How do you deal with tantrums?

January 6, 2012

Every parent dislikes the dreaded tantrum, but the question of how to respond to a tantrum seems to be somewhat divided.

Many, including some child psychologists and writers, advise that ignoring tantrums is the best way to stop them, on the grounds that children use tantrums to try to get their own way, and will stop having them if they realise they’re not working.  In her book, “What Every Parent Needs to Know“, Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, adds an extra element.  She writes that as well as this type of tantrum, which she calls a ‘little Nero tantrum’, there is what she calls a ‘distress tantrum’ in which the child is overwhelmed by their feelings, and needs your help.  She advises ignoring a ‘little Nero tantrum’ but comforting a ‘distress tantrum’.  She gives various tips for distinguishing between the two types, but warns, however, that a ‘little Nero tantrum’ can turn into a ‘distress tantrum’.   Hmmm.

Here is my problem with all of this.  First, if there’s a chance that the ‘little Nero’ or power struggle type tantrum can become a distress tantrum, then I’m inclined to hang around just in case.  The idea of leaving a child alone to deal with their feelings, though advocated by many, is not one that I buy into.  Young children have trouble dealing with strong feelings.  This is precisely why they have tantrums.  So how is leaving them alone going to help them resolve them?  Besides, I would never ignore my child when he is crying, for whatever reason, little Nero or not. When we ignore a child who is upset, angry, frustrated, we lose that vital ability to reconnect with them. Ignoring also shows disrespect for him and for his feelings, and does not model compassionate behaviour.   Ignoring just doesn’t seem right to me at all.

Secondly, if we go for the idea of a tantrum being used by a child to get their own way, this attributes to the child manipulative behaviour, which must lead to the conclusion that they are in fact not upset but just acting.  It would also attribute to them an ability to think in such a devious manner, which I think is somewhat questionable, especially whilst in the throes of a tantrum. It brings to mind the equally dubious message pedalled by some parenting gurus that babies have the capacity to manipulate, and this is a reason to fail to respond to their cries.

Now, granted, a child has the capacity to whine and cry and carry on about something that they want that we’ve said they can’t have.  A tantrum, however, indicates a loss of control on the part of the child, due to their being overwhelmed by their strong feelings.  OK, the power struggle may have been the trigger, but this just tells you that frustration and anger are  most likely the predominant feelings they’re experiencing. For me, a preceding power struggle is not a reason to ignore and fail to empathise with a child’s feelings.  It is very easy to empathise and validate whilst still not giving in to demands.  Even without the tantrum, I’d say this is the way to go.

Many fear that giving attention to tantrums gives attention to and encourages bad behaviour.  But the way I look at it is that if we ignore a child’s feelings we teach them to suppress them in order to gain back our attention.  I do not want to teach my child to suppress his feelings, and I certainly don’t want him to think I don’t care about his feelings.

I think the most important change in attitude that needs to be made is that of tantrums being bad behaviour that must be stopped.  Tantrums are an expression of extreme emotion.  The problem arises from our own dislike of the noise and fuss, and often from our consciousness of onlookers.  Once we have ceased to see tantrums as bad behaviour we can respond to our child with empathy and understanding, so even when they can’t get what they want, at least they feel listened to and understood – surely a better recipe for connectedness, and if you want the tantrums to stop, connectedness is the key.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. writes in his book, Playful Parenting, “Tantrums are children’s way of expressing and releasing frustration….If they can’t express their frustration, or if they are punished for having a tantrum, it continues to interfere with their happiness, their ability to cooperate, or their achievements……Children in the midst of a tantrum are flooded with feelings, and they feel out of control. They need a loving human being near them.”

When a child has a tantrum, whatever the cause, they are experiencing a frightening loss of control, and overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, hurt and powerlessness.  They need us to show that we are there for them,  that we are strong enough to handle it even it they aren’t, and so are providing that safe base they so desperately need at their times of crisis.


Settling in to childcare

June 19, 2011

I have recently expressed some concern to other parents about what I consider to be rather inadequate settling in arrangements at my child’s new school.  At the time I was slightly surprised by their reaction – one of total unconcern, trust in the school’s system, and attitude of getting it over and done with as quickly as possible, but in hindsight this doesn’t surprise me at all.

It recalls the time when I  attempted to start my child at a playgroup that took 2 1/2 year olds. The settling in arrangements were non-existent;  the intake was not staggered either in terms of starting days or times, and the parents were not encouraged to stay with their child, in fact they were encouraged and advised to leave immediately.  This was following just one visit for each child with their parent to the playgroup which had taken place three months prior to their starting date.  Yet, to my knowledge, every single parent went along with this, trusting to the assumed higher wisdom and experience of the playgroup staff, and ignoring all their own parental instincts, dismissing these, in line with the attitude of the staff, as just unfounded concerns of over-anxious parents finding it hard to let go for the first time.

This approach somewhat ignores the substantial body of research and evidence out there that suggests that young children, particularly under 3s, need access to an attachment figure in order to feel safe and secure.  Clearly no such attachment figure is present when a child is separated from their parent and left in an unfamiliar environment with a bunch of strangers.  Richard Bowlby, President of the Centre for Child Mental Health writes in his article, Stress in Daycare;  “Being unable to access an attachment figure during non-parental daycare can result in babies and toddlers experiencing stress and elevated cortisol levels”.  Again, a substantial body of research and evidence has shown the long lasting negative effects of abnormal levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, on a young child’s brain development.

The argument I repeatedly hear from people who work in childcare settings is that the child stops crying once the parent is gone.  This, many seem to believe, shows that the child was only pretending to be upset in a manipulative attempt to prevent the parent from leaving.  Not so.  Whilst it is quite normal and healthy for a child to express some sadness at parting from the parent, then move on once the parting is over, this does not make it OK to leave a child with a stranger.  The child may stop crying once the parent has gone, but this does not necessarily mean they’re OK.  It is more likely that, with no attachment figure present, they no longer feel safe enough to express their feelings, so they suppress them, to burst back out once the parent returns – parents often report difficult and challenging behaviour on collecting their child from childcare.  The problem here is that all the time the child is in this situation, hiding their feelings of fear, insecurity, and anxiety, their cortisol levels are going sky-high.  Furthermore, this type of approach will do nothing to help the child feel secure and happy on subsequent visits to the childcare setting, but only increase their resistance against such an experience, and prolong their feelings of stress and upset.  Things may be ‘over and done with’ quicker for the parent, but not for the child.  Yes, the child will settle eventually, but is this really the best way for them?

If parents just took the time to make more visits or stay with their child until they have become familiar with the environment and the people in it,  it would be so much less stressful for the child,  and so much better for their relationship with their child.  Furthermore, this investment at the beginning may seem more time-consuming and ‘drawn out’, but in fact will result in fewer tears (from both parent and child!) and a quicker settling in overall.  Yes, all children are different, and some children will settle much quicker than others.  The parent, as ever, is the best judge of this.  Don’t just ‘go with the flow’ – that is the pressure from other parents, and from childcare workers.  Read the facts on attachment, and trust your own instincts.