Ah, the dreaded tantrum. We’ve all seen one. Many of us have judged a few parents for their inability to control their toddler’s public fits. Many of us have been those parents, unable to stop the embarrassing displays of unrestrained fury from our youngest family members. It’s as if your toddler having a public meltdown is a glaring sign of failure as a parent. But why?
I have learned through my studies in child development and now my actual experience that tantrums are a very normal part of development. Contrary to popular belief, tantrums are not “bad behavior.” Having an emotional meltdown is not misbehavior—it’s part of being human. Are tantrums unpleasant, embarrassing, and unwanted? Why yes. But again—they aren’t misbehavior.
The reality is that toddlers have a lot of big emotions that they don’t know how to handle. If we, as adults, can’t always handle our emotions maturely, then it really isn’t reasonable to expect toddlers to do so. It would be much better for everyone if we all realized that tantrums are normal, and not a reflection of bad parenting. But when a toddler is crying on the floor, kicking and screaming, what should a parent (or caregiver) do?
Some people lecture or scold the child. “Get off the floor right now! You stop that, or you’ll have a time-out.” Or, even better, “Stop crying!” Sometimes, these scoldings are even accompanied by spankings, or other punitive measures. I always find myself wondering, why? They aren’t hurting anybody (if they are, they can be restrained with compassion). They’re just expressing their emotions the only way they know how. And when did it become acceptable to respond to another person’s tears and pain by yelling at them to stop crying, or worse, by hitting them? Apparently, only with toddlers.
Other parents, desperate to end the drama, concede to the demands of their little tyrant. This isn’t really a good long-range plan either. It teaches kids that they can get what they want by screaming, crying, and making a scene. That’s no good either!
What I’ve found to be a respectful, yet effective middle ground is considering the reason behind the tantrum, and responding accordingly without compromising your dignity, or the child’s. When a toddler is throwing a fit because of separation anxiety, I offer comfort. I may gently rub their back, hold them, or offer comforting words. I also respect their right to reject any physical comfort. I offer my presence, and my patience while they express their pain and, hopefully, eventually, calm down.
If a toddler is throwing a tantrum over not getting their way, I may offer my empathy, ignore it, or try using distraction. Remember, even adults feel upset when they don’t get their way! If a toddler is throwing a tantrum for an unknown reason (as mine often does), I offer comfort, and if rejected, I ignore it or, again, try using distraction. When I simply don’t have the energy to deal with it calmly, I ignore it.
I recognize that there may be reasons I don’t know about for the emotional outburst—teething pain, boredom, frustration, and so on. As such, I try to never react to a tantrum with anger or an attempt to control it. The only time I would step in to exert control would be to prevent a child from injuring himself or others, which can be accomplished with a hug-hold (holding the child around the torso and over the arms from behind).
The key, for me, to being peaceful in the face of tantrums is realizing that I cannot control the actions of the child, whether it’s my child or somebody else’s who I’m caring for. I can only control my own actions, and my reactions. I can only guide the child’s choices to the extent they will allow me to, and enforce necessary limits within my power. Stopping a toddler from having a tantrum is not necessary, or always possible. Reacting to it calmly and reasonably is both.