Wednesday, June 23

the gift of tantrums

i've been wanting to write about tantrums for the longest time, but now is the perfect time.

the wildflower had some sort of illness that produced a mild to moderate fever. her only other symptom was a slightly blocked nose when breathing deeply, whilst she slept. during her 3/4-day fever, she was lethargic. on the night her fever broke, she woke every 30 minutes because she couldn't breathe with her blocked nose. and she was angry each time. i sensed a deeper anger within her.

that day, she was whiney and irritable, alternating with periods of happiness. she had a tantrum later that evening. the following day, she had 5 tantrums. on the third day she had 1, and it was short-lived.

i refer to these as tantrums for convenience. but i tend to call them rages. because she is so furious and it is a rage. also, the term tantrum has very misunderstood connotations attached to it. for older children, the term i've heard is meltdown.

the average person thinks of tantrums as the result of a spoilt child. at the more compassionate end of the scale, we think of tantrums as the result of a tired or ill child. yet generally there is a belief that we ought to prevent and stop tantrums.

to me, tantrums are the natural extension of crying in newborns. that is, they are an innate mechanism of stress release.

we all get stressed, and we all need to release that stress.

stress can come from undesirable or desirable places. a surprise party, a first date, making a speech, receiving an award, getting married, can all cause a lot of stress despite them being otherwise enjoyable to us.

if we don't release stress consciously and effectively, it will disperse one way or another.

we get ill, have tight shoulders, aching back, athritis, headaches, insomnia, stomach ulcers, heartburn, and more. we are irritable, short-tempered, irrational, impulsive, short-sighted, paranoid, weepy, nervous, afraid, and more.

our minds and bodies do fine on short bursts of stress that is released. like adrenaline inducing sports.

prolonged stress and unreleased stress is a detriment to our minds, bodies, and spirits.

more so with children. children are particularly sensitive and are constantly bombarded by new experiences and new information from their environment. older children, toddlers, are attempting to define an identity and work out bounderies.

every child is different of course. some have more of a temper, or are especially sensitive, and thereby might cry or tantrum more readily. but likewise, some children are more prone to please, and might be less likely to show strong emotions, especially if they quickly learn those emotions are not approved.

so, children are basically, regularly stressed.


we can release stress in many ways - vigorous activity (exercise, sex, hard physical work), relaxation experiences (massage, walks in nature, meditation), or through pure emotional/physical outlets (screaming, crying, intense laughing).

out of all of these, crying is one that is very special. because the act of crying has, in my view, four things going for it.
  1. it is emotionally satisfying - we understand the act to be a psychological release.
  2. it is physically demanding. (therefore like vigorous activity)
  3. it's free and readily accessible.
  4. it releases stress hormones through the tears.
isn't that fourth one amazing?

for newborns, this ability to release stress hormones through crying is unbeatable. there is literally nothing else they can do. older babies begin to be capable of using their bodies more. toddlers can add screaming, shouting specific words, using their entire body, affecting their environment (by hitting, throwing objects, breaking things).

as we get older, we're taught to control our bodies and our emotions. and that's how we get socially acceptable adults with stomach ulcers.

to gain yourself a well-behaved toddler, repress these natural urges even earlier.

the repression of children's voices has been going on for decades. so we can't be too angry with ourselves for following the ways of our parents, and most of society.

if you find that you're the parent that is proud of your child for being well-behaved (not complaining, not whining, not crying, not tantruming) during a flight, long car ride, social event, at a restaurant..... rather than simply being grateful that the child was content, then you might be repressing their natural methods at stress release. you might be repressing their emotional voice for the sake of convenience, peace, or social acceptance.

i was a perfectly behaved young child. when we went out as a family, if i was told to sit, i sat. quietly. outward appearances were very important to my mother. she was not going to have the child that misbehaved.

when i started school, i was a total pain in the butt to my teachers. not because i was a 'bad' kid, but because i discovered i had a voice, and i wasn't going to be stopped here, away from my parents.

when we were cared for by others when both my parents had to work, it took my brother getting hurt for me to speak up. despite being forced to sit and be quiet for hours by one carer, it hadn't occured to me that i ought to complain.

by the time puberty hit, i was ripe for rebellion.

in my first romantic relationships, i didn't know how to express unhappiness.

okay, there were plenty of other problems i had with my parents. but repressing my voice went a long way to instill resentment in me and cause issues with self-expression.

a tantrum is the eruption of pent up frustrations. sometimes frustrations are small, and the child may show no indication that he or she is frustrated at all at that moment. but every 'no', every thwarted attempt at self-assertion, every time a toy won't cooperate, tiredness, bumps, the wrong food, having to wait, boredom, being forced to do anything.... all these little frustrations and stresses add up. and we can include in there all the good stuff too - fun trips out, parties, a new toy, a new person visiting, a playdate.

suddenly you put socks on their feet and they lose the plot. it's the worse thing you could have done. it's horrendous. they're furious. they tense their bodies, kick, hit, scream, cry, throw something. your 'sweet' child that has been so happy all day, is suddenly a crazed banshee.

it's a common baffled complaint from parents - but we had such a lovely morning, then he just lost it.

we can repress our children's voices in many ways. by stern looks, by requesting their 'nice' voice but never validating their emotions, by telling them to be quiet, by not ever showing emotions ourselves, by disapproving of crying or tantrums. too many tantrum guides focus on teaching the child control.


i used to have a terrible attitude towards tantrums. i viewed them as the result of a badly behaved child. i forgive myself such ignorance and lack of compassion, and am thankful i have learnt otherwise.

it was learning that crying was so essential, that led me to view tantrums as the natural extension.

when she tantrumed the other day, i was grateful that she could release the stress of her illness. i sat beside her, ocassionally looking lovingly into her eyes but otherwise not stimulating her more. moving my body enough to get out of the way of kicks or hits. when my intuition told me that she was ready for contact i extended my hand into hers. she continued screaming or crying as she held my hand. when she was done, she crawled up into my arms and we lay together quietly.

she released, she was validated, she was accepted and loved with all her emotions.

and for the parent, viewing tantrums as necessary and fulfilling a purpose means we feel much less stress ourselves. and we open up the channels of love.

and don't get the impression that i'm a perfect mama. during her 5-tantrum day, while she was whining for the upteenth time, i shouted at her, that she was driving me crazy. i'm human.

on that third day, the one tantrum she had was less furious. and on the fourth day she was back to her normal self - willful, demanding, full of energy, huge smiles and giggles, lots of hugging and kissing.

before this the wildflower hadn't tantrumed in a long time. i believe that's because i allow her her voice. she's allowed to be angry and express that anger.

your child could be 'well-behaved' and build up emotional and psychological issues, or they can shout, cry, or tantrum in your loving presence as they need to.

tantrums are a gift, really.

check out Solter's books: The Aware Baby, (amazon.uk) and Tears and Tantrums (I haven't read this one) (amazon uk).

25 comments:

  1. Our child never tantrums. With the exception of whining and putting up a fuss when we have to leave the playground, he never has to the extent you describe above. But thanks to your post, I think I may have figured out the reason why. Though he will say, "I'm sad." Or "I'm angry." And my response to this from now on will be saying more of this, "That's ok. You can be angry. Mommy gets angry sometimes too." And he senses when I am at my wit's end and severely dislikes it, "Mommy, you're not angry (are you?)." That usually calms me down instantly. But I am a bit of your mother, a bit of mine. I am constantly trying to relearn how to parent. It's a struggle but posts like this one reaffirm my commitment. Thank you again and also, thanks for sticking in the bit about not being perfect :-).

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  2. Jenn - your ability and willingness to be so honest about your parenting is always humbling to me.
    it does sound like you have a pleaser. that was me as a child.
    the difficulty with a child like mine is focusing on controling them. the difficulty with a child like yours is that it's difficult to view 'good' behaviour as possibly not desirable.
    you're spot on about him being concerned or afraid to anger you being a sign.

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  3. Thank you for your post. I have one who has reased her stress in tantrums and I stand back, let her have her tantrum and then I am ready with open arms when she is done. On the other side of the tantrum energes this sweet refreshed little girl who has shaken off the stress of whatever has been bothering her and ready to move on with her day. I have recived critisism for this , people who think I should "do something" They don't understand that I am. I am letting her releive her stress and explore her emotions. I love to here others who veiw tantrums in the same light. Thank you

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  4. I've been having a lot of trouble with tantrums or meltdowns from my 7 year old lately. Thank you SO MUCH for giving me this fresh perspective. I also agree that they need a stress release. I think I'll handle those situations better from now on, thanks to you :)

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  5. excellent post as always, just spot on in every sense. I've really noticed with my younger one, who I parent far more intuitively, that her tantrums are, generally, much shorter duration and she recovers much more quickly, because I just sit and wait them out and am ready with the loving arms when she is done. With my son, I'm sad to say, I didn't have the skills/knowledge I have now, and was all about the trying to make a "good" child, concerned about what "people" might think. And of course, he tantrummed more and for longer. Irony, got to love it. I especially liked your comment about being proud of the "good" child, rather than happy they were content - I still have some work to do on myself in this area, but I like the thought shift that this provoked - same result but a different focus on what is required (ie arrange the situation to ensure a contented child, not be concerned that the child is good in a given situation).

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  6. Beautifully written! Even now as my little ones are much older I can tell when they simply need to release some of those stressful feelings. You can see the changes as they mature in which avenue they choose to release through. It is such a blessing to see that you are walking this journey with a positive outlook!

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  7. I feel like I just had an a-ha moment. My daughter is stressed, therefore she tantrums. My daughter is five and has never stopped having screaming tantrums. Since it has been going on for so long we often don't have any patience for it and thus they continue. No patience as in we put her in a time out for them. She's a bright child but very anxious. I want to show this piece to my husband when he gets home. I think you really put this into context for us.

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  8. there is so much here that confirms and enriches what I eventually came to believe myself about tantrums - I wish I had time to respond to it properly. but I am in a hurry this morning, so I'm just dropping a note to let you know I read this, and loved it, and I'm so glad Wildflower is feeling better now.

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  9. brilliant as always mon -- we just weather one of those "7 Things" with Savannah so it doesn't end with toddlerhood...;) But, we are, and always have been, very much pro-expression...I was a repressed child (imagine the latent power of a repressed Aries...lol) and was never *allowed* to express my emotions so I know very well the danger this causes for self-expression and self-worth in later life.

    And yes, physical activity is one of the best stress releases -- back when I was riding, I was so incredibly Zen you wouldn't recognize me...;)

    Oh, I could go on and on...but i won't...thanks of this...as always. It's very relevant, no matter what the age of the child..or adult for that matter. xo

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  10. you are such an intuitive mama. thank you for writing this. thank you for helping me on this journey...

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  11. I can honestly say that I think handling tantrums is one of my strongest points as a parent, and I have Solter's books (and your original post on allowing your baby to cry) to thank for that. It's so wonderful to be able to welcome every tantrum, knowing he'll feel better after the release, rather than feeling like I should stop it or thinking I did something wrong as a parent because it happened.

    Sometimes I still hold him and encourage him to cry when I feel he needs it.

    What to do about whining, though? It makes me want to pull my hair out!

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  12. As a mother of two who is always trying to reinvent my definition "good parenting practices" I have been working hard on the gentle parenting and this post was so helpful! I was raised by a woman whos parenting was quite the opposite and though I am much different I have moments in life where I find it harder to stick to my convictions with my patience trying four year old. As I read this I was feeling bad for not parenting as sweetly as you till you wrote about you releasing your own pent up frustrations. Thank you for that I feel less like a parent lacking kindness and more like a human being.

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  13. Thank you for this lovely post. In the past two years, as a teacher, and as an aunt of an autistic 4-year-old, I have seen so many people complain about tantrums and label a child "badly behaved," or the parents as people who "can't teach their children common manners." I admit, I've had my trying moments of being in small, enclosed public places with a "tantruming" child and grinding my teeth, but I always try to remember that it is natural and important and should never be used as a way to label the child or its parents! I just wish more people understood this!

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  14. Beautiful timing thank you.
    It has recently been a topic for me the venting of anger and frustration and how my children seem to do it so very very well and I'm really happy about that and how I didn't as a child. But I can't stand it!! And have been trying soo hard to shut it down. Especially on those LMTFA days. And then I thought to meet it with love, meet it with love, just as I do to my baby I can do the same thing for my older children. So now I must try and breath in these moments and put this in practice more than the shouting back or meeting their anger with anger.
    Thank you for this Mon x.

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  15. I made a post of things I love and put a link to this post because I thought it was very insightful and inspiring. I really hope that you do not mind. You can visit it here:

    http://forloveofmyoceans.blogspot.com/2010/06/something-comforting.html

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  16. This is such a beautiful post.
    I love how tears work, they are the bodies natural destressers aren't they.
    I am trying to make compassion the biggest priority in my mothering. It's hard, people can judge easily, especially if you have more children than average.
    But I'm trying to be "gentle" with myself and my own mistakes too, which I find I make mostly when I'm worried about what others are thinking. I'm learning, and growing along the way.

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  17. Thank you for the great insights. If I may add a few notes. While tantrums obviously have this great stress-venting function, I think parents can do a lot to "head 'em off at the pass!"

    First - and most obvious - try to keep stress to a minimum. Of course, we can't wrap a child in cotton wool, but we can be more and more conscious when they are getting out of their comfort zone and natural rhythms. A fun day out is wonderful, but we need to be really conscious when to return home, have a protein based snack or scheduled lunch and a nap. Especially the younger the child is. New parents can be bamboozled by the common experience that the tired child gets more and more "wired" instead of getting "sleepy". The good times get more and more frenetic and there is a kind of laughter that borders on hysteria. This is usually followed by the "crash and burn" phenomena of a tantrum. The younger a child is, the shorter the fun should be, as the nervous system goes into overload very quickly. It is easy for the mom and dad to get distracted by their own fun or talking with family or friends, etc. and lose track of the time. I would even go so far as to set an alarm on a watch or phone to remind about lunch and / or nap.

    Second – set boundaries. We can all get better and better at understanding our children’s behaviors and reactions to all kinds of stimulation. But in my opinion, it is OK to set limits on how much they can “let go” in public. I will go so far as to recommend the parent pick up the child and leave the store, party, event, etc. as soon as the meltdown begins. One warning at the very most. A friend of mine told me about her daughter (around 4 or 5) in a department store. The parents were separated and the little girl had been living with her father and his family and getting “spoiled.” When she came to live with her mom, her mom and stepfather took her shopping for clothes and toys. When they got to the counter, J… threw a Category 5 tantrum! My friend just picked her up, left everything they were going to buy, got in the car and drove home. I don’t think she even said much. J… never did that in public again.

    Warning over and over without action or the pendulum swing of spanking or yelling will not do anything to solve the situation. Just let the child know with your actions that he or she can’t do this in public. At home, it is important to try to find the right action for you and your child. Some use “time out” successfully, but rarely for real tantrums. Over vocalizing about how the child is feeling usually just fuels the fire and of course, spanking or yelling do too. Changing your own direction is key. Stop your activities, stop talking to friends or family or whatever is happening and pick up your child and take him or her to another room. Try to quickly assess the underlying cause and if possible, help that. If it is a missed mealtime, try to offer some protein (to stabilize the blood sugar). If it is over-tiredness, the child may need to be held and sung to with soft lights and quiet. Even telling (not reading) a story softly might help. The idea is to distract the child enough to allow him or her to calm down and be able to go to sleep.

    At each age, the child’s tolerance for activity and stress (good or bad) will change and hopefully, increase. It is a bit of a tightrope walk for the parent between allowing the fun and stopping the fun in time.

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  18. Three – provide creative outlet for stress through the arts. Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the New Zealand educator who wrote the seminal work “Teacher” said that a child is a volcano with two vents. One is creative, the other destructive. Children need regular singing, crayon drawing, painting, crafts, modeling with beeswax, homemade play dough or clay, dramatics and as they get older, writing to process their life experiences and express their reactions to them. Sometimes, when home life gets a bit hectic, these activities slip through the cracks. We might not realize that a few days have gone by with the child participating in group or family activities, but not having her own time and space to create. Having some homemade play dough in the fridge is like having a “first aid kit” for the soul. Just take it out and start pounding it out on the table. Guaranteed the child will want to pound, too. Instant therapy!

    There are times when the child and usually all the family is going through real stresses like illness, parental separation or other life crisis. Tantrums, bedwetting, anger outbursts and problems with eating or sleeping are normal symptoms in times like these. Regular daily and weekly rhythms, as much consistency as possible, good nutrition and lots of artistic expression become especially important and even more easily interrupted. It takes a lot of consciousness to parent during these times. Healing stories are also a great “medicine”. It can be as beneficial to study fairy tales and healing stories ahead of crisis time as it is to stock a medicinal “first aid kit” in the home.

    Parenting, like educating is definitely an art, not a science. What works one day may not work the next day and vice versa. Sharing ideas and insights like the beautiful ones available on this and other blogs is fantastic, because you never know when your heart and soul will access the right idea at the right time. Asking for help from the angels (especially your child’s and your own) can be really effective, too. Angels can help bring to us the right idea, person or situation to help us heal. Trust in your Higher Self and your child’s choice of you as a parent.

    With best wishes,
    Christine Natale

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  19. thanks everyone for your thoghts and personal stories.

    christine, yes, you share great tips, especially learning what stresses your child. but i have to respectfully disagree with some of what you say.
    i am coming froma very different, compassionate, perspective in how we handle tantrums.
    i might have to do a follow uppost to cover everything you say. thanks for sharing!

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  20. Oh my I wish I had been able to read this the other day. My son had the worst tantrum he has ever had and I did not handle it well. I usually let him do his thing but this one was awful and I lost it too :(. It didn't help that the tantrum was making my 3 month old cry. Then my hubby came home and the situation just escalated... I feel so bad now... (well I did already but I feel even worse now!)

    Thank you so much for this post mama. I seriously hope I can handle it better next time. But maybe to be fair to myself I have been under alot of stress lately and maybe my lashing out was my tantrum too... I feel so bad though because he is just a child and in no way deserves how I reacted. I never yell or get so visibly mad and I scared him. :(

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  21. This is so wonderfully written and so real, so true. I agree with you and can see the effects of the way I was expected to behave to this day (and my partner, Jeremy, too). I am grateful to have learned about the importance of tantrums and crying for babies and children; it helps somewhat to not feel as though I have to stop Luna, that sometimes she will cry to relieve stress. I only wish I were always successful at it. I hope with time and conscious effort, I will be better.

    Thank you. So insightful and real.

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  22. I just have to say thank you also, you have (as always) brought so many things to light with this...I find my own children now moving into another variation of the tantrum, as they get older and more verbal - instead of crying or throwing themselves down or any of that (although they will still do this also sometimes) they will lash out with words, say thing they know might get to me, 'i don't love you anymore', 'i hate this family/car/sister/brother/grandma' etc. when they might have had a tantrum in the past. And there's a desire to want to clamp down on this, to force them to change their words or be quiet...but I am learning to just let it go, and maybe address how words can hurt later...not sure yet, really, how I want to handle it, but I think this post triggered a shift in how I have been thinking about it...XOXO Lisa

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  23. yes, the verbal abuse! this can last years. my sister was the 'i hate you' one. i was more fearful and internally-based so tended towards the 'it's not fair', 'nobody understands'.
    i agree that it's an extension of tantruming. it's, usually, a knee-jerk action.

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  24. yes. very interesting post.

    i've been anticipating the tantrums...but what i didn't expect was the healing nature of allowing my child to express himself. i was the "good"/repressed child also. Z is not. it's all psychological...but allowing him to be who he is (while keeping him safe) is so validating and freeing to the child within.

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  25. Thanks for this, its such an important, yet rare, way to view things. I read it a long time ago, and remember it in validating all my daughters emotions. Now the first comment (SwedishJen) and your reply resonates with me. In trying to teach my daughter empathy, I'm afraid I've turned her into a people pleaser. She often asks if I am happy and if I say someone is feeling sad or grumpy (etc) she seems to think there's something wrong with this. While I say any feelings are ok, I do want her to learn how she acts affects others. But how to get across that she should think of herself too...Oh, 'tis a minefield!

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