The function of tantrums

We’ve all been there. It’s 8am and all you want is to put clothes on your toddler and get them out of the door so you can get to work.  They, of course, have other ideas. That brand new purple T-shirt with the dinosaur is never going to suffice when there is an infinitely more attractive, stained, 2 sizes too small pyjama top with an owl on it that it is vital that they are allowed to wear to go to childcare today. No, they no longer like dinosaurs.  No, it doesn’t matter that the other children will laugh.  No, the weather or social norm does not have any significant impact on their decision. Why should it?  Their decision is arbitrary. It’s only function to defy you.  Frustration ensues, you becomes insistent, putting your foot down. A tantrum at this stage is inevitable.  Sigh.

Now, if you’re hoping this article is going to give you a surefire method to end tantrums so that you can stop being late for work/embarassed in the supermarket, then you’re going to be disappointed.  The only way to end a toddler’s tantrum quickly is to give in and accept that social exclusion and ultimate descension into delinquency will not occur purely because your child chooses to don sleepwear in the park.  On the other hand, if a child grows up thinking that he should be able to havehis own way on everything then you may well find that the odd preference for sleepwear will mutate into something much more unacceptable.  A two year old walking around the supermarket in pyjamas and slippers will likely pull a few wry smiles in your direction.  A 15 year old walking around in boxer shorts and a smelly t-shirt, not so much!

So at the point when your child drops to the floor, shattering glass with his screams and hurling random dinosaur related items in your direction, remember try to remember that God has not sent this child just to test you.   In actual fact your angry, frustrated little angel, given the right reaction from you, is about to experience one of the most important lessons he can possibly receive in life.  He’s  about to learn about the importance of managing his own emotional state.

We all know that adult who walks around assuming absolutely no responsibility for himself at all.  He is the person who moans incessantly about how sucky his life is but never makes any effort to make any changes.  It’s all someone else’s fault that he’s unhappy.  He is the person who becomes more and more isolated and bitter becasue nobody is prepared to spend any time with someone who  sucks the fun  out of everything they do, like Eeeyore. He is the person who scowls at you as you catch his eye in the street and throw him a friendly grin.  He is a miserable, joyless fountain of negativity and. to make matters worse,he puts so much energy into expecting the worst to happen, that it often does. This is the image you should hold in mind as you watch your tantruming toddler reach a climactic frenzy in front of you.  You can just stand back and let it happen, safe in the knowledge that your lack of reaction,  will serve to ensure your childs never arrives in such a negative future as the one you are currently imagining.

It may sound illogical but here is the reason why it will work.  Nobody ever fought fire with fire effectively.  Adding your own anger to the situation will only fuel the  small fry-ing pan fire into a blazing inferno. Reasoning is unlikely to help. When was the last time you responded to reason when you were in such a  rage?  But one thing is a given. Anger does not feel good.  It feels powerful, it feels overwhelming and it can even feel satisfying but,once it’s over, just like a 500g bar of chocolate, you regret it instantly.  Your child is no exception to this rule.  As a parent you know that, once the screaming and flailing subside,the anger in your child’s face will be replaced with fear, distress and regret. They may even have hurt themselves physically in the process.

By not intervening to stop the tantrum from escalating you are telling your child that they have a choice and a right. They have a right to anger but, if they choose to express it aggressively, the end result will be more unpleasant for them than it will be for anyone else.  Providing the tantrum doesn’t serve a function of actually getting the child what he originally wanted,he will eventually come to see that putting himself through that is not only futile but deeply unpleasant. As his learning progresses he will even begin to understand how his behaviour has impacted on you but don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched!!  The more ineffective tantrums he has, the more his hand will be forced to look for ways of handling his frustration in different ways.  This is where you pounce with an awesome lesson.

In the lovely cosy moments that abound with small children; those moments where they’re playing peacefully and you’re having a cup of tea and pondering on how you could never love anything more than you love them, teach them other strategies.  Teach them compromise, teach them reason.  Use role play with a baby doll to show them that not wearing a pyjama top with an owl on it does not spell the end of the world.  But most importantly, teach them to train their attention on recognising what makes them feel good and what makes them feel bad, emotionally.  There are some excellent toys and books on the market for teaching children about different emotions and these should be a staple part of your play kit.

Given enough patience on your part (becasue we all expect that toddlers need an abundance of this anyway; it’s more important than food!!), your expressive little person will soon figure out that life is much more pleassant all round when he takes control over his own outlook.  This is a gift to your child that will just keep on giving.  Maybe, compared to those of us who have the incessantly negative, miserable, joy sapper amongst our circle of companions, rather less of us have access to the person who seems to have an infinite capacity for forgiveness, endless patience and an irrepressably sunny outlook.  It’s a sad fact that few of us master the skill about which I have here spoken.

If you are one of those many who find emotional self control difficult, then you may read this article with a degree of horror and wonder how you can possibly hope to control your own responses in the face of such extreme pressures from your toddler. My answer to you would be this.  Make his immediate area secure removing anything on which he could seriously harm himself or do harm with and turn your back on the whole thing. If you have to be late for work then you may as well have another cup of tea. The key, is to give the negative behaviours as little attention as possible then, once the child has calmed down, shower them with love and comfort.  Be prepared to dump that second cuppa immediately and go and give your little one the hug he needs after having dealt with the frightful force that is himself. There is plenty of literature  on this subject at your disposal not to mention the numerous, infamous TV series’…..

Returning for a moment to the impact that tantrums can have on your immediate plans and, therefore, levels of frustration there is one other thing worth remembering……Choose your battles wisely.  Tantrums may be functionally necessary for small children but they are no fun for anybody.  If you can avoid them then do, Who cares if your toddler leaves the house looking like Noddy?  Only you, that’s who. Anyone else will merely have a passing thought before returning to whatever, much more pressing issue, is currently on their mind, if they notice at all!!  When you’re dealing with a tantrum out in public and wishing the ground would swallow you up and save the  embarassment of looking like a ‘bad’ parent, remind yourself of this…Those who walk past and tut probably never had this gift given to them as children.  They are intolerant, judgemental and either not a parent at all or, if they are, then they certainly aren’t one who carried out their role with the wisdom that you do!!

At the end of the proverbial day, children are not given to us to be forced to conform. They are given to us so that we may guide them to grow to be as respectful of their own needs as they are of the needs of others.  At the end of the actual day,when you are having one of those ‘I love you so much’ moments that tend to abound during the times your child is sleeping, you’ll look back on this morning’s tantrum and realise that, rather than spending your day feeling guilty about how loudly you shouted this morning, you feel proud that you helped your child to learn one oflife’s most important lessons. It’s win, win really…well, except for your boss but….hey….he knew you had small children when he employed you, didn’t he?……