SeeSaw Parenting #21: Tame Those Tantrums

September 3, 2013
We are at our most effective as parents when we can recognize emotion in our children and then respond appropriately. When children are out of control, it is best if we are not. As my friend did with her young son in strange surroundings, our job is to soothe and to explain what is happening. If possible, we remove them from situations that are too uncomfortable. If not, we use our words and our arms to help them contain what they are feeling. When they are old enough, we can express our understanding in words and invite them to begin to express intense emotions verbally. We are teaching them the all-important lesson that emotions are not something we need to avoid or suppress, but are significant barometers of distress or well-being.We don’t need to teach babies to be emotional. They come into the world that way. A baby reacts with his whole body. The emotional states are easy to identify. No question there. Anger is a loud wail, arms and legs flailing and face beet red. Joy is a huge smile, coos and laughter, and excited wriggling. Despair is hiccupping sobs, face and body turned to the wall. Babies’ emotions are intense but unschooled. It is part of our job as parents to make sense of those intense feelings. When the bits and pieces of their world become frantic and fearful, we hold and soothe and try to put the fragments back together.We notice feelings. We respond to them and acknowledge them. We allow them. We contain them. We explain them in words if we can. If a child has a temper tantrum, as long as he or she is not hitting anyone, we can respond by sitting quietly with the child. They are angry, but we needn’t be. We don’t have to join in, and we don’t have to shun them. Since we are bigger, we can pick them up and carry them to a private spot. But we should not isolate them. We need to stay with them and speak softly to them. If even that is too much, we should say nothing. We do not send them to their room to get control. We go to their room with them to help them sort things out.

As children grow older, they can express their emotions more reliably in words. We may want to express our disagreement or disapproval with what they are doing. But if they are going to share with us some of their deepest feelings, they must know that there are times when we can sit quietly with them and say nothing. No matter how rebellious they seem, they need us and want our approval. We are their advocates, and they must know that we will always listen to their side of the story.

We are charged with teaching our children that feelings are neither right nor wrong. It is the action that accompanies the feeling that has consequences. We remind the child that he has choices about what to do with his feelings. He can’t hit people or run out into the street. But together we can run around the block or hit a pillow. There may be things we can do about the situation that is upsetting him. Once we figure it out, we can take appropriate action. If this process sounds time-consuming, it is. But in the long run, it not only benefits the child but also saves time by preventing the needless temper outbursts and unproductive family squabbles created when emotions run amok.

Regulating our children’s emotions means that we take the time to teach them how to handle their feelings, just as we teach them to tie their shoes or learn to color. First we must be aware of what they are feeling, whether it be joy or excitement or anger or a whole range of other emotions. The emotions are there whether we want them to be or not. Children feel things deeply, and they will express what they feel in one way or another. If we cannot help our children handle their emotions because we stifle our own, then children will also learn to ignore what they are feeling. If we let our emotions get out of control, then our children’s feelings may do so as well. On the other hand, they may learn to suppress their own feelings in an unconscious effort to inject some level of calm into the situation. If we are in touch with our own feelings, however, and able to manage them a good share of the time, we will be able to school our children to recognize their emotions and express them in appropriate and constructive ways.

An example that worked and, in fact, has benefited Matt to this day occurred when he was in middle school. Bob gave him a piece of advice that he took to heart and seemed to use throughout his school career. Matt was struggling with some frustrating math assignment and becoming more and more angry and upset. Bob counseled, “Take your feelings out of it.” He was not minimizing Matt’s feelings. He was simply clarifying that there are times when it is easier to approach a task, particularly an intellectual one, in a calm and thoughtful manner, setting one’s feelings aside for the time being. When a child is confident that he can express feelings sometimes and be appropriately acknowledged, then he can often be free to work without the emotional distress that interferes with getting things done.

We embrace our children physically. We literally cradle them in our arms. In the first months of life we are actually providing a sensory cocoon for them. Research indicates that this physical and emotional cocoon allows essential hormones to wash over the brain in ways that stimulate its continued development. As caregivers we regulate our children’s lives in vital ways that they are unable to do for themselves. We manage feeding, bathing, and elimination. We manage wake-and-sleep cycles. We are responsive to their needs, yet we gradually ease them into patterns that fit into the schedule of the household. We hold them securely, not only literally in our arms, but also intellectually and, in the best of circumstances, emotionally.

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