Venturing out into public requires not only patience and creativity, but boldness as well. Julia is likely to protest my attempts at guidance at least once, and because her verbal abilities are still developing, this protest can take the form of an all-out tantrum. That’s when boldness is required. Calmly kneeling beside a frustrated toddler without punishing or threatening her is likely to trigger an onslaught of unsolicited advice and judgment from others. Their usual advice is to ignore or punish the child in order to eliminate these intense displays of emotion. The onlookers, reasonably upset about the disruption, want peace and quiet.
However, I question the wisdom of trying to eliminate tantrums, as difficult as they can be to see and hear. A true tantrum is not within a child’s control; rather, it is an explosion of intense feelings that are frightening for a child to experience. Typically, tantrums occur when children lose the ability to regulate their emotions. This can happen at any time, but is especially likely to occur when a child is hungry, tired, or overstimulated. Toddlers do not yet have the brain connections needed to process these emotions by themselves. In fact, the frontal lobe of the brain, the area that helps humans to think rationally even when feeling strong emotions, doesn’t fully mature until early adulthood. In the meantime, toddlers need us to help them navigate these painful experiences.
Occasionally, a toddler will display tantrum-like behavior in an attempt to feel powerful or in control of her actions, body, or environment. For example, she might attempt a dangerous stunt such as jumping from a tall tree. But the specific desire to jump from the tree cannot be resolved in the child’s favor, and when the parent necessarily intervenes, the child is likely to become flooded with extreme feelings of powerlessness and anger toward the parent. Nonetheless, the toddler’s search for power or control is valid and needs to be addressed.
The question is how a child can safely experience power or control. If she is looking for physical power or control, healthy outlets might be: jumping from a shorter tree or ledge; carrying large but light objects, such as cardboard bricks; knocking over a block tower; building large structures from pillows; or crushing empty cardboard boxes. If, however, the toddler is searching for abstract power or control, some more helpful suggestions would be: permitting him to make meaningful choices, such as what to wear, what to eat for dinner, or how to spend the afternoon; allowing him to have what he wants through fantasy, such as by acting out a tree-jumping scene through dramatic play; or offering him a productive role in the family, such as sweeping the floor, loading a washer, making a berry salad, mixing batter, or rinsing vegetables.
Because tantrums are often seen as a child’s manipulative attempts to control a parent, parents are often advised to take a firm stance against such displays. I argue, instead, that such a toddler is searching for inner control, and that the only disciplinary action that should be taken is to stick with the limit that was set, despite the tantrum–in this example, the limit being that toddlers cannot jump from tall trees. On the other hand, exerting power over her, withdrawing support, or punishing her will only remind her of her relative powerlessness, which will make her desire for control that much greater. Negative consequences might suppress these behaviors but do little to teach a toddler more reasonable ways to experience and wield authentic control over her body or environment.
On top of this, toddlers often have just cause for protesting the limits set for them. Many tantrums occur when parents have expectations that are not age-appropriate–such as forcing a small child to sit still for any length of time, or insisting that a toddler share his toys. When a toddler dumps out a cup of breakfast cereal, we will often snap at him without considering his motive. To adults, it is tiresome to clean up large amounts of food after each meal, but to a toddler, it’s a rare delight to manipulate a small cluster of objects. How often do we assume that our toddlers are misbehaving only to test the limits we’ve set for them, when they’re simply enjoying the forbidden activity too much to override the impulse?