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A Positive View on Tantrums

April 27, 2010


I don’t like that word. It has so many negative connotations attached to it: manipulating, misbehaving, embarrassing, acting immature, just trying to get attention. But when I looked up tantrums on WebMD, it gave no such definitions. It describes temper tantrums as being a “sudden, unplanned display of anger” during which children “often cry, yell, and swing their arms and legs.” More serious tantrums that involve harming themselves or others “may be a sign of a more serious problem.”

I’m okay with WebMD’s definition, because it tells it like it is, with no assumptions that the child is being naughty in any way. But I would like to add on to that definition a bit, and say that such a display of emotion is most likely the result of pent up stress that has finally come to a head. No need to blame a child for finally letting their emotional dam open up (not that they could help it, anyway).

But tantrum. I just don’t like the word. Yet when I think about it, Michael has had “tantrums.” Lots of them. Maybe not the full-blown kicking and screaming on the floor type of tantrum, but more like the I’m just going to die if you don’t let me do this kind of screaming and crying and trying to tear himself out of our arms, or more recently, stamping his feet on the floor. Or when he gets frustrated with something he may screech, pant, and smack his hands on the element of his frustration. He’s so much like his mother in that way.

Never once have I felt like he was trying to manipulate me. Not once. And never have I gotten frustrated with him for acting this way. It’s not because I’m a super-patient, angelic mother–I’m actually quite easily frustrated. And tantrums are the one thing, regardless of parenting style or views on children, that I’ve seen so many parents get frustrated with. Or at the very least, dismayed or perplexed. So how come I am okay with them?

The reason that I handle tantrums so well, is because I see them as a good thing. My child is expressing himself, and I have an opportunity to listen. My child is upset, and I have an opportunity to let him know that I am there for him. I can show him that I will always be there for him, regardless of his mood, or how he behaves, or even if he is angry with me. I know he is not being naughty. On the contrary, he is doing something he very much needs to do–he is releasing his emotions. In a society where men are suspected of dying younger than women because they are better at bottling up their emotions, I see a healthy emotional release as a very good thing. And, when he has gotten it all out, he feels better than he did before the tantrum occurred. Isn’t that a good thing? Or, if he is having consecutive tantrums, I know he is tired or hungry and I can do something about it.

According to Aletha J. Solter, author of Tears and Tantrums, children who do not feel safe to cry in the arms of their parents may bottle up their emotions, and instead of coming out in tears, they may come out in aggressive forms, such as hitting or biting, or they may show up in obnoxious behavior or other undesirable forms. Crying is the most natural way to release stress, hurt feelings, anger, and other negative emotions. And it is also so benign. The worst it could do is get on someone’s nerves. I’d much rather my child cry, scream, and stamp his feet than deal with his emotions in some deleterious way. I feel that if I don’t accept and support him through his emotional trials, then it will be much harder for him to develop more mature ways of dealing with them.

As far as how a parent behaves when their child is having a tantrum, I believe a parent needs to be present and responsive. Action on the parent’s part would depend on the child and the particular situation. Sometimes a child just needs to vent their frustrations. Sometimes they need your arms wrapped around them while they do this, and sometimes they do not. Sometimes they may push against you, and this might mean that they are angry and need a physical outlet for their anger. When Michael was smaller, I just held him and let him push against me till he relaxed. Now that he is older (21 months) I find it’s usually better not to hold him, but be there waiting for the right moment to open my arms, and he’ll come flying in. If they are in danger of hurting themselves, someone else, or using destructive behavior, and moving them from the situation doesn’t help, you can hold them, lovingly (maybe tell them that you love them so they know you aren’t punishing them), and let them kick and scream until it’s over.

Parental responses that I don’t believe to be helpful are: ignoring the child, belittling or punishing the child, giving into the child’s whims, or distracting the child (unless the child is in a place where they are disrupting others).

I don’t believe ignoring the child helps them because this can make them feel abandoned at an emotionally sensitive time. They need your support, not your back turned on them. You might not need to intervene, but observe to see if the child needs you. Just being there and being available may be all the child needs to know that you are on their side. Yes, leaving the room when the child is tantruming may get them to stop, but only because they have just lost their emotional support system. Crying alone is not beneficial to them, so they stop and wait for another time when the parent will hopefully pay attention to them (or worse, give up on their parents altogether). Although sometimes it can take the other direction and their tantruming will escalate in hopes that you will return and show that you actually care about them (I remember this one from my own childhood).

Belittling and punishing a child for expressing their emotions will make a child feel misunderstood, perhaps that they are “unlovable” when they express strong emotions, or it may make them believe that expressing anger is wrong. They may learn to repress their feelings in order to avoid the negative consequences.

When a child cries because they can’t have something, it could mean a couple of things. It could mean that they are just stressed out and need a good cry, in which case “giving in” to their whims may not be helpful. But it could also mean that they have an issue relating to whatever it is that they want, which may need further investigation.  So try to pay attention.

Lastly, distracting the child is fine when you are in a setting in which a tantrum would be too disruptive to others (like in the church chapel, or during a concert, perhaps). By all means, distract them, or take them out. But know that the emotions are still there, bubbling under the surface, and will need to be dealt with eventually. I prefer to just let Michael get it over with if at all possible. Also keep in mind that distraction can become a habit if you do it enough, and the child may not learn how to deal with his or her emotions.

But what about those “fake” tantrums, you ask? You know, the ones where the child is clearly in control of their emotions and is just trying to get your attention? I would take that as a red flag that my child needs more attention. I might handle the situation a little differently, but I would still validate my child’s feelings and try to show him a better way to ask for attention.

Yes, tantrums are unpleasant. No, a child is not being ‘bad’ for expressing themselves in this way. In fact, they probably just lost control of their emotions unintentionally.  I do believe a child can learn to control their emotions, but it takes time, patience and acceptance on their parent’s part, and perhaps some loving guidance on how to handle strong emotions in a more constructive way as they get older. But don’t expect your one or two or even three or four year old to be able to verbalize their emotions, much less to do it in a calm way. I’m sure Michael will have many more tantrums, but something tells me that if I just accept him and support him through his crying and raging, then he will eventually exhaust his need to do so in the form of tantrums, and will move on to more mature ways of dealing with his emotions.

The bottom line? Tantrums are valid and beneficial to the child, but only when a loving caregiver is present and supportive.

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline

Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.

Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!

Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.

Day 1 – What Is Gentle Discipline

Day 2 – False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)

Day 3 – Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)

Day 4 – Creating a “Yes” Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)

Day 5 – Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 12:22 am

    I really love your perspective here. It’s so insightful to point out that leaving the room might make your child stop crying, but only because tantrums need an audience – and that that’s not a bad thing! That the main reason we all cry is to gain sympathy, and that’s a healthy way of furthering our relationships and drawing from them the strength and growth we need. I think I’ve been so conditioned through years of being called a crybaby growing up that crying to gain sympathy is bad; it’s gotten so I even have trouble accepting negative emotions from my own child. I really need reminders like this that being present with him through the negative emotions is what he needs, a validation that it’s all right to feel so strongly, to be frustrated or angry, and a reassurance that I will be accepting and loving throughout the emotional storms. I also like your point that distracting might cut short the tantrum at that moment but not deal with the underlying emotions.

    All right, I’ll keep trying! Thank you.

    Today I think I made a good stride. We were at a Bible study at a friend’s house, and I cautioned Mikko against touching what I thought was a hot teakettle. It turns out he was going to touch a safe part of it, but I didn’t realize that. He was really hurt by how strongly I reacted against his reaching out, even though I was doing it only from a protective stance. I could tell he was upset, because his face goes into this frozen mode where I know (now) that he’s trying really hard to hold back the tears (at 2.75-years-old — see, I fear I’ve already manipulated him into feeling bad about crying!). So I started talking with him quietly about how he was right, that it was safe for him to reach out, and that I was sorry for hurting his feelings, that I just wanted him to be safe. He started crying a little, and another guy there told him to chill out. I was really annoyed by that person’s dismissive remark. I seriously had to just walk away with Mikko so I could concentrate on our interaction without that kind of nonsense distracting us. It’s those messages that make children (that made me) believe that having emotional reactions is bad, and that figuring out what a child’s emotional reaction is about is pointless. Sorry for sharing this all here; I was just pleased that at least I noticed his emotions and tried to deal with them in an empathetic and non-dismissive way. For once! And it reminds me of what you’re saying here — to be present throughout the emotion, even if we don’t completely understand why our child’s reaction is so strong.

    • April 28, 2010 9:14 am

      Thank you for your comment and insight, and for sharing your experiences! Someone once told Michael not to cry, to be a tough guy, and he was only 11 months old! Once in our church nursery we had a male substitute come in who was playing ball with a sweet little boy who was having trouble adjusting to being in nursery. The little boy was crying as he put the balls through the hoop, and the guy told him not to cry. What happened? The little boy cried harder and ran away from him. He ran over to someone who would be more accepting of his feelings. How can a child feel safe with someone who doesn’t even let them cry?

  2. April 30, 2010 11:48 am

    So insightful!! One of the things I read (I think in The Emotional Life of the Toddler) that really pushed me 100% into the “gentle discipline” camp for “tantrums” (I hate that word too) was that toddlers don’t WANT to have tantrums. Tantrums are scary for toddlers, they make them feel powerless and out of control. They NEED us to be emotionally present and gentle with them. Why add to the toddler’s stress level by yelling or punishing? It just makes no sense!

    • April 30, 2010 1:41 pm

      That’s a very good point! I’m curious about that book now, will have to add it to my ever-growing list of books to read. :)

  3. April 30, 2010 2:36 pm

    This line really stuck me:

    “According to Aletha J. Solter, author of Tears and Tantrums, children who do not feel safe to cry in the arms of their parents may bottle up their emotions, and instead of coming out in tears, they may come out in aggressive forms, such as hitting or biting, or they may show up in obnoxious behavior or other undesirable forms””

    I want my children to feel safe. I am going to check this book out. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • May 2, 2010 12:33 pm

      You’re welcome. I hope you find the book helpful. It really helped me understand the underlying issue with tantrums and just crying in general.

  4. May 1, 2010 10:02 am

    Great post and great reminder! I should try to be more present for my son when he is having a tantrum – often I get too frustrated, not because I am upset with him, just because I don’t know what to DO.

    And I can agree about not liking the word tantrum – far too many people view it as a manipulative maneuver or a sign of lack of discipline.

    • May 2, 2010 12:37 pm

      Liz, I’m so glad that I was able to have a good understanding of tantrums before my son started having them. It’s helped so much. I hope you can figure what your son needs during these times.

  5. May 2, 2010 12:01 pm

    I think it is often amazing how much we want our children to suppress what they are feeling. Letting kids have “big” emotions is frowned upon and then we wonder why adults have anger problems or bottle up their feelings to the point of depression or worse.

    I also dislike the term tantrum. Any word with a negative connotation colors our view of the event. I wouldn’t like it if my husband called one of my PMS meltdowns a tantrum (which it is really).

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  6. May 3, 2010 2:16 am

    glad you reposted the link in your review, missed it. a great post, i think it’s such an important experience to share with as many parents as possible, this and the whole crying issue of course. well put.

  7. May 3, 2010 11:05 pm

    Great post Lisa! Tantrums (nope, I don’t like the word either) can be hard to deal with, emotions run so high, and it can be a real effort to stay calm, but is so wort it in the end.


  1. Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All
  2. Choosing Joy « Raising My Boychick
  3. Gentle Discipline 101
  4. Choosing gentle discipline « hybrid life
  5. Creating a “Yes” Environment
  6. Choosing Not to Spank
  7. False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy

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