Learning from Toddler Temper Tantrums

Learning from Toddler Temper Tantrums

When your child throws a tantrum in a public space, it can be an embarrassing and frustrating experience. But what is it like for the child?

To parents, tantrums may appear to be outbursts of negative emotions. Sociologists and psychologists, however, don’t classify any emotions as inherently “positive” or “negative.” Emotions elicit certain responses from a child’s body, which affect the behavior of their caregivers. In lieu of the language needed to convey the way they feel, and without labels for the emotions they are experiencing, kids need to communicate in other more direct and primal ways.

“Emotions evolved to protect us by eliciting certain behaviors,” says Dr. J. Scott Lewis, professor of Sociology and Behavioral Sciences at Penn State Harrisburg. “Crying and kicking out in the produce section of Whole Foods may be terribly embarrassing for Mom or Dad, but in evolutionary terms that behavior is effective for fulfilling the child’s need and for ensuring survival.”

Realizing that tantrums aren’t inherently “negative” can allow us parents some insight into what our children need and provide some excellent cues for nurturing healthy emotional development.

Dr. Jaelyn Farris, a professor and researcher in the Department of Psychology at Youngstown State University, says that it is important for parents to understand that a tantrum is about unfulfilled needs and not about embarrassing the parent.

“Parents should realize that their children are not out to manipulate them,” Farris says. “Children just don’t have the cognitive capacity to outsmart and manipulate adults.”

“Young children are learning how to cope with emotions and tantrums often result from not having fully developed coping strategies or communication skills,” says Dr. Rebecca Hazen, a psychologist at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. Anger often is the most apparent emotion associated with tantrums, but “anxiety, frustration, sadness and disappointment are also common,” she adds.

A child may be anxious about being in a new situation and have a tantrum because they are overwhelmed and don’t know how to express or cope with those feelings, Hazen says.

Parents can help their children by teaching them how to recognize emotions as they happen by assigning labels to the way they feel, Farris says.

Parents can do this by linking physical states in the child’s body — shoulders getting tight, hands clenched into fists, face getting scrunched up — to the label of “angry.”

Tantrums often arise because a child has a pressing need (hunger, fear or anxiety, for example) and does not have any way of expressing it. So, if a toddler is hungry and her parent engages with her but doesn’t feed her, then her need remains unmet and the tantrum continues.

“If Mom can work with the child to figure out that the child is hungry, then she can offer the child a snack and teach him that he felt upset because his body needed food and not because he’s a bad kid,” Farris says.

“These coping strategies can be effective for children as young as 18 months old, and even young children can start to learn how to cope with big feelings in a way that best helps them achieve their goals,” she adds.

“Note that none of those conversations involved judgment words like positive or negative. Just the idea that when your body feels this way, I can give you a label for it, so you know what you’re dealing with when it happens again in the future.”

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