Tantrums in Toddlers

As children approach the end of their first year of life, they begin having a sense of their own self as an independent person with an independent will. The emergence of a sense of self also marks the beginning realization that one's ideas and wishes are not always achievable or attainable. The complexity of children's emotions at this age includes the frustration involved in having to face this inherently difficult and painful realization.

Tantrums are a child's way of encountering and managing complex and potentially overwhelming emotions.

The way that parents respond to children's tantrums at this point sets the stage for the child's future handling of their own emotions, their ability to understand, honor, and cope with their own feelings.

The loud unceasing screams of a tantruming child, the intensity of the child's emotions, and the uncontrollable presentation of a tantrum, can all be quite difficult on the nerves as well as the ego of an adult. Parents often have their own emotional reactions to a child's tantrum and run the risk, at these moments, to respond to the child from the perspective of their own needs as opposed to the needs of the child.

Being overly-focused on quieting a tantruming child could lead to the child's suppression or avoidance of their feelings as opposed to their effective management of intense emotions.

The most helpful role a parent can play in relation to a child's tantrums is to assist the child in understanding, managing, and coping with the feelings underlying a tantrum.

Although this may change as children get older, in the young toddler, a tantrum is merely an overflow of raw, intense, unprocessed emotion. A tantruming toddler is an overwhelmed toddler—not a misbehaving or manipulative toddler. It is important not to respond to a toddler's tantrum as though it is a misbehavior or a manipulative act.

Telling a tantruming child “don't cry” or “be quiet” or “stop it” does not help the child handle their emotions any more effectively. It simply tells the child that we, as adults, do not like, approve, or wish to tolerate their feelings.

Reaching a successful resolution with a tantruming episode helps the child build healthy and effective internal mechanisms for dealing with similar feelings in the future.

A confident voice with a kind, warm, or neutral tone is most helpful when speaking with a child in the midst of a tantrum. Speaking to the child in an angry, punishing, harsh, impatient, frightened, disparaged, exasperated, or pleading tone does not help the child make peace with their feelings as these tones of voice add to the emotional load of the moment rather than lightening the load for an already overloaded child.

A child who feels understood, accepted, and loved, and who gains a sense of competence in handling their own emotions, is less likely to feel the urge to tantrum or to shut down in the face of strong emotions in the future.

In my clinical experience, over-reliance on behavioral management techniques such as “distraction” or “time out” can lead to unhelpful results. Overuse of “distraction” can come across as ignoring the child's feelings. Overuse of “time out,” depending on the way it is carried out, can be experienced as an act of punishment or rejection. Offering children the opportunity for a “calm time,” combined with a supportive and empathic attitude, allows children to muster up their strongest coping capacities to overcome the tantrum at their own pace. By repeatedly overcoming their tantrums in this way, children's inner ability to handle the strong emotions that lie at the root of the tantrum matures and they begin to experience and express their strong emotions in ways other than tantrums.

When you want children to listen closely, whisper to them.

-- Dr. Haleh Stahl

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