Susannah Robbins explores the positive elements of children’s tantrums and how best to deal with them.

[New City Magazine – October 2021, page 20]

‘Tantrums are not bad behaviour. Tantrums are an expression of emotion that became too much for the child to bear.’ (Rebecca Eanes)

This is one of those quotes that we know to be true. But it is so hard to remember at the time. Let me tell you a story about my five-year-old son. He is usually a very placid and loving child but he is also a child who feels emotions very deeply.

Forest school camp

 During the school summer holidays my two boys went to Forest School camp for the day, and they had the most magical time doing incredible activities which they both thoroughly enjoyed. However, when it was time for bath and bed, my middle child suddenly became very emotional. He was like a wild cat – running away, kicking and screaming. It was a raw and messy explosion of his feelings.

My knee jerk reaction was to fall into a hole of thinking that he was simply misbehaving and being ungrateful. After all, he had just had the most fantastic day full of rich, new experiences! Did he not appreciate the (not insignificant) money we had spent to send him and his brother on this day camp? Why would we want to do nice things for him if that was how he was going to behave? …And so on.

However, after taking a moment to pause and really look at the situation with more compassionate eyes, I realised that actually he was experiencing ‘restraint collapse’. This is seen so often in children when they start school or change to a new teacher, or when they go somewhere new and they have to learn new rules, or indeed returning to school after isolation or lockdown.

Why does this happen?

 It happens because when they have an adult caring for them who they may have never previously met, or who does not know them well, our children and young people make a huge effort to be on their ‘best behaviour’ all day whilst also being hyper vigilant translating, navigating and understanding their surroundings. Our children are expected to do this really quickly – on the spot as it were and it is exhausting for them! Think about how you feel after your first day at a new job – even if the day is spent trying to log on to the computer system. Everything feels foreign and difficult, and you end the day tired and drained. By the time we see our children again at the end of the day, both their energy and resilience stores have been utterly depleted. It’s not uncommon for the smallest thing (such as suggesting it’s bath time, or a request to turn the telly off and come and have dinner), to have a disproportionately large reaction. All the small stressors of their day have built up and this request is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

 Why are they taking it out on us?

 This can be explained by attachment theory – in stable and happy family relationships our children have a secure attachment bond with their parents and carers. This bond does not yet exist with new teachers, or unfamiliar adults – it is a bond that needs to be built and tested over time before eventually being earned. Without this bond our children do not know where they stand with these new adults. Our children do not know how these unfamiliar adults will react if they have an emotional outburst or if they refuse to participate or try that new food at lunch time and so on. The children feel that there is a very real possibility of rejection or abandonment from the new adult.

Remaining calm and compassionate

 Children and young people of securely attached families know that this risk is minimal. Children are confident that we will love them regardless of these outbursts, and no matter how they are feeling. They know that we love them if they are behaving as ‘good as gold’, if they are confident and enthusiastic or shy, reluctant and grumpy. Our love for them doesn’t change with their emotional state. It is due to this sense of security and safety that our children feel able to off-load all their feelings on to us, the good, the bad and the ugly. For us adults managing to remain calm and compassionate during these episodes is really hard work. It can sometimes feel as if you only get the worst of your child. But bear this in mind: it is a healthy and wonderful way for our children to show how they are regulating while they are separated from you. Ultimately it’s a compliment – proof they know how much we love them and that they feel safe and secure with us.

Giving all the love that you’ve got

 If this is all too familiar for you and your family at the moment – if it feels that parenting has suddenly become a battle with very little reward – remember that this too will pass and also that it is a blessing in disguise. Allow your child time to decompress after school in whatever way works for your family: a snack and some playtime, TV, a walk or trip to the park, or some dinner and an early night. Whatever works for you. It’s very easy to fall into comparison with how other families fill their evenings. If little Jimmy learns French on a Tuesday and does tennis lessons on a Wednesday and a Friday, that’s great for little Jimmy. If Helen spends every evening building a Lego town, great for little Helen. You are the expert for your child and your family dynamics.

As American author Cheryl Strayed wrote:

‘Compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.’

Photo: © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

Read the 1st part of this series: Play theory

Read the 2nd part of this series: Learning through play

Read the 3rd part of this series: Baby play

Read the 4th part of this series: Purposeful praise

Read the 5th part of this series: Resilience

Read the 6th part of this series: Summer Play

Read the 7th part of this series: School ready

Read the 8th part of this series: Festive fun without feeling frazzled

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