Blog by Rachel Bennett, MA, LMHCA
Temper tantrums. I bet those two words made many of you groan internally or even aloud when you read them. As a parent, these words bring some very challenging situations and images to my mind. Some which I handled quite well and many others I wanted to have a full blown melt down right beside my child! I have learned during my professional training, developmentally, many children go through a phase of inability to regulate emotions which can result in “melt downs” or temper tantrums. To learn more about development stages, check out the Verywell website (Cherry, 2016) for a comparison of the various learning theories of development. In some cases, some children may not “outgrow” this phase as they continue to have difficulty regulating their emotions for many reasons. Some of those reasons may include early childhood, or even prenatal, trauma, neglect, removal from home and multiple placements, or dysfunctional or inconsistent parenting. Unresolved issues could continue to impact how a child regulates and adapts to healthier ways of expressing their feelings. Understanding why a child, who may be 8 or 10 years of age, continues to respond in a toddler style temper tantrum is very important. Understanding allows parents to see the behavior from a different perspective, allowing them to respond to meet the child’s real need rather than react to the behavior. In many cases, although not all, a child’s temper tantrum may be a child’s only way of showing they are fearful or overcome with emotion and unable to work through it or talk about it. In some cases, the tantrum may not be because they could not have a cookie before dinner but may be a result of loss experienced a few weeks prior or absence of a parent. Some children use temper tantrums to express previous emotions they are unable to express in other ways. When parents are able to use some investigative skills, looking back at the past hours, days or even weeks, into a child’s life, they may be able to identify what might be troubling the child and address it accordingly. This is not to say all children who have ever had a tantrum are expressing past loss or pain; however, many traumatized or neglected children may not know how to express themselves otherwise. Even at older ages beyond the toddler stage. Understanding what might be going on underneath a tantrum is one part. What do parents do, how do they respond, is the next question on many of parent’s minds. Great questions! In fact, the answers may vary according to the child’s needs. While this may be a frustrating answer to a parent (and believe me, as a parent, it is frustrating!), it is also true. Once a parent is able to understand what the cause of the tantrum is, they are able to respond appropriately. Meeting the need of a child may look very different from disciplining a child who just wants an extra cookie and isn’t accepting “no” for an answer to holding and cuddling the child. On the other hand, it is imperative meeting a child’s need is not mistaken for allowing the child to have what he/she wants when it is not appropriate. All children, especially children who have been traumatized, need boundaries and consequences for choices outside those boundaries. Meeting a child’s needs means, simply, giving them what they NEED, not necessarily what they may want. For instance, an 8 year old child asks his parents if he can stay up an extra hour past bedtime. The parent wisely responds with no, and a valid reason why he may not stay up past his bedtime. The child responds with a temper tantrum, including screaming and thrashing around on the floor. Without understanding the child’s life or what might have gone on just hours or days before, most parents would resort to punitive reaction, discipline or even “forcing” the child to go to bed. What if you learned this same child had witnessed his parents being shot right after he went to bed several months ago. While this may be an extreme situation, it no less proves my point. Knowing or attempting to understand the child’s history or what they may have just experienced is critical to inform how we should respond. Now, given this information, this child may be fearful of going to bed, the dark, or just being alone. On the other hand, maybe a child has not experienced such trauma, yet, continues to use temper tantrums as his/her primary expression or response when things do not go their way. Understanding their history is still important; however, a parent’s immediate response may be different. Some children may need to be taught how to speak their emotions, rather than allow their emotions to erupt in an explosive manner. A child may need to be held to healthy, but firm, clear and consistent, boundaries and consequences. This is true for any type of child or family. Setting clear, and clearly communicated, boundaries and consequences are essential to a child’s life and family living. When there are no true boundaries or consequences are inconsistent, the family is often chaotic. Boundaries need to be reasonable and appropriate for each age level within the family as well. Consequences should be age appropriate and as natural as possible. For instance, a natural consequence for a child not following the house rules about cell phone usage may not have their cell phone until an appointed time and must be monitored until the child “earns” the privilege back. Another example of natural consequences, a child may have a temper tantrum refusing to clear off the kitchen table after dinner will still need to complete the task after the tantrum has subsided and may miss out on some scheduled free time that evening. The point of natural consequences is to teach the child their choices often impact other activities, situations, and other people. The child learns tantrums do not eliminate the unwanted situation, it just delays it and may cause other consequences beyond that moment. Boundaries and natural consequences teach a child to be more empathetic, respect rules and boundaries, and have a better sense of security. While temper tantrums can be a frustrating part of parenting young children, these moments may be a very fertile teaching time for parents and children. Learning the child’s needs underneath the behavior may allow a parent to have a very different perspective. Then a parent may be able to creatively meet the child’s need, and, in turn, may eliminate the child’s “need” to resort to tantrums. The child may gain a sense of being heard, strengthened trust and security within the parent-child relationship. Parents who use well thought out and appropriate boundaries and consequences, which have been clearly communicated to each family member, can rely on those boundaries and consequences during these moments, which may lessen further argument or “debate”. As parents become more proactive, rather than reactive, and become “need readers”, family life may become a little less frustrating! For more information about parent coaching or counseling, please check out our websites or call our office.
Centers for Hope and Wellness, Inc.
Cherry, K. (2016). Theories of child development stages. Verywell. Received from https://www.verywell.com/issues-in-developmental-psychology-2795069