The gift of tantrums

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Monica
Temper Tantrum
Look familiar? Photo by Ron.

My toddler girl had some sort of random illness that produced a mild to moderate fever. Her only other symptom was a slightly blocked nose when breathing deeply, whilst she slept. During her three to four day fever, she was lethargic. On the night her fever broke, she woke every 30 minutes because she couldn't breathe with her blocked nose. and she was angry each time. I sensed a deeper anger within her.

That day, she was whiney and irritable, alternating with periods of happiness. She had a tantrum later that evening. The following day, she had five tantrums. On the third day she had one.

I refer to these as tantrums for convenience. but I tend to call them rages, because she is so furious. Also, the term tantrum has very misunderstood connotations attached to it. For older children, the term I've heard is meltdown.

The average person thinks of tantrums as the result of a spoilt child. At the more compassionate end of the scale, we think of tantrums as the result of a tired or ill child. Yet generally there is a belief that we ought to prevent and stop tantrums.

To me, tantrums are the natural extension of crying in newborns. That is, they are an innate mechanism of stress release. We all get stressed, and we all need to release that stress.

Stress can come from undesirable or desirable places. A surprise party, a first date, making a speech, receiving an award, or getting married, can all cause a lot of stress despite them being otherwise enjoyable to us. If we don't release stress consciously and effectively, it will disperse one way or another. Prolonged stress and unreleased stress is a detriment to our minds, bodies, and spirits.

Children are particularly sensitive and are constantly bombarded by new experiences and new information from their environment. Older children, toddlers, are attempting to define an identity and work out boundaries.

Every child is different of course. Some have more of a temper, or are especially sensitive, and thereby might cry or tantrum more readily. But likewise, some children are more prone to please, and might be less likely to show strong emotions, especially if they quickly learn those emotions are not approved.

So, children are basically, regularly stressed.

We can release stress in many ways — vigorous activity (exercise, sex, hard physical work), relaxation experiences (massage, walks in nature, meditation), or through pure emotional/physical outlets (screaming, crying, intense laughing).

Out of all of these, crying is one that is very special. Because the act of crying has, in my view, four things going for it.

  • It is emotionally satisfying — we understand the act to be a psychological release.
  • It is physically demanding. (therefore like vigorous activity)
  • It's free and readily accessible.
  • It releases stress hormones through the tears.

Isn't that fourth one amazing?

For newborns, this ability to release stress hormones through crying is unbeatable. There is literally nothing else they can do. Older babies begin to be capable of using their bodies more. Toddlers can add screaming, shouting specific words, using their entire body, affecting their environment (by hitting, throwing objects, breaking things). As we get older, we're taught to control our bodies and our emotions. And that's how we get socially acceptable adults with stomach ulcers.

The repression of children's voices has been going on for decades. so we can't be too angry with ourselves for following the ways of our parents, and most of society.

: tantrum in high key
Ohhh, busting out the pouty lip! Photo by Christian, used with Creative Commons license.

If we find that we're the parent that is proud of our child for being well-behaved (not complaining, not whining, not crying, not tantruming) during a flight, long car ride, social event, at a restaurant, then we might be repressing their natural methods at stress release. We might be repressing their emotional voice for the sake of convenience, peace, or social acceptance.

We can repress our children's voices in many ways. by stern looks, by requesting their 'nice' voice but never validating their emotions, by telling them to be quiet, by not ever showing emotions ourselves, by disapproving of crying or tantrums. Too many tantrum articles focus on teaching the child control.

When she tantrumed I was grateful that she could release the stress of her illness. She released, she was validated, she was accepted and loved with all her emotions. For the parent, viewing tantrums as necessary and fulfilling a purpose means we feel much less stress ourselves. and we open up the channels of love.

Our child could be 'well-behaved' and build up emotional and psychological issues, or they can shout, cry, or tantrum in our loving presence as they need to.

Tantrums are a gift, honestly.

  1. Thank you for this perspective. Itis easier in an infant to see that crying is a relaease and not take it personally, but toddler trantrums probably feel a lot more personal to many parents. The thing I try to keep in mind is to make sure the child is safe and cannot hurt themself or someone else while letting them blow off steam. I had a copy of A Warm Fuzzy Tale [http://www.emotional-literacy.com/fuzzy.htm] when I was a child that, among other messages about how to be kind and generous, talked about constructive ways to deal with anger and frustration that did not say "be well behaved" but rather instilled the message "channel your feelings in a way that releases the tension without hurting anyone." I think these stories have had a big impact on how I think of emotions and now that I am a parent I keep recalling little messages from the stories and applying them to my interactions with everyone. (Hmm…I think I need to get me new copies of this for my daughter to read, which I can have my husband read to her so he gets to see them too.)

    • Another book I love that validates kids' emotions and teaches that it is OK to feel bad sometimes is Alexander and the No Good, Very Bad Horrible Day by Judith Viorist. A Classic.

  2. I love this well written and kind article. I hope it spreads far and wide. Will you please submit it to some mainstream magazines as well, like Parenting?

    I've worked hard to make feelings ok for my kids, too. When they were disappointed as toddlers, I would agree with them rather than try to talk them out of it or battle about it. I'd help them find words. "Yes, leaving the park is really awful. You are mad because you want to play more. Let's hold hands, and stomp our boots all the way past those benches! Are your angries out?" Sympathy, creativity, kindness. And one thing they COULD have a choice about, "Would you like to leave like mad roaring lions or hopping kangaroos?"

    My 8 year old still cries to release stress at home and often in the car. We make it safe for him, and because of that, he doesn't have to take it out on others, or be defensive about it. He can say, "I just have so many feelings", or "I need to cry", or "I'm so mad/sad/disappointed about ____". He lets it fly. I'm going to read him the part of your article about how crying releases stress. Great work.

  3. Yes – bless you for sharing this! I echo Aly's suggestion that you submit it to some mainstream magazines. This approach is critical to our raising healthy, embodied children. I'm going to share this one far and wide.

  4. This is great. I went to college for theatre, and a large part of our first year was dedicated to finding our natural voices — which shockingly few people speak with. Along with being socialized to speak in a certain way because of our gender (softer or higher pitched for women, less expressive for men) the biggest influence on the repression of the natural voice is being silenced in early childhood. "Be quiet," "don't make a scene," "inside voices", all add up to teach children that they need to silence their true voices. I've been thinking a lot about that class now that I'm pregnant! I hope that I can be a responsible parent, respectful of those around me but also of my own child's impulses. It will be a challenge!

    Your article made me think! Thanks.

    P.S. Here's a great resource on the natural voice:
    http://www.amazon.com/Freeing-Natural-Voice-Kristin-Linklater/dp/0896760715/offbeatmama-20

      • Hah! I didn't know you did time here on the East Coast. I went to University of Rhode Island — but my voice teacher had studied with Linklater. I think she has a pretty strong cult following in the greater Boston area.

        • I did two east coast stints: first Boston (Emerson College) and then New York (Columbia University). Both experiences made it crystal clear that I am a Blessed Coast girl. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Thank you for writing this article. I was raised in a home where emotion and anger was suppressed. Now that I am a mother myself, I really want to encourage my children to understand their own feelings and seek positive ways to let the emotion out. This is a very encouraging post. Thanks again.

  6. I am not yet a parent, but an aunt. I grew up in a home with loving parents and siblings, but we were unfortunately taught to suppress our emotions. I remember as a child constantly trying very hard to not cry, because if I cried, my older sisters usually got in trouble and then they would be mad at me.
    This didn't seem so bad until I was in my teens, experiencing all of these emotions for the first time and not having developed a healthy way to deal with them. I ended up cutting myself on a regular basis for about 2 years until I slowly started figuring out better coping mechanisms. Now in my twenties, I am still a work in process.
    I want to tell all parents that it is very important to encourage kids to cry when they feel like crying and telling them that their emotions are valid. It really makes a difference.

  7. We have a "frustration station" in my pr-k classroom. Although anger is natural, they do need to learn how to control it in a positive manner. In our "frustration station" we have chalk to draw or write, bang on a drum, or a pillow to let some things out on.
    In my experience, many children who do have "meltdowns" don't know how to deal with their emotions and end up getting violent.
    Just my two cents.
    Well written article though!

  8. I realise it's just semantics, but to me (and I suspect most people) a tantrum means kicking up a noisy fuss specificially to get their own way, so it isn't surprising that most people see this as A Bad Thing. Crying or yelling because of frustration or pain is a whole different thing. About which you've got a good point.

    • Agree agree agree. I'll have to reread the article with this perspective. Because I don't think it's a bad thing to learn to control yourself when you don't get your way, but emotional expression is a good thing too.

    • This, times a million. My daughter has only ever had a handful of real tantrums, meaning that she was having a fit for not getting her way. I never grouped her outbursts based on pain/illness/stress in with a tantrum. They're so completely different in my head.

      I think there needs to be a line drawn. Yes, letting your kids get it out of their system because they are hurting and can't express themselves otherwise is great and important. Letting them be emotional tyrants isn't. My daughter is 7 now, but when she was "tantrum age" we spent a lot of time talking and reading. When something hurt, we taught her to point and say "owie" so that she had to tools to communicate that she was in pain. Stressful situations with lots of people? I kept her in a sling and talked her through it, pointing things out and speaking in a soothing voice. I don't think I've emotionally wrecked her because I didn't let her throw fits because I wouldn't let her pull 20 boxes of cereal off of the shelf in the grocery store, but I've raised an eloquent, well spoken little girl who can tell you when she has a headache or has pulled her nail back getting into her box-boat.

      • I've never seen pain/upset/stress related outbursts as tantrums either.
        My munchkin rarely has the other sort where she wants her own way, possibly because I've always taught her to be able to explain her emotions (as far as she can!), possibly because she knows it won't get her anywhere with me, and also possibly because she's got an advanced vocabulary for a two year old, and can ususally express herself without too much frustration!
        Having someone to listen to the emotion and care is also pretty key in my book, so that usually becomes part of my job as her mum ๐Ÿ™‚
        Me and my mum still regularly sit in the car while driving along and shout at the tops of our voices -really freeing!

  9. When me and my two siblings were young, all under 5, dad used to take us to the beach everyday and we would have screaming contests. Apparently this always let us be calm for the rest of the day, important when we all lived in a two room house. Although I hate to think what people thought if they heard us!

    • That sounds awesome! A real scream, at the top of your lungs, with out restraint is SO. DAMN. FREEING. But man it is hard to let yourself do with all we've been taught.

      • I did a summer as a leader at a Girl Scout camp, we used to play a game at dusk called "run and scream" the idea being to run around the camp as fast as you can whilst screaming as loud as you can- it was brilliant.

        I'm another one from a family who were crap at being emotional, and I'm suffering from it now. If me or my sisters were too whiney or moaning or even hyper excited about something, my dad would put his hand up to shush us ๐Ÿ™

  10. This a great article, thanks for writing it. There was a really great post with a similar point on API. My son is only 4 months old but my husband and I really try to not refer to his behavior as "good" or "bad" right now. Like the article on API states when people say "you have a well behaved child" they usually mean "hey I'm glad your child did not annoy me or inconvenience me." And that's not fair. Everyone is entitled to their "rough days". My husband and I try to refer to my son's emotions with words like uncomfortable, irritated, or words like angry, sad, instead of things like "he's being bad" or "he's cranky." We feel that opening up his vocabulary to an array of emotions early on will help him understand his emotions later. And just because a baby is uncomfortable doesn't mean they are "bad".
    But once again, well written and insightful article! Thanks!

  11. i think the most important thing about tantrums is to teach a child there is a time and a place. emotional release is all fine and dandy, but it is an important step for all people to realize when and where it is ok to let it all out. if a child is upset, it is up to the parent to help establish guidlines for the child on order to release emotions in constructive ways. purplefaced on the floor in the middle of the soup aisle in a grocery store may be a release for a child, but it is definately not a standard that should be validated based off of the fact that it is ok for a child to be upset. yes, it IS ok to be upset or scared or stressed, etc, but a child needs to learn (as many adults do) that there is a time and a place for hissy fits. tantrums should never be allowed if they interfere with others in a negative manner, especially if they turn destructive. throwing a fit to feel better is OK, but tantrums are, if anything, perfect times when a parent needs to step in and provide guidance and assurance, tempered with discipline, to teach a child methods of handling confusing emotions so that hissy fits dont become the norm.

  12. I just wanted to say that sometimes husbands (and wives) also need to have tantrums, and taking the same approach as for children, if you don't take it personally, and ask them to elaborate on the feelings that are making them act a certain way, it can turn what would otherwise have been a fight into a productive conversation ๐Ÿ™‚ Hurrah for things learned about my baby that actually help my marriage too!

  13. I can agree with this article, but I think it should be said that teaching your child to vent in unhealthy ways such as hitting (both animate and inanimate things) will effect them negatively in the long run.

    I recently read an article that explained a study proving that catharsis will just make you more angry. They had 2 groups of people write an essay and said the people in the other group were to grade it. In actuality, the researchers wrote "WORST ESSAY I'VE EVER READ" on every paper. One group was given the option of letting out their frustration by punching a pillow, and the other was told to just sit. Later on, each subject was given the chance to "punish" their grader by making them drink hot sauce. Surprisingly, the group who just sat gave far less hot sauce to their enemies than the other group.

    I'm not saying anyone should repress their emotions, but there's a fine line between healthy and unhealthy when it comes to venting.

    • Great comment. I absolutely agree. The articel is great, but I feel like it would have been more helpful if there were more distincion between encouraging a kid in healthy processing of emotion and letting a kid scream and cry at will. I think you can help a kid understand emotions and what are healthy ways to release pent up feelings without repressing their emotions.

      My younger brother was a huge tantrum thrower as a kid and as an adult he will still get angry and then throw something, which will inevitably break something, which just pisses him off further. I wonder if he would be a different adult if he had been taught how else to channel feelings like anger in more effective ways.

  14. i have a son who is just hitting being a toddler and i totally agree with calling tantrums rages. see he isn't quite talking yet and when he can't express himself he gets frustrated and well rages. after a good cry he's oddly calm.

    and i totally agree that people trying to hide tantrums. many times while out my son has had a tantrum and all of a sudden everyone looks at me because i'm the bad parent for letting it run it's course instead of making my son happy. i like to remind these people that if they have a young child they've dealt with the same and if they haven't had children yet, that one day they just might be in my shoes

  15. I have always had this philosophy about young children, and I carry it out with my 3 kids (a 4-year-old girl and twin 6-year-old boys). I have never punished them for showing age-appropriate reactions to their emotions. For example, my boys are no longer allowed to throw screaming-kicking-raging tantrums – at 6, they can control their reactions better. I do not, however, punish them for being sullen, pouty, or even crying – they're not old enough for that.

    As for my daughter, she's still young enough that I feel tantrums are still appropriate. I do, however, take her into another room and explain that while she's not in trouble or time-out, she may not be around people when she's being that noisy.

    I feel like this demonstrates/models the behaviour we'd like to see our children employ as adults; everyone gets angry, everyone occasionally gets so angry they can't keep their temper. That's normal. What I want to teach my children is that while we should try to control our reactions to our emotions so as not to be impolite or unkind to others, sometimes we can't, and in those instances we need to remove ourselves from those situations until we can be nice. It's okay to be mad – it's not okay to harm other people with it.

  16. My stepchild, light of my life, is unfortunately an example of what happens when tantrums are indulged. I worried about this when she was in grade school and her parents allowed her to tantrum at will.

    Sometimes, repressing isn't such a bad idea. Now she is in high school and still occasionally throws a giant fit. A hysterical tantrum. Yes, she has real emotions, but no, tantrums are not appropriate. She's big enough now to hurt herself, other people, or as the case may be, inanimate objects. None of this makes her happy. She hasn't learned to regulate her emotions and find better ways to express or comfort herself, because we thought she should be able to express her feelings when she was younger. Now it sucks for everyone.

    If letting your kids throw a fit lingers on through teenaged years and adulthood, what kind of relationships or work environment can this kid expect? She'll get fired if she pulls that at work. The only men who will want to be in a relationship with someone like that will tend to be those guys who pursue unstable, narcissistic women. Control-freaks who manipulate the women's fragile and uncontained emotions, and would-be Prince Charmings who like to be walked on like bathmats. It's a common dynamic.

    There can be advantages to starting the learning process early rather than waiting until a bad pattern has been established. If a kid learns that a full-on bratty tantrum is OK when he's 3, 6, 9, or 11, don't expect him to suddenly become socially aware, unbratty, or caring of other people's needs when he's 12.

    • That's the problem I guess that a tantrum can both be from true emotional frustration/pain and a tantrum can be thrown to manipulate, to get something a kid wants, etc. How to tell the difference?

      Hopefully for most kids guiding the transition to age appropriate emotion expression is possible. Toddlers may need to rage/throw a tantrum but as they transition to teenagers and then adults they can be taught how to talk it out or cry on a welcoming shoulder or cry alone in a safe place, write in journals, listen to loud music, dance, run, go for a walk, etc.

  17. I'm intrigued by the idea of baby-signing and the lessening of tantrums (the logic being that a child with the tools to express themselves has less need to tantrum)… does anyone have any experience with this>

    • I baby signed with my son, his tantrums were physical, he hit and kicked me. He knew how to communicate physically so that's how he expressed rage. It lessened tremendously when he learned how to express himself verbally. My daughter did some signing, but not as much as my son and she'll scream and cry but doesn't hit or kick. I don't know if it's just the differences in personalities, circumstances or communication skills, but that was my personal experience with it.

  18. We have been signing with our 16 month old since she was about 3 or 4 months. It really really helps EVERYONES frustration level in the house. She still throws "tantrums" but usually only if she is tired or hungry. (lucky us she just started using the "sleep" sign a week or two ago!)
    I absolutely 100% encourage all our pregnant friends to use sign with their babies; it's been great!

  19. I really enjoyed reading this article and comments. Not quite a mama yet but its good to be establishing my thoughts/feelings on this now

  20. Great insight. Thanks for writing this!
    My partner and I have used "tantrums" as a opportunity to teach my son to identify his emotions, a skill many adults lack. He is 2 now and can easily tell me "I feel mad because you said no candy for breakfast." or "I feel sad because I wanted to see Daddy before he left for work." We can then talk about it, and he is able to release those feelings easily. Validation is so important.

    • I never thought I'd be able to make the connection between caring for Alzheimer's/ dementia patience's and children.
      But validation of feelings is a key for taking care of both. Both need to be heard and know the caregiver understood what they said.

  21. I really wish the people who stare daggers at me on the now-rare occasion that my 3-year-old son melts down in public would read this article. He's his mother's child, he has a lot of emotions and drama to contend with in his short life!

  22. Very good article, good insights. After a few times a mother can tell the difference between illness-crying, spoilt child-crying, boredom-crying (whiney), and will hopefully learn how to effectively deal with each instance. No one wants a self-willed tantrum-throwing youngster, but there is a difference between that child and the child who needs attention for a physical or emotional need. I have 2 adult children and 4 teen grandchildren one of whom has a "short fuse," one who is shy, one who is restless and easily bored and one who is content. My daughter has done a wonderful parenting job, knowing her children and their needs.

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