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Anger

Understanding Temper Tantrums in Toddlers

How to hold on to your mind when your child is losing hers.

Zachary Kadolph/Unsplash
Source: Zachary Kadolph/Unsplash

Temper tantrums in young children are developmentally appropriate. Very young children have not yet learned to regulate, manage and process their feelings. They experience their emotions intensely and their rage, terror and sorrow is powerful and genuine. They also haven’t yet discovered that they will survive the frustration and torment of not getting what they want.

Learning about life's limitations

The process of accepting that you can’t always get what you want can take years to master. Some people still grapple with it during adulthood. One of the important psychological and developmental tasks of childhood is to relinquish a feeling of entitlement and grandiosity that goes hand in hand with infancy. In a healthy way, normal babies feel themselves to be omnipotent. Part of life is recognising that we are not kings or queens of the universe but that we are just human — with many frailties and shortcomings. Not all of our wishes will be granted. For some people, that might mean they will never drive the Porsche they always wanted to drive. For others, it may mean they will never have the joy of good health, no matter how much they deserve and long for it. Many people around the world will never have the luxury of three meals a day or warmth during the winter.

Life is not always fair. In the harsh, real world, children do sometimes go hungry and they don’t always have toys to play with or shoes for their feet. For those who are privileged enough to be able to offer children these things, it is sometimes hard to figure out where to put the limits on their (often) relentless demands. If you really can afford to give your child a room full of expensive toys, you might struggle to know where to set your own limits for her. But there will come a time when you will have to say 'no' to something your child asks you for. When you do set the limit, when things don't go her way or when she is frustrated about something, she might be so unhappy and outraged about it that she won't be able to contain her emotions. Yelling, screaming, uncontrollable crying, becoming violent, throwing herself on the floor and kicking her legs in the air are all signs that your child has lost her temper — and temporarily lost her capacity for clear thinking. Temper tantrums are often a response to life’s limitations. Treats, candy, screens and special occasions shouldn't be freely available. Whatever the limit is, the tantrum is an attack of outrage against that limit. The answer is not to stop the limits but to help your child to survive her own attacks on them — and on you.

The pain behind the protest

When your child yells and throws herself on the floor because she doesn’t get what she wants, it is based on what feels to her like a valid grievance. She is letting you know — in a highly dramatic way — that she doesn’t like it. That doesn’t mean that you should change your mind and give her what she wants. But she really does feel deprived. She feels completely entitled to that toy, in the same way as she really was entitled to her milk feeds as a baby. It is only through repeated experiences over the months and years of not always getting what she wants that she will come to realise that the world and everything in it is not always hers.

Try to be sensitive to the real distress and suffering that lie behind the tantrum. Tantrums can often end abruptly, making you think that it was all an act. But it wasn't. In that moment, she felt rage, devastation and utter despair. The state of mind of a toddler can be spectacularly fleeting — and intense. It can change direction in a flash and it can be totally incomprehensible to an intelligent adult. Your empathy in her moments of distress and your delight in her recovery can really help her to understand the person she is growing up to be.

Putting tantrums into words

Young children need to be allowed to express their feelings — even their intolerable and dangerously destructive ones. It is an important and valuable step towards mental health and psychological wellbeing. Part of your role as a parent is to guide your child and teach her more acceptable and effective ways to express her emotions. Remind her, when she is old enough and calm enough, to use her words. But when she is in the midst of a temper tantrum, she isn't likely to be able to take instruction from you. Your attempts to influence her behaviour in the heat of the moment are not likely to succeed. Rather, allow your child to feel and express her emotions, especially after you've taken away something that she really wanted — like somebody's digital device. This does not mean that you have to give her what she wants. It means you have to allow her to express her rage at not getting what she wants.

Although it can be entertaining, it is not always pleasant being around an enraged child. It's easy to react too strongly out of anger — sometimes even leading to violence or cruelty. Young children very quickly learn that negative feelings are not acceptable. Certain strong-willed children will continue to have temper tantrums even when they are responded to with parental violence but more compliant children try to please their parents and preserve the bond with them by pushing their feelings away. Unexpressed rage can have toxic effects on the mind, often leading to a range of different psychological problems. The extent of your child's mental torment when she is having a temper tantrum might seem ridiculous in the mind of a rational adult. But when you apply your thinking mind to your child's irrational one, it has a golden effect on her psychological growth and development. For most parents, that knowledge makes temper tantrums tolerable.

References

Phillips, A. (2008). Saying No. U.K.: Faber and Faber

Van den akker, A; Hoffenaar, P; Overbeek, G (2022). Temper Tantrums in Toddlers and Preschoolers: Longitudinal Associations with Adjustment Problems. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 43 (7), 409-417. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000001071

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