Puck & Pearl: Exploring Childhood & Parenting

Puck & Pearl

On Temper Tantrums

Fellow Moms, we are all vulnerable when it comes to temper tantrums.

First, if our child has a temper tantrum, we are at a loss sometimes as to what to do. Then, we are all too acutely aware of others’ watching the dramatic display, and we worry: “what are they thinking? ” “Are they judging my child and me for his emotional outburst? How do they view how I’ve handled the tantrum?”

One of my promises to you is that I won’t pretend to have all the answers. I am not just offering up my expert point of view here. I am sharing with you my own struggles with these issues, my intuitive sense as a mom, as well as my understanding as a clinical psychologist. I’m open to your views, your thoughts, and different opinions. I’m doing my best here with the tools at my disposal….., as I’m sure you are too.

Here’s my recent story:

So there I am. I’ve just gotten home, pulled up to the driveway, and I take my 19 month old out of his car seat. He then starts to complain “eeeeeeeh…eeeeeeh….eeeeeeh” in that whiny way, and he’s starting to move his legs about, almost flailing. I’m taken aback. He doesn’t usually react this way when I take him out of the car. I then quickly go back into the car and place him back in his seat. He quiets down immediately. He starts to play with the buckle to his car seat. He’s interested in how it opens and closes. I tell him that we have now arrived home, and that in another minute I will take him out of the car again, and we will go play in the family room. I wait the full minute. I then take him out of the car, and he is happy as a lark. We play in the family room. This was a successful attempt at possibly averting a temper tantrum, from my point of view.

But then, someone in my life, having witnessed this episode, and with the absolute best intentions in the world, starts to talk to me about temper tantrums: “don’t ever give in to a temper tantrum, otherwise they’ll recur.” She describes to me how one of her sons, once threw a temper tantrum in a store, at which point, she immediately left the store and the little boy did not get what he wanted. She said, quite plainly, that this put an end to that kind of behavior and the little boy never had a temper tantrum again.

Her way of managing a temper tantrum is quite common- most people think that the best thing to do with a temper tantrum is to ignore it, and definitely not give in to it. In fact, when people express this opinion about temper tantrums, they believe that they are exercising psychological principles: they think that by not rewarding bad behavior they will eliminate the behavior.

From a “behavioral” perspective, this is true! If you want a behavior to repeat itself, reward it. If you want a behavior to cease, either punish it or withdraw reward.
Easy breezy advice: Withdraw your attention, or give him a time out, and walk out the door, sending him the message not to have a tantrum. You might even get exactly what you intended: fewer temper tantrums. Congratulations.

* * *
Then why am I challenging this commonly held approach to tantrums?
At the end of the day, our child is not a rat whose behavior we want to shape…..Why not? because, as the parent, we are also interested in the child’s feelings, her inner world, and the impact that we are having on him or her, not just her outward behavior.

So, now, let’s consider the real psychology and science behind the behavior:

The Emotional Life of a Toddler

A child between the ages of 1 and 3 is a budding ball of will and desire. You too were once a healthy toddler: you wanted to go here, and there, and out and under, and explore everywhere. Except the world also had lots of gates and doors, obstacles, and restrictions that came in the form of mommy or daddy saying (or if you were unlucky, yelling) “NO”! It’s a tough life, with very little autonomy and power.

But, if you were healthy, you kept trying to get your way, to express your wants, and desires, usually revolving around a wish to experiment and explore.

This is the beginning of expression….the expression of a whole host of feelings in the form of grunts, sighs, whining, crying, laughing, and little words here and there.

Expressing herself is a healthy aspect of the child’s psychology. You want to help your child express herself, and you want to help her get what she wants, within reasonable limits. That is your job as a parent, to fulfill this child’s needs, to give her some of her wants, and to set some limits and boundaries around some wants that are not in her best interest.

Your child is entitled to her emotions. When she has an emotion or expresses a preference, empathize with her situation and if it’s age appropriate help her express it in words. For instance, “Sally sad mamma bye-bye/gone”, or “Sally wants outside, but momma say NO. Sally upset.”

Harvey Karp has some great suggestions in his book The Happiest Toddler on the Block as to how to empathize with an irrational toddler (who can seem like a little terrorist or neanderthal). Believe you me, I know that it is not easy to empathize with these little dictators sometimes, but nevertheless, I think it’s good to strive to do so.


There is a difference between a child being upset because they are not getting a candy they want, a child expressing anxiety because of a sudden transition to a new activity (as in my story), a child having to manage a new unknown situation, or a child separating from you.
Though all of the above emotions are different, empathy is always a great starting point, if you’re trying to relate to your child. But after that, each of the above situations requires a different response. If the child desires another candy, though they’ve already had plenty, what she needs in the situation is for you to set a limit. If the child is upset because they were not prepared for a transition to something new, then what she needs is a heads up that the activity is about to change. If the child has to manage a new unknown situation, what she needs is help in anticipating the new event and tools to cope with it, or for you to take her out of the situation. If the child is upset because she is anxious about separating from you, well, that is normal, and you need to help her with this anxiety by giving her some tools to tolerate the separation (see more on separation anxiety in my next post).

So how and why do these emotions sometimes snowball into full blown temper tantrums?

When a child becomes overwhelmed with her emotions she may have a temper tantrum. Many things may trigger a full blown temper tantrum:

HUNGER/FATIGUE. If a child is hungry or tired, her emotions are more likely to intensify.

DIFFICULTY EXPRESSING EMOTIONS. If she is regularly having difficulty expressing a need through words or gestures, her emotions will likely escalate.

FRUSTRATION. If she is used to having most of her needs frustrated and wants denied, her emotions are likely to be more volatile because she approaches the world with the expectation that her needs will not be met.

POWERLESSNESS. If she feels that she is engaged in a power struggle with you, then she will be more vulnerable to her own emotions and overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.

UNRESOLVED FEELINGS RELATED TO LIFE EVENTS. If she is having absolutely any kind of unexpressed, yet complicated feelings about something in her life (a new sibling, frequent separations from you, difficulty with a caregiver), this may express itself through temper tantrums (because she does not yet have language for these emotions).

So, go figure!

When your child is in the throes of a temper tantrum, it is impossible to have the composure and mental space to figure out the reason for your child’s temper tantrum. However, the point is, that more likely than not, she is having some kind of difficulty! This means that she needs your help, your calm, your compassion, your sense of confidence, and unconditional love for her. You are the solid center that will allow her to end her inner storm.

For this reason, I don’t love the overall attitude of “ignoring”, “withdrawing attention” or “punishing” in order to train the child out of the tantrum. It’s true that you want to teach the child to better express herself, so that she does not get overwhelmed with emotions to the point of having a tantrum. But it doesn’t mean that you are wagging a finger at her for sometimes getting overwhelmed.

Some experts recommend that you hold your child in embrace till the tantrum subsides. Sometimes that is impossible because the child may hit you and you should protect yourself. Either way, a calm and loving stance is the one that I would like to take as I prepare for the inevitable. Also, if the tantrums become frequent, I will be thinking about my child from her perspective, and trying to figure out what has been going on in her emotional life to lead to these tantrums.
GULP….I’m brave NOW….ask me again what I think about TTs in a few months…Will it have gotten worse by then?

What is your approach to dealing with TTs?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14 other followers

%d bloggers like this: