The 6 Harsh Truths About Temper Tantrums Parents Must Accept
Meltdowns are normal and unavoidable. All parents can do is manage their own behavior.
A kid temper tantrum is a harsh reality of parenting. Because of that, seeking a solution for a child’s meltdowns is pretty much a universal parenting experience. The problem is, however, that there really isn’t a solution to temper tantrums, regardless of what a robust market of parenting books might suggest. (For Fatherly’s best advice on how to stop temper tantrums, click here.)
Are tantrums painful and incredibly hard for parents to deal with? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean a child who is having a tantrum is kicking and screaming to harm or hurt their mom and dad. Tantrums are baked into childhood and defy management. That’s why some of the biggest harsh truths about tantrums are linked to the fact that they don’t require child discipline, but they do require a disciplined parent who can show calm compassion in the face of bottomless rage.
Harsh Truth #1: Tantrums Are Normal
It’s not hyperbole to say that if you’ve seen one tantrum you’ve seen them all, it’s a point of fact. Kids all over the globe pretty much have the same tantrum, which is to say that they follow a very predictable pattern: A tantrum begins with often explosive high-intensity anger and winds down to whimpering sadness.
But why? Well, because a tantrum is an evolutionary gambit hooked into the fight or flight response spurred on by the biological imperative of survival ruled by the limbic system in a kids brain. The problem is that the modern world is not the dangerous one where the limbic system evolved. The tantrum response is all about conflict, but the conflicts have changed. Where once the conflict was being confronted by a lion, it’s now being told by a parent that a kid can’t have a piece of candy. It’s all the same to the limbic system.
As adults, though, we have developed our prefrontal cortex which allows us to keep our limbic system in check. That’s why we can take a few deep breaths and calm ourselves when we become flushed with anger (hopefully). Kids, however, are still engaged in developing the wiring in the prefrontal cortex that will help them keep tantrums in check.
What does all of this mean? There’s no reason to take a tantrum personally. It might be hard to believe but it’s true.
Harsh Truth #2: Tantrums Are Not Teachable Moments
When a child tantrums, it’s is not a time to teach kids lessons about patience, fairness or want versus need. Once a kid tumbles from whiney awfulness to full-blown meltdown they are essentially unreachable. Not only for psychological reasons but for purely practical reasons.
First off, a child lost in overwhelming anger is focused on that emotion and nothing else. It’s important to note that they are locked into the trajectory of the tantrum and will eventually arrive at sadness where parents can start interacting with them again. But, also, a screaming kid simply will not be able to hear a parent communicate. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that, really.
Harsh Truth #3: Parents Will Be Judged for Their Kid’s Tantrums
It never fails: When your kid has a tantrum in public there will be somebody clucking their tongue and shaking their head. These individuals may feel inconvenienced by the kid’s behavior. They may think the parent is bad at parenting. But more than likely the judgmental person is simply wrong — or, at the very least, uninformed. Unfortunately, social pressure pushes parents to try and squelch their kid’s tantrum. But because there is often no solution to the tantrum the effort just leads to more frustration. The trick is to ignore busybodies who look down their noses at a tantruming child and frustrated parent. A meltdown is just a blip in the day. Nothing more. Neither kids nor parents are at fault when children behave like children.
Harsh Truth #4: Parents Who Yell at Kids Having Tantrums Are Doing It Wrong
Of course, sometimes a parent is so embarrassed and frustrated by a child’s tantrum that they compelled to match their kid’s fury. But getting mad isn’t going to help anything. In fact, it can be completely counter-productive. Kids learn by watching parents. It’s that simple. One of a parent’s primary tasks is to model good behavior. This is true even when a parent is in a heightened emotional state. Yelling at a kid who is already yelling is basically just showing the kid that yelling is a reasonable way to deal with frustrations. That’s called a positive feedback loop.
The better way to deal with a tantrum is to get quiet, close and calm.
Harsh Truth #5: Parents Can’t Manage a Kid Having a Tantrum
Scientists know that tantrums have a natural arc, which means the best thing to do for a kid is to patiently wait it out until they get to the whimpery sadness phase. In many cases that simply means ignoring the behavior. That said, there are some gambits parents might find helpful. At the very least, they are not harmful.
One method parents can use when a kid is in tantrum mode is to get quiet, low and close. Talking quietly in a kids ear will sometimes prompt them to quiet down. But what a parent says is also important. It’s not about telling a kid to stop their tantrum or else, it’s about empathizing and naming emotions — “I see you’re upset that you can’t have the candy. That really stinks.”
If the tantrum happens in a public place, there’s also nothing wrong with leaving the shopping behind and heading to the car until things blow over. This takes pressure off of a parent who may be otherwise inclined to yell back at their kid.
Finally, there are tantrums that occur because a child wants to avoid some task. In these cases, the tantrum is a conscious method of negotiation. The tactic in those cases is for a parent to get the kid to do the task regardless, even it means placing their hands over the kids to have them put on a shirt to go outside. Gently, of course.
Harsh Truth #6: Parents Shouldn’t Hold a Grudge
Yes, tantrums are painful for everyone. However, the end in sadness for a very particular reason: it’s a way for a kid to prompt a parents sympathy and illicit a repair in the relationship. There’s no need to call a kid manipulative for that. In fact, the sadness is most likely an evolutionary trait. It makes no sense to alienate the very person responsible for care.
Parents do need to repair the relationship and show a kid that their attachments are solid and strong. They need to show their kid that their love is unconditional. Holding a grudge can result in a kid feeling insecure. And a kid who doesn’t feel secure in their family or environment is more likely to have psychological issues down the road, like depression and addiction. After the storm, there needs to be calm.
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