Where Every Family Matters

The Healing Power of a Child’s Tantrum

As hard as it is, don't say, "Use your words!" when your child's possessed by a meltdown. Stay calm and do your best to comfort her through.

Parenting on any day of the week is a test of stamina. Now put your worst nightmare out there in the open: a toddler in an extreme meltdown, and life just got worse.  Parents have to be endlessly creative to sometimes keep their kids in check. When a child melts down in public, though, it’s not bad behavior, it’s just overload. So don’t say, “Use your words.” 
   
“I don’t think any child having a tantrum can respond to a parent saying, ‘Use your words,'” says Helen Egger, M.D., a psychiatrist who specializes in early childhood. Egger has done research into childhood tantrums. She says to think of the child as “unglued” under the circumstances. He needs the feeling that there’s a competent parent who is there to help him. Do your best not to get angry; try and remain neutral and a “rock” for your child.

Easier said than done. "If your kid's all upset, you're upset, right?" says Dr. Madeline Levine, best-selling author and clinical psychologist specializing in children. "So we need to be a little bit more tolerant of our own anxiety around things that are just part of life," she adds.

Tantrums happen for only a handful or reasons: hunger, fatigue, or a change in routine. If tantrums become worse than that (hitting, kicking, biting, breaking things) something else is going on and you should discuss it with your pediatrician.

To avoid the possibility of your child in a public tantrum, be prepared. Let your little one know what’s going on when you make a plan to go out. Before leaving home, have a good snack, pack some fun items that will occupy them, and make sure your little one has napped, and by all means, don't take your children on outings when they are exhausted or not feeling well.

In the midst of a tantrum, take heart. Realize that your child needs comfort, not reprimand. And after the tantrum ends … and your child's embarrassment resolves, she will come and put her head in your lap.

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EXCERPT: from No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury

"Young children are self-healing geniuses, have you noticed? Sometimes their tantrums are an expression of immediate discomforts like fatigue or hunger. Other times, however, they have a backlog of internalized feelings and will seem to deliberately and (seemingly) unreasonably push our limits so that we will hold steady and resist, which then opens up the escape valve they need to release these emotions. But this process can only work for them when we are able to set and hold limits and bravely accept their feelings."
 

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About the Author

Susan Swindell Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief for this award-winning publication and all-things Nashville Parent digital creative. She's also an Equity actress, screenwriter and a mom of four amazing kids.