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Opinion I The truth about tantrums

We tend to make children’s tantrums about ourselves and our failures. Instead we should focus on the struggle of the child

A tantrum is children's way of expressing a struggle or frustration with someone. It could be with a sibling or a friend, a Lego piece that they can’t fit in place or just hunger.
A tantrum is children's way of expressing a struggle or frustration with someone. It could be with a sibling or a friend, a Lego piece that they can’t fit in place or just hunger.

Very often, as parents, the minute we observe a temper tantrum being launched, we run around to douse the effects. The most commonly accepted theory is that children start relying on tantrums to get what they want, or to get out of what they don’t like. This seemingly “difficult" behaviour is usually a “learnt action" for attention and we can help them unlearn this by not giving in. I, however, would like to steer the argument into a different direction.

We can help ourselves and our children cope with temper tantrums and power struggles with siblings with a little more enquiry into the cause instead of simply launching into a routine to contain the difficult behaviour. So, if you are looking for tips on how to contain tantrums, this is not that read. Instead, I want to talk about what this behaviour really means. Yes, I want to discourage disturbing manifestations of difficult emotions, but not by putting a tight lid on them.

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

Try not to make this about you: the common feelings that most parents share are those of embarrassment, helplessness and anger over tantrums. We tend to make this about ourselves and our failures, thus creating barriers to empathy and communication. In order to deal with this effectively, we need to separate ourselves from the tantrum. It is not a failure on your part as a parent nor just a unique phenomenon to your child. Ignore the people around you, who might be rolling their eyes, and take a deep breath. Focus on the struggle of your child.

A tantrum is a form of communication: This is very significant. If you pay attention, this is their way of expressing a struggle or frustration with someone. It could be with a sibling or a friend, a Lego piece that they can’t fit in place or just hunger. Imagine this. If you had to communicate dissatisfaction or exhaustion to people, who are simply not listening, despite your efforts, how would you do it? You would probably use animated actions and some screaming too.

When children are having a temper tantrum, their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough to help them think clearly about what upset them. Neither do they have a well-developed vocabulary for effective communication.

But adults, with their developed prefrontal cortex, are equipped to grasp that the cause behind the tantrum is a difficult emotion. We just need to tune in and acknowledge this feeling.

“See me": Tantrums are often rubbished or trivialised as attention-seeking behaviour. But it is not the attention that children are seeking. Rather it is a need to feel valued. They want to be “seen" as contributing entities. Wait for the outburst to finish. And in the meanwhile reflect on what you need when you want to be seen. What would reassure you? That answer would steer you into the right direction. Simple honest statements like, “I see the difficulty" or “I appreciate the effort", go a long way in making children feel seen and accepted.

Show them how to get over it: I understand that a lot goes into coping with a tantrum. To see your child suffer emotionally, while also feeling embarrassed about the outburst, is tough to say the least. However, if we choose to relive those moments, we will forever remain in a state of reaction. Letting go of those feelings is important so that we don’t continue to rebuke our children. While you can state that you are not alright with what has happened, you can also reassure them that you will be around to help them learn. And that it’s okay to let go of the incident, while learning from it.

Learnings for the “next time": Experience is the best teacher. Talk to children about what you learnt from the incident. For instance, “I missed seeing how high the ladder was for you to climb on your own. I will be more careful the next time." Acknowledge their feelings. Ask how else could the challenge be dealt with, should it occur again. And next time that this happens, they can take a different decision and find a solution. You will notice that they just might start looking forward to the challenge instead of breaking down in the face of it.

As a mom, I see tantrums as tiny opportunities wrapped up in rather heavy packages to understand the struggles of my children. These situations also allow me to reflect on the instances when I might not have listened to them or expressed enough just how much I value them. I always let them know how important it is to let go of what is over and keep just the learnings for next time.

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