Tantrums – appearing as early as 1 and as late as 42 – are part of a stage of emotional development the caregiver would like to be able to move the child through as quickly as possible. They most often occur in public places such as supermarket check-out lines and shopping centers. They are characterized by out-of-control screaming and thrashing, and if the caregiver starts screaming and thrashing herself matters only get worse.
The caregiver would like the child to be able to talk about the cause of her frustration. The caregiver’s role is to help the child be able to express her anger in words, so that she needn’t feel so overwhelmed and helpless, having to resort to such immobilizing and (for an older child) potentially embarrassing behavior.
Why tantrums occur
Most tantrums are caused by helpless rage. The child wants what she wants with great intensity, and in her smallness feels powerless to get it in the face of the adult’s – or circumstance’s – “no.” She cannot project into the future, can only see the now, and feels as if she is drowning in a tidal wave of grief at having been denied gratification.
At the same time she is murderously furious at the cause of her frustration – often the adult who said “no.” Her own rage can terrify her because she is often attacking the person she most loves and depends on, and it can escalate into full-blown hysteria.
As tantrum follows tantrum, sometimes there are causes in addition to anger. A child who remembers the hysteria of previous tantrums can quickly move to fear of those feelings she cannot contain, and the cause then becomes more overwhelming anxiety than rage.
And a child who has been rewarded by caregivers giving in to the tantrum – quickly supplying the candy or balloon or whatever the child was so loudly demanding, anything to shut her up – may begin to use tantrums manipulatively. Tantrums can be uniquely effective, especially those conducted in a public setting.
How it makes you feel
In all probability, you feel everything the child is feeling, and if the tantrum has an audience you are also acutely embarrassed. You are feeling furious with the child for being so unreasonable, helpless to control her outrageous behavior, terrified that it may never end.
If she doesn’t stop screaming in a minute, you will start screaming yourself. You would like to pick her up and shake her, walk away and leave her there kicking and frothing, shove a dozen of the lollipops she wants so desperately down her throat, make her stop!
Since you obviously cannot do any of the above, you are tempted to resort to scary and empty threats, withdrawal of attention (which can feel like withdrawal of love), furtive arm-squeezing, and lengthy lecturing through clenched teeth.
But this is the moment to understand the child has lost all reason, all control. She cannot possibly respond to reminders or reprimands. She is in a howling wilderness of emotions and can scarcely hear your voice, let alone act rationally to your instructions. She is frightened, desperate, thoroughly miserable. She is suddenly reduced to infancy when hunger or pain was so overwhelming that she could only shriek with every inch of her small frame.
What to do
Contain the child to the degree this is possible. Hold her, murmuring soothing sounds, assuring her that this will end and you are there to help. Carry her out of the store or wherever you may be, and sit awhile outside on the curb or in the car until the sobs begin to subside. Picture yourself as a warm blanket – there to protect her from the storm until it passes. Only then do you begin to talk, to go over what happened, to try to remember together the incident that led to the tantrum.
This sounds very time-consuming, but in the long run it will save you hours of repeat performances. Your ice cream won’t even be melted yet when you return to your abandoned shopping cart.
What you say afterwards depends on the cause of the tantrum.
- Rage: “You were feeling very angry with Mommy for not buying you that candy, weren’t you? You were so angry that you started crying and couldn’t stop. That must have been very scary to have such big feelings. I bet you hope that doesn’t happen again.”
- Anxiety: “You must have been very scared when we were in the store and you got so upset. Were you afraid that the bad feelings would never stop? They will stop, and I‘ll be here with you until they do.”
- Maniplation: “I think when you screamed and cried in the store because I wouldn’t buy candy for you, you thought that your crying would make me change my mind. It didn’t work this time, did it? It isn’t going to work next time, either. Let’s talk about some big-girl ways to tell Mommy what you want.”
For the next time, try to avoid the tantrum-producing circumstance in the first place. But if you have to return to the scene of the tantrum, then prepare your child in advance. Tell her that she can help you select some plums or apples for a snack, and that the candy in the check-out line is still going to be there, but that you aren’t going to buy any this time. Then keep your word. With an older child, you might appeal to her desire to be more grown up and avoid the embarrassment of public tantrums.