By Dr. Kate Brennan
Learning how to handle tantrums by staying connected to children when they express strong emotions can be a challenge. Our very first impulse may be to get a tantrum to stop. This is a natural impulse. Tantrums are often loud, inconvenient and stressful for parents. What if we were to turn our usual response on its head? Rather than distractions, time outs, threats or bribes, we did something radical. We moved in a little closer.
Children are most vulnerable to tantrums when they are tired, hungry, over stimulated, frightened etc. These are the triggers that may set off a tantrum. But if we dig a little deeper we see that these triggers are not the real issue. The child is feeling disconnected and off track. The child is releasing accumulated tensions that have built up. This release is a natural and healthy part of development.
Lets use an adult as an example. (We’re not much different.) It’s been a long week. You didn’t get the promotion you had hoped for. You get a flat tire. You are late for a meeting, and now you’ve just spilled coffee on yourself. At that moment you begin to cry. All the pent up emotion wells up in you and you release the tension by crying. (It should be noted that some people yell or pick a fight at this time. This is not unlike what some children do. What underlies this however, are feelings of disappointment, frustration, isolation, disconnection and hopelessness.)
This same process is happening with our children when they are crying and throwing tantrums. They have lost their connection to us and to themselves. They may have had one large incident or many small ones that have gotten them off track. Crying in the presence of someone who they trust is the healing balm they need. (That is why they often leave the tantrum for the person they love and trust deeply. Lucky us.) Seeing a tantrum in this way can help the parent not to take it personally and stay connected to the child. The presence of a trusted other while the child weeps, shakes and evens sweats, helps the child find their way back to themselves. Most importantly, when a child gets to release their tension they are freed up to learn and to love once again. This sets up the optimal conditions for development. (Think for a moment how a person who is in a state of stress cannot learn or think clearly.)
It is never easy to be with a child who is having a tantrum and sometimes we are just too tired and stressed to do the work. Let your child know that you love them and will keep them safe. If that is all you can muster up that will be enough. Don’t worry. There will be another opportunity! Parents need to be rested and feel supported themselves to be there for others. Finding another parent, trusted friend or professional whom you can share your worries and frustrations with will help you feel supported and give you the encouragement you need to do the work.
Dr. Kate Brennan is the founder of Marin Therapy Partners which offers therapy for individuals and families including postpartum depression, attachment, sensory motor processing, PTSD, ADD, anxiety and depression. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 415/453-1402 or to schedule an appointment https://drkatebrennan.clientsecure.me