What if Tantrums Don’t Actually Exist?
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
“At the root of every tantrum and power struggle are unmet needs.” –Marshall Rosenberg
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.
Good post. I never thought to look at it like that.
Yes!!! So true!! I am also very passionate about this topic!
There IS actually a Hand In Hand tool I do use for listening to emotions called Staylistening. More on that here:
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Yes, children are human beings as well just like us grown ups. Children may cry or have emotions to express their feelings because they’re limited to explaining what they want or need. What if the word tantrum didn’t exist to begin with? Or what if tantrum is a old definition? Children only want to be loved, have attention, and needs a adult who care to listen to them when someone is bothering them or whatever the issue is going on. Just maybe tantrum is classified as old fashioned.
of how many can go at one timed., This is very interesting, I have a huge question, Do you have any routine or plan or does your day run on the girls wants, needs and emotions? I ask this because I work with 10 children from 1-3 years old and with so many I feel if I gave each one the time to express there feelings emotions and listen to their thoughts the room would be ransacked and there may be injury to the other children. I am asking this as a way to try to improve my student group and have a happier and healthier place for children .. Any advice or tips. We seem to go through way too much drama. and vying for attention. I one needs to go potty everyone wants to go and the one who needs to go will have an accident if I take the time to explain who every one may not go at once, ( too many children for the size of potty room). one teacher stays in the classroom while the other does potty time. I do not own the childcare facility so I need to abide by their rules about how many are allowed o go at a time. I need help for emotional “temper tantrums” out breaks. I will welcome tips and or suggestions. Thank you
I would suggest bringing your concerns up with the management. Those are all legitimate concerns….as is the concern to meet every child’s needs. Maybe the issue is understaffing…..exploitation of parents money
Hi! I was just wondering because you are in the Southern Hemisphere, and I am in the north, do you still call the hot season summer and the cold season winter? I know our summer is your winter but not sure if you call them the same?
Yep, same name, just at opposite times 🙂
This is such a refreshing approach! Children are little humans with real feelings and no matter what drives the big feelings, the underlying reason is to feel connected and safe again. Great read – thank you!!
Spot on! This same deeper level of understanding can be applied to the word “stigma” regarding mental health care and suicidal ideation. In reality, it is “discrimination,” and we need to be listening to understand the behavior…if we are to save lives. Understanding the underlying reason for ‘trantrum’ behavior is the precursor to responding in a respectful and compassionate way, thereby helping the child/person better understand themselves and their needs, better able to deal with stress and emotional trauma in the future.
I totally agree. “Tantrum” as a concept is patronising and dismissive. Listening and attuning ourselves to the child’s cry for help is the the way to go. Thanks for writing this, excellent article.
This article of mine is somewhat related, maybe you would like to check it out:
I’m all for this. But there are times when I just can’t deal with it. For example, we’re in the car She (3yo) asks for milk.She wants more. Tantrum ensues. What can I do next in that moment?
What sometimes helps with mine is just to name and acknowledge her situation. “I know you want more, but we’re in the car and i don’t have more. It’s frustrating to not get something you want, isn’t it? We’re almost home and you can have more then. It’s hard when you’re tired, I know. It’s going to be ok soon.” Etc.
How refreshing to find such a sane, loving, and compassionate essay! It would fit very well on our Natural Child Project site at http://www.naturalchild.org. May we have permission to post it there?
Please see my article “Looking Past the Behavior” at http://www.naturalchild.org/jan_hunt/looking_past.html.
Sorry Jan I don’t allow reposts.
I do love your site though. So much great information ❤
This is so true! I feel the same way about the term “drama queen,” which relatives sometimes use for my daughter. How belittling!
This is just right. Thank you.
I like the idea behind this but with a 20 month old who is in full swing of tantrums I don’t think there’s a lot of sympathising to be done at this point. They are usually because he doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t want to get dressed, doesn’t want to go in car seat, doesn’t want you to stop drawing and so on. I always warn him we are going soon and verbalise how he loves it here etc but at the end of the day its time to go and that’s all there is to it. I’m not sure how this can apply at this stage. Other than being aware of how he’s feeling and when appropriate catering to it.
Thanks for keeping it real. No reason you still can’t sympathise and be compassionate but yes, we do need to get on with things and children need to learn to adjust because that is actually life and to deny them the opportunity to feel that frustration is doing them a disservice.
Great post! As a therapist, I try to help parents understand what their child is trying to communicate with their behaviors. As parents learn that kids act out what they can’t talk about and that they need their parents to help them make sense of their emotions, the tantrums tend to go way down.
I don’t see the word tantrum, personally, as a bad word, or having negative connoation. It is simply a natural process of the child. They are working through things, – having a hard time and trying to get a handle on their emotions. They are doing nothing wrong. They are developmentally on target, and adults have the responsibility to hold space for the child with compassion.
But maybe some people use the word tantrum carelessly and overly negatively.
It’s sad these adults don’t understand.
But the word itself has no issue for me.
Apparently the word originated in the early 18th Century. It’s not a new term, like “drama queen” that was specifically devised to be inflammatory.
I think because it’s an genuine term and original word, it deserves a bit more pause for thought.
I guess what I mean, is it’s not primarily, or naturally a derogative term.
Words change over time. Currently the term is “meltdown” instead of tantrum but the behavior is the same. It seems from the child being overwhelmed for whatever reason and it is a cry for help. That cry needs to be recognized and dealt with in a compassionate manner instead of getting tied up with terminology.
My name is Casiana and I have been a nanny/babysitter for about 4 years. I like learning about parenting as I hope to have my own kids soon as well. I am very happy I discovered this blog and I keep recommending it to everyone. Thank you for speaking up for children. What a great article. I have shifted my views on parenting a lot in the last year since discovering and reading more about unschooling. I actually found this blog from an unschooling facebook page called I’m Unschooled, Yes I can write.
I love this article! Most parents I know see a tantrum as “bad behavior”. I see it as an age appropriate expression of emotion. It’s not the kid’s problem that it makes adults feel uncomfortable. Ignoring or punishing tantrums instead of nurturing with empathy is a good way to teach a child to bottle up their emotions and we wonder why we as adults have to go to therapy in order to cope with our “shameful” emotions.
So pleased to find this, after trawling the net. I suffered as a child from “tantrums”, i felt misunderstood, unheard, just more hurt really, then had to deal with guilt, shame & still had no idea why or how my behaviour could change. It has led to further emotional distress as an adult. I hate the word, the whole concept of it, as it is not an attention seeking behaviour but a sympton of pain & inability to communicate what the problem is.
Great topic and I personally like what you’ve written here. Yes, our children are people too. They have feelings and they just don’t know how to express it right so more often what they do is to cry it out or even shout. What I do before is to ignore them first then after my kid is okay and is not crying anymore, I try to talk to her and ask what is wrong.
Oh, I love, love, love your articles!!! especially one of my children has a lot of strong emotions, and I’ve always hated the word “tantrum” (I usually call it “a thunderstorm of emotions” or “overwhealming emotions” or so), but I had never really thought through WHY I have such a strong resistance against this word. But this is it! Thank you so much for sharing so much wisdom and bringing more compassion and thereby peace into this world. <3
what if its an unwanted need of the child? should we listen to that ? suppose a child throws tantrums at mid night asking for a doll and wants it to be bought immediately. The child doesn’t even listen to what the parent is telling and keeps screaming and yelling.