Children have tantrums.
That’s an undisputed fact, right?
But what if it’s not?
You have probably experienced one, seen one, or at least heard of them I’m sure. Two-year-olds are notorious for their ‘terrible’ tantrums.
But what if the word ‘tantrum’ didn’t exist? How then would you see their behaviour?
I want to propose something different.
Children don’t have tantrums…
…they have feelings. Why on earth would we lump them all under the category of ‘tantrum’? That sounds awfully limiting and dismissive.
In what other circumstance do we describe a person’s feelings as a ‘tantrum’? The only times I can think of it being done to an adult are in a dismissive or mocking way, likening them to a child. That says a lot about how we think about children’s feelings. The common perception is that children’s feelings are trivial, less important than an adult’s, even amusing at times. This is so disrespectful.
A child’s feelings are valid
Humans have feelings, and that is ok. And children are people too! Just because a child’s feelings may seem trivial to someone with greater life experience, that does not make them any less valid for the person experiencing it. Trivialising, ignoring, or dismissing their emotions for our own comfort and convenience is hurtful and disrespectful. Children deserve to have their feelings treated with the same concern as an adult’s, despite their limited coping skills or ability to control their behaviour.
Our job as parents is to help our children learn to regulate their emotions, we can’t do this effectively if we’re labelling some feelings as less important ‘tantrums’ and only attending to the ones we deem authentic. And if we’re not even willing to hear a child’s feelings, how will we ever hope to understand the reason behind them?
All feelings have a reason
Feelings do not suddenly appear for no reason, although it may sometimes seem that way. ALL feelings have a reason, and once we realise this truth we can get on with the task of discovering what unmet needs might be at play.
Every time you show understanding, empathy, and a commitment to helping a child with their feelings and needs, you grow closer. Supporting a child in this way when they are feeling overwhelmed is an opportunity for connection.
Labelling feelings as a ‘tantrum’ shifts focus in the wrong direction
When we label a bunch of feelings as a ‘tantrum’ we totally shift our focus. Rather than hearing anger, hurt, disappointment, jealousy, sadness, frustration, fear, worry, outrage, shame, disgust, discomfort, exhaustion, helplessness, loneliness, or hundreds of other feelings, we see only ‘tantrum’. Do you see how much that limits our ability to understand and empathise?
Now, instead of concentrating on hearing our child’s feelings and unmet needs, we are concerned with stopping the ‘tantrum’. How frustrating it must feel for a child to have the whole of your experience diminished to a ‘tantrum’. To be only seen as your behaviour, with no understanding for the turmoil inside, and no support for getting through it. To be misunderstood or silenced when you’re feeling your most out of control, vulnerable, and overwhelmed.
There is so much advice out there for how to cope with a child’s ‘tantrum’. The notion that there would be a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with a child’s feelings with no regard to their personality, circumstances, age, ability, preferences, needs, thoughts, or anything else, is quite ridiculous. Could you imagine having a technique you could use every time your partner got upset, no matter the circumstances or reasons? That would be absurd and disrespectful. Children’s emotions should be treated with the same regard.
But what about manipulation?
I have often heard that there are two types of ‘tantrums’. The type where a child is legitimately upset (which you comfort them for), and the type where your child is just trying to manipulate you (which you ignore).
Personally, I think it’s pretty risky business to get into the habit of judging whether another person’s emotions are valid and deserving of your empathy or not. I would advocate for comforting a child whenever they need it, for any reason. The person best placed to judge if they need comfort is obviously the person requesting it.
I also don’t believe children are inherently manipulative and out to take advantage of us. And if for some reason they are, then what has led them to this desperate strategy for gaining attention and love? Surely they are legitimately in need of connection if they have come to believe the only way they are able to gain it is through manipulation.
“So, should you meet a need when you suspect manipulation? Yes. Always. If you would like to nurture trust within your relationship with your child.” –Jitterberry
Changing your perspective
So, what if the word ‘tantrum’ didn’t actually exist? What would that mean? How would we view a child’s behaviour differently?
Instead of seeing a problem to solve, an outburst to silence, an offence needing punishment, an unwarranted reaction, or manipulation to manage, what would we notice?
Maybe the incredibly varied experiences and feelings of a child?
Maybe a person asking for help?
Maybe overwhelm and vulnerability that needs our guidance and support?
Maybe a person who is learning?
Maybe a million different things unique to that tiny person.
Maybe instead of trying to manage a situation, we would be empathetic to the feelings and needs of a person.
Maybe our children would feel heard instead of judged.
Maybe we could give children exactly what they are crying out for. And maybe we would come away with greater connection, understanding, respect, and trust between us.
We can do that today. We can refuse to fall into the limiting ‘tantrum’ trap, and stop dismissing children’s feelings by using that word. We can choose to change our perspective and see whole people with their own dynamic feelings and needs, no less valid than an adult’s.
There is no such thing as ‘tantrums’, only people worthy of understanding.