Tantrums are one of parents’ most difficult challenges. They don’t indicate that the child is becoming troublesome and spoilt; rather they are a cry for help. A signal young children send in an effort to gain experience in the world that is essential to their being.
When a child is unhappy, grizzling, crying and throwing tantrums, it could be a sign that the vital life force that is active within is constantly being interrupted and checked. This vital force necessary for his development, stimulates him to perform certain actions, and if allowed to grow following these natural urges he will be more content.
In traditional education advice hinges on “what to say” and “how to say it” in response to a tantrum, and there is dispute about which words are best to use when dealing with tantrums.
“One does not need to threaten or cajole, but only to normalise the conditions under which the child lives.”
– Dr. Maria Montessori.
Causes of Tantrums
The child reacts strongly to the obstacles in his way:
- Violation of the sense of order – events not proceeding as expected.
- Hunger. This can be urgent in young children who find it impossible to function normally if this is not addressed immediately.
- Physical discomfort, heat or boredom.
- Frustration at not having words to express their emotions.
- Disappointment of an expected or promised reward not eventuating.
- Frustration at being ignored when trying to communicate.
- Frustration with expression through limited language skills.
- Frustration at not having the skills to complete a mission.
- The environment is either too noisy and crowded and confusing.
- The environment is lacking sufficient interest or is limiting.
- Any action by an adult or child that causes him to fear that he has lost self-control.
- Any action that leaves him with the sense that his needs are not important – e.g. carer on the phone.
- Lack of sleep.
We mustn’t block these impulses from Nature. The protests, screaming and head banging will give you a clue that this is what you are doing. You can also offend the child’s deep desire for independence by being insensitive to personal choices. Giving choices bolsters his feeling of self-control.
Being patient when he is deciding what colour balloon he would like to choose, or what clothes to wear shows your respect for him and that you value his opinion. During this period, when children are acquiring independence they need time to work things out for themselves and they resist any manipulating by an adult.
The child’s “bossy” behaviour is often interpreted as bad behaviour or obstinacy, but if it is met with force a temper tantrum can follow. Make a habit of learning from your children by watching their reactions and observing their behaviour. We can’t afford to work against nature in our attempts to aid their development.
During a tantrum the child has lost his sense of security and stability, and needs close contact with his parent to regain his self-confidence. He doesn’t understand the tantrum, so it is pointless asking him to explain his behaviour, but it is important to stand by and help him through it. It is cruel to laugh at a child who is throwing a tantrum, and it is equally cruel to punish him because at that time he is out of control. He hasn’t the maturity to regain it. He desperately needs his parent’s immediate help.
This is the time when parents need to show compassion, no matter what other adults say, and be calm, dependable and understanding. The temper tantrum may have been a big upset and been embarrassing. You may have had to remove him from the situation and suffered some battle scars as a result. Recover quickly and be available to help. He has ventured out into the world and has found something insurmountable that caused him grief. He is in trouble and needs assistance.
After the tantrum has subsided, then we can try to figure out what the cause was. There are several known causes, some I mentioned above, others are hard to fathom. One frequent cause is the adult’s violation of the child’s sensitivity to order. He may have anticipated a certain event, taking place in a certain way. Another cause is leaving the child unsupported and his feelings dismissed.
It doesn’t matter that young Marcus is in the middle of building a tower. The clock is ticking and mum can’t delay, so she whisks him up off the floor and carries him to the car.
Marcus is only two. He can walk, but if his mother is in a hurry, he’s too slow and she can’t wait, so she chooses to carry him.
The result is a tantrum – Marcus starts crying and kicking.
“I can’t understand, all I did was…,” says mum.
When parents, teachers and classmates witness tantrums, sulky looks, and anti -social behaviour of a boy like Marcus, they call him a naughty boy. Some well-meaning advice is, “Don’t let him win!”. But his behaviour has come about because of our misunderstanding of what is going on.
Marcus is responding to natural forces that spur him on to do certain things and he is frustrated in his efforts to carry them out. There is urgency. Nature is giving him the message to walk; therefore he does not want to be carried. He needs to walk, he must practise, his whole being is screaming, “Put me down! Put me down!”.
When a parent persists, attempting to win the battle, this leaves the child with a sense of not having self-control and the tantrum escalates.
Holly can carry her own bag, but her mother carries it for her. She doesn’t mind because her girl is only little and she likes to do it for her. Holly can put her towel on the hook, but it is a bit high and mum can do it so much faster, so she quickly and easily puts it on the hook for her.
Holly knows that she is able to do these things, and she fights for her right to be left alone to have the experience.
The result is a tantrum – Holly protests and falls in a heap and can’t do anything.
Nature is telling Holly to learn survival skills and orient herself and she needs hands-on experience. She is thinking, “Let me have a go!”, “I need to practise!”, “It’s very important to me!”, “I’m desperate to try!”.
She feels lost when stopped from attempting to do something herself and can’t handle the emotion of disappointment. Holly’s reaction is often thought of as testing limits or a character flaw, but the behaviour is not deliberate. It is simply her desire to overcome obstacles in her path of development.
When there is persistent, disruptive behaviour the most likely cause is the parent’s controlling style. Children’s negative responses to correction usually involve an escalation of their original behaviour.
Psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon calls them The Three Rs –
He later added a fourth response – Escape!
“I’m out of here!”
There will be better outcomes by accepting the child’s initiatives as he begins a project; as opposed to directing the way he does his work. You may know more about the subject, but allowing him to gain his own experience is important for his future learning and self-esteem.
Forcing obedience, offering rewards and threatening punishment do not result in improved behaviour.
Popular advice to minimise dramas include:
- Saying a whole bunch of words.
- Time Out.
- Walking Away.
Forget all these tactics!
To follow Montessori’s advice on this matter, parents can check the environment to make sure conditions are as she recommended.
My blog How Environment Affects Child Creativity explains this more.
The good news is that you can prevent tantrums.