by Victoria Carrington, M.D.
Temper tantrums. Almost every child will have them. Nearly every parent will hate them. Standing at the crossroads of humiliation and hopelessness, the poor parent of a child in the middle of a tantrum needs to be armed with accurate information. Unfortunately, much misinformation exists about the toddler temper tantrum. I have worked with many parents of young children and most generally believe at least one myth about temper tantrums. Here are 5 myths, explained.
1. The child having the tantrum is “manipulative” and “attention-seeking” much like an insensitive adult. It is not helpful to frame the child’s behavior in such a negative light. Toddlers are in fact not miniature adults and they are incapable of the kind of deceptive thoughts required to purposefully try to use their behavior to accomplish unsavory ends. However, temper tantrums are used for certain purposes in at the toddler stage of development. Young pre-verbal or early-verbal children will have difficulty expressing their needs so they will act out loudly to get the parents to meet their needs. Just as an infant cries to be fed or changed, toddlers cry and tantrum for other needs to be met by parents. Toddlers may tantrum because they are in need of being picked up, hugged, kissed or talked to by the parent. Yes, toddlers do sometimes “just” need attention and the need for attention is present throughout all developmental stages in children. Desiring attention! should not be viewed as a misbehavior deserving of punishment but rather a healthy expression of a need to be met. Although a surprise to some parents, babies and toddlers need attention as much as they need food, water and diaper changes. Years of studies at orphanages in which children’s basic needs were met but the children received minimal attention were found to lag behind their non-orphanage peers in development. It is most helpful to view the tantrum as a temporary phase in development and an attempt at toddler communication.
2. My kid is having tantrums just to drive me crazy or embarrass me. Unfortunately, I find that parents sometimes inappropriately personalize their child’s behavior in a negative way. Actually, the tantrum has more to do with the immature emotional make-up of the child than with any specific malevolence towards the parents. Small children, and let’s not forget, some adults, have difficulty managing frustration and a tantrum may result. So why do some children tend to have more tantrums when in the care of their parents? Because parents are the primary supports in a child’s life, the child is more strongly emotionally attached to parents than to other caregivers. So, for instance a child who may have been an angel all day in daycare may tantrum once they see mom or dad. Many toddlers also feel a sense of safety around their parents which allows them to express strong emotions that they may not feel comfortable expressing around other caregivers. Parents- you are truly! special in your child’s life but sometimes there is a price to be paid for that!
3. I must be a bad parent if my child has tantrums. I have seen that even the best, most caring parents may have a child that goes through a phase of temper tantrums. Other factors such as the child’s temperament will play a role in temper tantrums as well. Sometimes, though, we may suspect that there are things we can do to minimize our child’s tantrums such as providing meals and naps on time. Of course, we all make mistakes in this area and there are some circumstances that can not be avoided. But one is certainly not a bad parent because the child missed his nap and subsequently had a temper tantrum. It happens to the best of us! It is true that providing a loving, stable and predictable environment can cut back on the frequency of tantrums. Also, being aware of your child’s temperament and needs and responding appropriately can reduce the intensity and length of the tantrums. But even the most conscientious of parents may not be able to entirely prevent temper ! tantrums.
4. There is one best way to deal with temper tantrums. Before I answer a parent’s question “What should I do about my child’s temper tantrums?” I need a lot of information. What is the temperament of the child, the parent and the other children in the home? What is the overall tone in the home- peaceful or chaotic? What is the discipline and child-rearing style of the parent? What are the goals of tantrum control- to reduce embarrassing moments, to quiet the child, to comfort the child, to teach the child about managing emotions, to punish the child or to establish that the parent is in charge? These questions and more should be addressed before a parent takes any advice about tantrums. There are several possible approaches and usually parent’s instincts will guide them towards one of these. Holding the child until she calms down, laying the child down in a safe place on the floor and sitting close by until they calm down, sitting next to the child and singing or readi! ng to them until they calm down or leaving the child alone for one to two minutes and then coming back to check on them are common ways of dealing with tantrums and any of them may be most effective depending on the situation.
5. Tantrums bother the parent more than they bother the child. This is probably not usually true. The combination of so many frustrating experiences throughout the day (I can not reach the door knob, I am not allowed to play with my brothers toys, I have to take a nap) in a child who can not easily express themselves using words is a sure set-up for tantrums. Did you ever stop to look, really look at a toddler in the middle of a tantrum? They look scared! Underneath the gasping for breath and screaming for help is a toddler who realizes that he has lost control of his emotions. This loss of control is impossible for the toddler to understand or process. This is why many toddlers are content to sit in mom’s lap and be comforted for a few minutes after a tantrum. Yes, tantrums affect you but remember to empathize with what your child is experiencing as well.
Clarifying misconceptions about temper tantrums goes a long way in helping you understand how you can best help your child through this brief yet difficult stage of emotional development. Spending enough time with your child will allow you to understand his temperament and trust your instincts to make the very best decisions for your child.
About Dr. Carrington: Dr. Carrington is a former psychiatrist who is now devoting her life to helping parents as a parent’s coach. She is also a freelance writer specializing in parenting and spiritual development. Learn more about parent coaching by visiting http://www.ChristianParentCoach.blogspot.com or read about Dr. Carrington’s family at http://www.JoyfulParent.blogspot.com.