A question I am often asked is whether or not Frida ever has “tantrums”, because I don’t tend to talk or write about these. The honest answer is yes, she does experience them – but very rarely.
Last week Frida went through one of these difficult moments, so I thought it would be the perfect time to write about them whilst the experience is fresh in my mind.
What are tantrums?
The good news is that tantrums are normal and perfectly healthy. They are a way some children express feelings of intense emotion, frustration, anger, or upset. They are not about us as parents, or a reflection on our parenting skills. They are simply a way for young children to regulate their emotions and let off steam in the only way they know how, as they are unable to filter their emotions and control their feelings.
Parents often find their children will “behave” in daycare or school, and then save the tantrums for when they are home. This is because they feel safe with you. Although it may not feel like it, it is really a privilege to have a child share those raw vulnerable emotions with you and to be the one holding that space for them.
What can I do to try and avoid tantrums in the first place?
Rather than focusing on avoiding tantrums, think of it as trying to help your child before they reach the state of being so overwhelmed that they lose control.
- Keep a mental note of any recurring triggers – tiredness, hunger, sensory overwhelm, even hot temperatures. Whilst you may not be able to avoid these completely, knowing to leave the park before 5pm or offer a snack mid-afternoon can really help keep everyone feeling calmer and happier.
- Create a strong rhythm for your family to allow your child to anticipate what will happen next in their day or week. This helps reduce feelings of overwhelm and opportunities for conflict, and brings more ease and connection to your daily life with your children.
- Simplify your child’s life. Reduce the number of activities in their schedule, the amount of toys they have in their room (I am a big fan of toy rotation), the choices available in their wardrobe. All of these things may seem unrelated to the tantrum your child had at the park because they couldn’t have an ice cream, but they all add up to reducing feelings of overwhelm your child experiences.
- Let go of unnecessary control over your child, handing it over to them where possible. Reduce the number of no’s your child hears and try to only intervene when strictly necessary – can you imagine how frustrated you would feel if someone was constantly interfering in your daily actions?
- Talk to them. If you feel strong emotions brewing in your child, try to label those emotions for them: “You are frustrated because we have to leave the park to go and pick up your sister from school. I can see how hard that is for you.” Connecting with your child and making them feel heard can at times be enough to help them feel heard and respected. Telling our children their emotions aren’t valid (“Don’t be silly, we’ve already been here over an hour, now hurry up”) only serves to increase frustration and disconnection.
Despite all of our love and work as parents sometimes tantrums still happen – and that is OK. Because as I have mentioned above, a child who is having a tantrum is just expressing their feelings and a need for support. That’s it.
What can I do to support my child who is experiencing strong emotions?
It is hard as a parent to stay calm when our child is experiencing these strong emotions. Many of us find anger and frustration hard emotions to express or deal with, and it can be very challenging to deal with these emotions in turn from our children – especially when they are expressed so loudly and furiously!
Although it can feel difficult, painful, or even embarrassing for us as parents to witness our children having a hard time, trying to quieten or stop our child from expressing their emotions doesn’t make the emotion go away – it just tells our child that we are not able to support them when they need to share with us. Our job as parents isn’t to try and make our child quit the tantrum or to calm them down; it is to be present and loving, allowing them a safe space to work through their emotions until they are done, whilst reassuring them that we are here for them.
- Stay physically present. Some children will tolerate being held or cuddled whilst experiencing a tantrum, but some will not want to be touched. In this case stay close by and use words to remind your child “I’m here for you, I’m ready to give you a hug when you feel ready”. You could also try humming or singing a comforting song to them. Sending your child for a “time out” only serves to punish them for expressing their feelings.
- Remain calm. Although it can feel hard, remember that you are the adult and they will be taking in your reaction. Rather than trying to calm your child, focus on your own feelings of calm. Take deep breaths if it helps, or even try slowly counting down from 100 in your head. Does your response communicate “You are safe, it is OK for you to share your feelings with me, take your time, I love you”? Or does it convey panic or shame?
- Keep everyone safe. That includes the child who is experiencing strong emotions, any other children around, and yourself. “I see you really want to hit – I will stop you hitting your brother.”
- Hold to your boundaries. It is important for you to maintain your family’s thought-through, necessary boundaries – and it is OK for your child to be upset at these boundaries.
- Offer an alternative to words for your child to express themselves. A piece of paper for drawing their emotions, a cushion for punching or kicking, a bean bag to throw or playdough to squeeze – these are all ways for a child to vent some of the frustration they are feeling in a way that doesn’t require words.
- Don’t dwell on it once it’s over. You will see that if you allow your child to safely work through their emotions they will often feel calm and even happy once the tantrum has passed. It’s as though they have gotten everything out of their system and are ready to move on. Offer a cuddle and check that they are OK, then move on with them.
What about the effect tantrums have on me as a parent?
For many of us, witnessing our children tantrum brings up a powerful emotional response and can make us feel panicked (“Why can’t I get through to my child?”), upset (“She told me she wants me to go away and she hates me”) or even angry ourselves (“I am so tired and work so hard for my child and he repays me by screaming at me?”).
Perhaps this is linked to how we were able to express our own emotions as children and how that space was held for us growing up. It can be especially hard in public if you find yourself on the receiving end of judgement or unkindness from passers by.
These emotions may mean that holding the space for your child to express themselves can leave you feeling exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. If possible, find time later on to speak to someone – your partner, your mum, a good friend – about how you felt, or take five minutes to journal about the experience. Making space for self care is always important as a parent but even more so if your child is going through a period of strong or difficult emotions. Refilling your cup is a gift to your whole family, not just you, especially when you are pouring so much out.
Where can I find out more?
I really love the book How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen; it is a wonderfully gentle and practical book looking at navigating conflict and increasing connection with your young children – it should be given to every parent at the birth of their first child I think! I also really love this blog post “How not to stop a tantrum” from the wonderful Simone at The Montessori Notebook, and this blog post “The healing power of a toddler tantrum” from Janet Lansbury.
If you are struggling with tantrums and would like to get some non-judgemental, personalised support I offer one to one mentoring calls. I still have a small number of mentoring calls available as a special offer together with a place on A Beautiful Childhood course this summer, which will be packed full of information and ideas on everything from discipline to play.
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. We’ve already had posts about stepping away from using “no” so much, creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, and reducing stress around food and mealtimes. Next time I’ll be talking about why we don’t use punishments, so check back soon.
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!