It seems like just yesterday we brought our children home from the hospital, adorned in cute little white onesies with knitted hats. They were easy to hold, a breeze to care for and they slept most of the day. We walked around like weary eyed zombies praying for the day to come when things would get easier. And then they did! Now we stand in the grocery store line or at the local McDonalds play land trying to contain a child and praying from the deepest part of ourselves that we don’t end up having to drag a screaming, kicking red faced child to the car and bear the judgmental glares from other parents. Oh yes, with the terrible twos and beyond can come tantrums and lots of them. It is hard to believe that a 30 pound kid who just a month ago was sweet and loving has turned into a devilish human that we dread to leave the house with. But for many parents that is exactly what happens.’
It is estimated that as many as 83% of all children begin to throw temper tantrums or show defiancy around the age of 2. Some earlier and some later. As embarrassing as they may be for parents, they are for the most part normal and harmless (except to us). Leading child behavioral physicians believe that tantrums are the result of deep seeded emotional issues that can stem from feelings of hurt, neglect, sibling rivalry, lack of love from either parent, inconsistent discipline at home, family issues and a plethora of other psychological malfunctions from the family core. As a parent, I think it is safe to surmise that probably 90% of all tantrums are a result of being spoiled; hungry, over tired or over stimulated, the inability to communicate their thoughts into words, and probably even more relevant the profound knowledge of cause and effect. By 2, toddlers know that if they do something – something else will happen. They have learned the core principles of quantum physics and they are implementing it with a passion. Thus, the tantrum!
When your child is in the midst of the totally encompassing tantrum it is embarrassing. Most of the time, we give in just to get them to be quiet so that we can get out of public unscathed. Of course, this just further emphasizes the cause and effect theory and now they know that every time they want the candy, ball or lint roller so conveniently located in the check out line (which I will never understand) all they have to do is scream loud enough and they will get it. Heads up parents, there is no need to be embarrassed. Any of the other people in the store who are staring at you are just thankful that it’s you and not them. Sure, the judgmental glares should be out of pity but in reality they are out of relief. So the question than goes to is it best to ignore the tantrum?
Child psychologists overwhelming say that we shouldn’t ignore the tantrum but that we should definitely not meet anger with anger. We have all witnessed tons of parents red faced themselves, making idle threats in the midst of a public tantrum in the hopes that they will invoke just enough fear to get the child to stop. What a parent should do is let the child know that we understand they are unhappy (obvious right), explain our stance and ignore the situation as if it is no longer happening. When they do calm down, and they will – we than reward them for how well they were able to control themselves with our words not a prize. If the child is very young, than quite often just distracting them will do the trick. What we shouldn’t do is give in to their every whim and wish at this crucial moment. Who cares if they scream, yell, kick or throw themselves on the floor- after all they are just small children and tantrums are something that children do. When other people stare just smile, walk by and say little never resorting to telling your kid ‘everyone is looking at you’ because little kids rarely care. Eventually they too will develop the insight to understand and be self conscious of causing a spectacle in public and when that happens they will serve to embarrass you in other ways, trust me!
Tantrums can be rooted in many things for a child. Although there shouldn’t be excuses given for unwanted behavior we do have to ascertain that we send clear signals as to our expectations. If we can yell at them for running around in the grocery store than certainly they see nothing wrong at yelling at us in the same situation. The midst of a tantrum is also not the appropriate time to explain discipline or behavior because it is as senseless as talking to a drunk after a bottle of whiskey. They won’t care nor remember. When they have calmed down through their own recognizance they should be praised for their self control and than spoken to calmly about how they behaved and why it was inappropriate. If we are still raging about it on the car ride home we are only making kids feel even more upset. My vote is also to never just up and leave the cart full of goods in order to escape the humiliation. Again, we are simply reinforcing cause and affect and the child will have received somehow their will.
Another option for tantrums that can work quite well is to video tape them while they are having one. Sometimes it will make them more upset in the process but when you show it to them afterwards they can begin to develop a real sense of their own behavior. They might laugh and giggle as they watch, but they will probably be more coerced to change when we allow it to be their idea based on their opinion of themselves. This also allows them to own the pride of learning self discipline.
As parents when we walk by other mothers or fathers who are dealing with a tantrum we might take note to be the one to help with the distraction. I can vividly remember an older man one day offering to help my 3 year old off the floor and talking to her about butterflies. In an instant she transformed back to the ‘normal’ child I thought she was. She scurried over to me, hiding under my coat tails and the episode was over as quickly as it began. We spend a lot of time in competition mode as parents feeling high and mighty that our kids are better than another and yet we should all be feeling a sense of comradely and a willingness to help each other when we can. This doesn’t mean take matters and discipline into our own hands but rather to offer assistance through kindness. Occasionally a parent might not like the interruption but if a kind word about the child’s Handy Manny shoes or the bird flying around the rafters of the store can defuse the tantrum, than it will be looked at kindly. Plus, it will go miles with the karma police the next time you are out shopping with a cranky kid.
Certainly there are guidelines to tantrums and if you feel in earnest that you child reacts unnecessarily than it is best to talk to a pediatrician. Anger quite simply though is a natural part of life and an emotion that everyone feels at some point or another. Kids need an outlet for their anger and they need to have a sounding board where they can release it and feel safe in feeling it. It would be better if it wasn’t the store or playground; but quite possibly the tantrum just means that our child needs a little something extra. We can teach our kids to release anger in ways that will help them release the tension and we should never punish or shame a child for being mad. There is a distinct difference between our right to feel something and our right to act it out and that is where the tantrum can be a useful learning tool for us and our children. Tantrums and defiancy are natural phases of childhood.