Crying, raging and tantrums are misunderstood in our society, seen as something bad, something to eliminate, something to punish. I recently heard from a friend that her son’s school had been in touch with her because her 4 year old who had just started Kindy was having tantrums at school and she wondered if there was something wrong with him. Much of mainstream parenting advice views tantrums as manipulative misbehavior and recommends children be punished, teased or have love and attention withdrawn in response. Maybe parents are worried that we will reinforce our children’s challenging behaviour if we don’t punish them for having tantrums. Sometimes parents are advised to distract our children when they are upset by giving them food, or promising them a toy. So it is hard to know what to do when children have tantrums and it is very stressful when our child has a melt-down in the supermarket aisle.
Fortunately, Aware Parenting has an entirely different perspective on tantrums and supports parents with effective strategies to respond when our children are struggling with these intense feelings.
Aware Parenting understands that all babies and children experience stressful and traumatic challenges in their lives. These may be minor frustrations and fears, birth trauma and intervention, or more major stresses such as moving house, undergoing medical procedures, parental distress or divorce, natural disasters etc.. Whilst we may make every effort to reduce our children’s exposure to stressful events, it is inevitable that they will experience some stress from their birth onwards. Fortunately, children also innately know how to release and heal from stress and trauma by using our natural stress-release mechanisms. These include crying, play, laughter and tantrums, which are all profoundly healing when they occur with the loving presence of a care giver.
Marion Rose Ph.D. describes tantrums as “therapy for toddlers”. They are a powerful way to release pent up painful feelings, stress hormones and physical tension. Tantrums are a natural mechanism for releasing stress and they support our children to heal from painful, stressful, frightening experiences, to resolve trauma, to reduce hyperactivity and to release tension – leading to profound healing and relaxation. Supporting our children by listening when they have tantrums and giving them our loving attention and care, plays a really important role in allowing our children better emotional health, improved behaviour, better sleep, more cooperation, and it strengthens the relationships between parents and children.
But crying, raging and tantrums can provoke very strong responses in parents. We may feel powerless, frustrated, angry, afraid, anxious, resentful or overwhelmed. So it is crucial that parents understand why our children are behaving in these ways, receive guidance on how to respond in a way that supports our children to feel better and behave better, and get support for us to release our intense feelings that we may be experiencing in response to the crying and tantrums. Once we learn how to give our children the emotional safety to release and heal from stress and trauma, the challenging behaviour reduces significantly and our relationship with our child is deeply strengthened.
How to respond when our children have big feelings:
- We can reduce our children’s need for tantrums by reducing their frustration by meeting needs for choice and autonomy. Even when we need our children to do something, by giving them some choices we can elicit cooperation, bring some lightness and fun to the moment, enhance their feelings of connection and release their stress through laughter. For example, toddlers are often reluctant to get into their car seat and be strapped in. This might feel uncomfortable for them or remind them of being trapped during birth or other moments when they did not have choice or freedom to move. By making it into a game and offering them the choice of hopping to the car or getting a piggy back, it will lighten the mood and meet their needs for autonomy.
- We can reduce the need for tantrums by using power-reversal play, where our children get to be the strong one, the fast one, the clever one and we play the role of the weak one, the slow one, the silly one. This also meets needs for connection and gives our children moments of fun where they feel capable and in control. This can be done in the moment when we are anticipating some reluctance AND more generally at other times in our lives. Using the same example, if they are reluctant to be strapped in, we can run to the car and try to strap ourselves into their car seat and insist that they drive today, all the while being surprised and confused why they aren’t driving. Or we can offer them regular moments of power-reversal play to support them to release feelings of frustration or fear.
- We can reduce the chance of tantrums by listening to their big feelings at other times when they are crying. Being heard with love and care when crying is a very effective way for our children to release their tensions and resolve their trauma. The more our children release pent-up stress, the less they need to have tantrums. If our children fall over and hurt themselves a bit, we can stay with them and lovingly listen while they cry. We can reassure them by saying “I see that you hurt yourself sweetheart and I am right here and listening”. Or if our children are complaining about how unfair it is that they can’t have another bowl of ice cream, we can support them to cry – we can say “I know you really want more ice-cream but I am not willing for you to have any more now. I am right here. I am listening”. After being supported and heard in this way, our children return to feeling relaxed and cooperative and deeply connected and loved.
- Giving our children appropriate information will also reduce the likelihood of tantrums. If we are going to be leaving our children with their grandparents for example, telling them how long we will be gone for and what the plan is for the day, may be reassurance enough to reduce their need to cry or rage.
- When our children do have a tantrum, the most effective response is our calm, loving presence. Supporting our children to feel safe to express their big feelings starts with giving them lots of physical closeness and attention and not giving our children punishments or rewards. We get down to their level and remind them that we are there listening to them, that we understand how upset they are, that we won’t leave them alone with big feelings and that we love them. Then we just listen and shine our love on them as they express how they are feeling. Sometimes it is helpful to remind ourselves that, as they cry, they are releasing stress and trauma, that the tension and distress is leaving their bodies and that the tears and rage are not the cause of the feelings, they are the process of healing from the feelings.
- If our children are having a big reaction to a small situation, this is viewed in Aware Parenting as the Broken Cookie Phenomenon. It is when there is a lot of accumulated stress and tension built up in our children and they become unable to hold in the feelings anymore, so find a pretext to having a cry or a rage. This is often mistakenly viewed as manipulative behaviour. But simply it is our children releasing build-up stress and trauma by having a tantrum about something small. There are memes all over the internet about kids tantrum-ing for “ridiculous” reasons. But this is actually a very intelligent way for them to cry and rage with our loving support there to listen, while they get it all off their chest. Laughing at them for being “stupid and over-reacting” adds to their pain and suffering. Listening with love and showing them that you understand how hard it feels right now for them, supports them to release the hurt and stress and return to feeling relaxed and calm and cooperative again.
Supporting our children in this way is, however, not always easy. It can feel difficult because most of us were not supported to cry or tantrum as children. We were often told to stop crying or “I’ll give you something to cry about”. We were sent away to our rooms or punished if we had tantrums, we were rewarded if we stopped crying. Many of us learnt as children to suppress our feelings and hold it in, so that we were safe.
Aware Parenting recognises how crucial it is for us to deal with our own feelings and trauma in order to be able to support our children. It is so helpful for us to find someone to listen to our feelings and pain, whether that be an Aware Parenting Instructor or a counsellor or therapist, a listening partner or in a journal. When we re-learn how to release and heal by crying with loving support, we become so much more effective at supporting our children to do so too.
It is also crucial that we find ways to meet our needs, as parenting is often incredibly demanding and difficult and we evolved as a species over thousands of years to live in supportive groups where the work of life and parenting was shared. We are not designed to do this work in nuclear families on our own. Any small steps that we can take to meet our needs better, will make the work of parenthood so much easier and more enjoyable. The more loving listening our children receive from us, the less they will have tantrums. And the more loving listening we receive as parents, the more we will love parenting.