Dalia stood in the middle of the store with her cart overflowing with groceries. She was involuntarily wincing as her 2-year-old son Justin screamed and yelled while he grabbed and tore at the hem of her coat.
Glancing around anxiously, she saw people looking at them, some sympathetically and others appearing judgmental or irritated.
“What the heck am I supposed to do with this?” she desperately asked herself.
Find me a parent who has never been in this situation at one time or another. Almost all kids throw tantrums at various points in childhood. And usually, it is, of course, at the most inconvenient time for the parents.
Most parents feel utterly helpless when a tantrum happens. And understandably so! In fact, tantrums are so inconvenient and unpleasant that it gives parents the impression that a tantrum is a power play on the part of the child.
“Throwing a fit” or “acting up” are common labels for tantrums. Both imply that the child is choosing to throw the tantrum and that he/she has a purpose in mind (to get her way).
Neither could be further from the truth.
10 Important Facts About Tantrums
- All children are born with intense emotions biologically wired into them.
- Children are not born with the ability to manage those emotions.
- That is the reason children have tantrums.
- It is the parent’s job to teach emotion skills to their child, instead of letting him learn them the hard way: from the cold hard world around him.
- Childhood is a training ground for emotional well-being.
- How we treat our child’s emotions as we raise him is the way our child will treat his own emotions as an adult.
- Noticing, sharing, responding to, naming and understanding your child’s emotions teaches him to notice, name and understand his own emotions all his life.
- These are the pillars of emotional intelligence.
- In this way, every time your child has an intense feeling gives you an opportunity to connect and teach him.
- Tantrums are an opportunity to teach emotional intelligence, not a burden or an embarrassment.
When parents do not notice and respond to their children’s emotions, they are unintentionally delivering a damaging message to their child: Your feelings are irrelevant.
This inadvertent message is the foundation of Childhood Emotional Neglect, which I have seen play out painfully throughout the lives of so many adults that I have been speaking and writing about it for the past 7 years.
Now for the good news! You can change how you deal with your child’s tantrums partly by beginning to view them as an opportunity instead of an inconvenience.
As you change how you think, you can change how you respond. Follow these tips, and you will not only NOT emotionally neglect your child; you will also teach him emotional intelligence – and another important thing – you will helping to prevent future tantrums.
How To Respond To A Tantrum
- Instead of responding to your child’s behavior, instead, think about her feelings.
- Understand that your child’s behavior (yelling, screaming, for ex.) is driven by her feelings.
- Recognize that all children have powerful emotions, and your child will only learn how to express them properly if you teach her.
- Strive to feel what your child is feeling. Children sense empathy and it automatically soothes them.
- Know that you are helpless. You do not have control over your child’s emotions. But emotions come in waves, and they always pass. You may have to wait it out.
- Physically get down on your child’s level if you can. If he will allow you to touch him in a soothing way, do so.
- Name what you see your child is feeling, using age-appropriate words.
- Include a why if you can. “I understand you’re frustrated because I won’t let you ride in the cart. I know you want to ride in the cart really badly.”
- Talk in a soothing voice.
- Emotions come in waves that naturally peak and then die down. Ride out the peak with your child, and when it abates, talk your child through the feelings she was having and why. Explain what your child can do next time she has this feeling: for example, he can use words to express his feelings, hit a pillow, do jumping jacks, or ask you for help.
- When you respond to your child’s tantrum in this way, you are giving him the Anti-CEN Message. You don’t have to say these words, but your child will hear:
Your feelings are real, and they matter.
I care what you feel, and I want to help you deal with your feelings.
Your emotions can be named and managed. You can take control of them instead of letting them control you.
When your child grows up, she will already have the primary pillars of emotional intelligence:
My feelings are real and they matter.
I care what I feel, and I want to deal with my feelings.
My emotions can be named and managed. I can take control of them instead of letting them control me.
Feeling your child’s emotions along with her, staying present while she is overwhelmed by her feelings, and talking her through her feelings after the wave of emotions has subsided are all ways to connect and teach, support and soothe. Each time you handle a tantrum in an emotionally attentive way, you are delivering vital skills and messages that she will be able to use in the future. Tools and skills that will prevent future tantrums, and help her emotionally survive and thrive.
To learn much more about emotionally healthy parenting, how to better connect emotionally with your child of any age, and how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.