be fair that your child ends the tantrum on their own. Letting them know this is important. Once again you validate their feelings: "I'm sorry you have to have that tantrum, I see how angry and frustrated you are" and let them know it's within their control: "and when you're done with your tantrum, we might be able to do, to go, to have." Let your child know, in the most calm way possible (while they are screaming from the top of their lungs, kicking and throwing themselves on the floor) that you really are there for them, and you will be there when they are done. If you need to leave the room because they are too loud, say it. (Tantrums happening outside of the home are a separate topic.) If you need to close the door on your child because you are uncomfortable seeing them that way, let them know that too. Communicating with your child while he or she is going through the tantrum is extremely important, as long as you don't give in, feel guilty, or try to end the tantrum for your child by making promises or threats. This might only anger them more, since they are sensing your anxiety. Be compassionate, clear, precise. Your child wants you to stay in control while they are out of control, so they can rely and depend on you.
5. Once the tantrum is over - and every tantrum is eventually over - sit and talk about it. You might want to take your child in your arms and softly speak to them about what has just happened: "You were so angry. I could tell. You wanted that so badly." Your child wants to be reassured of your love, even when you two disagree. You can let your child know that you didn't like seeing them having that kind of a tantrum, that you totally disapprove of them getting so out of control, but that you understand that it was what they needed to do. Remember you always want to make them feel good about themselves and therefore never belittle their emotions. You can talk about other ways to handle such anger (or other feelings) next time, come up with suggestions, or let your child come up with ideas. Know that making up is a wonderful way to feel close again.
We all need to remember that we have our breaking moments, our down times, our weaknesses. We don't want to be reminded of them all the time, we certainly don't want to be remembered just for them. Each and every one of us experiences a tantrum much like our children (even when our tantrums don't include throwing ourselves on the floor), and we all want to be forgiven for our mistakes. What you learn to do for your child, you eventually learn to do for yourself and your loved ones.
Please try not to get intimidated in the face of your child having a tantrum. Don't panic, or give in to your own anxiety. Instead, keep calm, remember the points made above, and mostly: that your child needs you, and is not having a tantrum to hurt you, to get you, or to ruin your day!