The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum

The madness began at snack time, which we offer in our RIE parenting classes once the babies are all mobile and able to sit independently. Participation in snack time is always the children’s choice, and they quickly learn and enjoy the routine. They are requested to sit on the floor at the snack table (or on stools once they’re walking and able to sit at a slightly higher table). We ask them to wipe their hands, choose bibs, eat as much or as little of the snack (bananas) as they wish, and remain seated until they decide they are done.  We gently, but assuredly prevent them from leaving the table with food (video demonstration). 

The children in this class were 12-13 months, and we’d been doing snack somewhat successfully for about six weeks. But on that day, there must have something in the air, because all the toddlers were testing me like crazy, sitting down and then popping up again, climbing on the table. It was a mutiny. One of the dads thought it would be funny to take a picture (ha-ha).

YES final best cropped mutiny at snacktime (3)

Lily’s testing was especially forceful and persistent, which was surprisingly out of character. She had always been a remarkably peaceful, mild and graceful baby.

Again and again Lily climbed onto the table and had to be helped down. Offering her the option to “get down by yourself” quickly became pointless, because she was clearly ‘out of herself’ and possessed with some fervent agenda.

“You want to climb on the table, but I can’t let you. I’m going to help you down,” I repeated…repeatedly.

Finally, Lily’s mom asked if she should come and help me, because it was impossible for me to assist the other children while Lily kept popping onto the table.

I could see Lily’s mom was perplexed and concerned. “Hmmm…maybe she’s confused because at home she sits on a stool next to her sister,” she suggested.

Suddenly doubting myself, I considered this for a moment. Could she be confusing the table for a stool?  It didn’t seem possible. Lily’s way too smart for that.

As Lily’s mom took over and was stopping her from climbing on the table, Lily became increasingly upset, started yelling, crying, having a total meltdown. I could see how this rattled her mom. I asked her, “Has she ever acted this way before?”  She said no and looked worried. I sensed she thought that Lily really wanted something to eat and was maybe hoping I would change the rules of our routine to make it work for her. The thought of doing so certainly crossed my mind. I was seriously questioning myself.

After five minutes or so of intense crying and struggling, Lily finally calmed down, sat with her mom for a bit and then started playing again, never having eaten a bite of banana.

Although Lily seemed fine, I was still uncomfortable because I knew Lily’s mom was disturbed by this episode.  Then a few minutes later she realized: “We’ve had family staying with us for the last five weeks…and it’s been fun, but disruptive and stressful. Maybe…”

Aha!  So perhaps sweet, gentle Lily had some overpowering feelings stuck inside her that she needed to release, and RIE’s therapeutic “all feelings welcome” environment plus our patient, persistent limit-holding was what allowed her to do it.

Young children are self-healing geniuses, have you noticed? Sometimes their tantrums are an expression of immediate discomforts like fatigue or hunger. Other times, however, they have a backlog of internalized feelings and will seem to deliberately and (seemingly) unreasonably push our limits so that we will hold steady and resist, which then opens up the escape valve they need to release these emotions. But this process can only work for them when we are able to set and hold limits and bravely accept their feelings. 

Experiences like Lily’s profoundly reiterate for me that we must trust our children’s self-healing abilities…and know that every one of their feelings is absolutely perfect.

The following week in class Lily did something else she’d never done before. As soon as she entered the classroom, she crawled straight over to me and put her head in my lap. After our debacle the week before, she seemed to be saying thanks…or sorry, but I really think it was thanks.

 

I offer a complete guide to toddler behavior and respectful boundaries in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

(Photo by Mitchell3417)

23 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Katharine says:

    Oh, that was touching, Janet. And Lily’s hug reminds me of what my own 15 mth old has just started doing.

    She’s been testing limits and expressing her displeasure AND she’s started giving the most monumental hugs. She will wrap her ams around her father or my neck, place her head in the groove of our neck and with the *perfect* amount of pressure, hug us.

    For 5 full minutes.

  2. avatar Sarah Helmond says:

    I always like to think of how clear and clean the air always feels after a big thunderstorm, how good it smells and how fresh the world feels. I’m sure a toddler’s brain feels the same way (and in my very recent experience, a 3 year old’s)

  3. I just wanted to say that reading this post helped solidify what I was already thinking about my 3 year old. We recently had some major issues in our new construction home and our little guy was expressing his confusion/discomfort in not wanting to go to preschool. In the midst of it all, his change in behavior was confusing and upsetting for me, he’d always loved school, so my brain went to the worst place possible wondering what was going on at preschool that made him no longer want to go. He’s an intuitive little guy and I now know was listening to my conversations with my husband and was internalizing my clear dissatisfaction with our new home. Things have settled a bit and I’ve realized my negativity re: our home and the situation was hurting my son, I feel bad about that, but will be more upfront with him when another opportunity presents itself. This is probably a long e mail, but ultimately is a ‘thank you’ for your posts, insight, and honesty. I am new to your blog, but have found it helpful and realistic. I love that you provide actual things to say, because in the heat of the moment, it is hard to have that ready without practice. Thanks!

    1. Hi Erica! Such wonderful insights you’ve had! Yes, I imagine your little guy has felt unsettled, since the two “big birds” in his nest have been troubled. Your story also reminds me of a situation that happened when one of my children was in preschool. There were a group of parents who had a gripe with the preschool about something (I can’t even remember what, which just shows how unimportant it was to me), and they would gossip about it with each other… Well, what a surprise, most of their children started resisting going to school…and would have tantrums, etc.! But the parents couldn’t seem to see the connection between their discomfort and their children’s. It is so easy to underestimate our children’s awareness. It’s HUGE.

  4. Hi Janet
    I so love your posts, and read them daily. This especiallly resonats with me today as I am struggling in my response to my 2 year old daughter’s recent protests and demands. My 4 year old son never really went through this and even now when he does its short lived and he moves on seeminly quickly. There are a lot of questions I have, but the most pressing for me right now is night weaning her. She is still breastfeeding, which is fine with me, but refuses to be night weaned. I have tried what feels like everything. I remind her before she goes to sleep (which i swear makes her press harder when she wakes up), we talk about and act it out with her dolls, and I just simply say “no” and let her cry in my arms. its been a month and she STILL wakes up asking to nurse, and throws a tantrum about it at least 2x a night. Sometimes as many as 5! I am starting to feel a bit insane but don’t know what else to do. I thought that I was being “with” her and allowing her to have her feelings without judgement or trying to change them, but I must be missing something. Is it possible that she is just very stubburn and head strong? I realize this is long winded, but any advice would be SO appreciated. My son only starting sleeping through the night a month ago and now this! I haven’t slept in years. literally. 🙂 Many many thanks.

    1. Hi Maria! Thanks for reading and your kind words!

      With respect, “refuses” sounds like you are expecting your daughter to decide…or to at least give you permission or concur regarding the night weaning. Like most two year old’s, she is unable to do this. She needs you to make this decision and stick to it with assurance and confidence (and without guilt!). I cannot imagine this adjustment would take more than a day or two…if you were clear and definitive. But that doesn’t mean she won’t ever ask again…or use this issue as an “excuse” to release some of her intense toddler feelings (about all kinds of things), like the little girl did in this post.

      You are your daughter’s leader. And when she senses that you are 100% settled with this decision, once and for all, she will feel much more settled, too, and not wake up so often, because she no longer has a power struggle to engage in with you in the middle of the night. One of the many reasons it’s crucial to be clear and decisive with our children is to take these big distractions off of their plates, so that they can be happy, free, playful children again.

    2. Maria,
      Would anything change if her dad went in when your daughter wakes up? Maybe she would realize a little sooner that there’s no point in waking up every night to demand something she’s not going to get.

  5. I so appreciate the insight into your inner dialogue in this post…your questioning and wondering. We don’t always know, we can’t always know in the moment (or ever). But staying the course, upholding the boundaries while allowing for the expression of emotions…yeah, I think it was ‘thanks,’ too.

    1. Well said! Yes, it is excellent how RIE is sooo open and inviting for wee ones to open up.

  6. Janet

    I could use your help on the tantrum/boundary issue with my 2.5 year old son. I find there are a lot of situations where he begins to throw a tantrum about something minor and I feel torn between just letting him have the tantrum and “giving in” becuase there wasn’t a big reason for the boundary in the first place. For example, he had a cup of milk in the fridge. He wanted milk. I told him to drink the already-poured cup. He wanted a new cup. I said he should drink the already-poured cup. TANTRUM. It really wasn’t a big deal to get out a new cup (though I would have preferred not to dirty another one), so I just got the new cup. Do you think it is better to be flexible in these situations? Or better to hold the boundary and allow the strong feelings to be expressed? I also worry that I am encouraging the tantrum behavior by “rewarding” it when I accede to his desires in response to a tantrum.

    Thanks for your help. You are a real gift to our family.

  7. Janet – I am still struggling with the issue I outlined above about when to “give in” and when to stand my ground. I’d really appreciate your input.

    1. Thanks for your supportive words, Melissa. There really are no rules about when to change our minds and give in and when to stick with our orginal decision… These choices are up to the parent. Some decisions are what Magda Gerber called “yellow lights”…when parents can be more open to altering the plan. If the child has a pressing need to release feelings, his or her tests will usually continue and become less and less reasonable. Hope this helps!

  8. Are you serious? “[Every] one of their feelings is absolutely perfect.”

    If you mean that the feelings are authentic, okay fine. But to say that they are perfect? Are you saying that when a child feels entitled to hit another child that is a perfect feeling?

    Are you aware that clinical studies have been done on this subject that show that rewarding children for aggressive behavior conditions them to take pleasure in violence?

    Thanks for the Freudian pop psychology, but in all seriousness think about the harm that you are encouraging.

    There is no such things as repressed feelings. When you “swallow” your anger it goes away. When you “express” your anger you create connections between the anger and the pleasure associated with expressing it. Does it feel good to hit a pillow? Yes. But that is the problem.

    1. Do you seriously believe that feelings disappear because a child has been punished, shamed, scared or forced into “swallowing” them? That is a misguided and dangerous, but sadly common attitude. Or perhaps you believe toddlers should be expected to regulate their feelings on an adult level. Here’s an article that might help you to understand the process of self-regulation: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kenneth-barish-phd/how-do-children-learn-to-_b_3890461.html

      I absolutely DO think the feelings behind hitting another child are “perfectly” valid and need to be accepted by the parent or caregiver. The key to healthy emotional regulation is feeling safe to express emotions, being understood. “You feel like hitting, but I won’t let you hit. That would hurt your friend. I see how much you want that toy he has… You seem frustrated and angry” (while allowing the child to continue screaming or crying). “Maybe when he’s done…” Obviously that doesn’t mean allowing the child to hit, just as I did not allow the child to climb on the table.

      How do you perceive this as “rewarding” children for aggressive behavior?

      Here are some of many studies on the dangers of emotional repression: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/03/us/health-new-studies-report-health-dangers-of-repressing-emotional-turmoil.html

      “Repressers tend to be rational and in control of their emotions,” Dr. Weinberger said. ”They see themselves as people who don’t get upset about things, who are cool and collected under stress. You see it in the competent surgeon or lawyer who values not letting his emotions shade his judgment.”

      The represser’s calm is bought at a great price. Recent reports have linked a repressing personality to a higher risk for asthma, high blood pressure and overall ill health.

      Then…

      “With biofeedback,” Dr. Schwartz said, ”we can show them the difference between their experience and how their body actually behaves.

      …The repressers gradually recover the memories of their childhood feelings and learn to experience their own feelings of anger, anxiety or depression. ”Once they feel it’s safe to have negative experiences and talk about it, they rebuild their emotional repertoire…”

      You obviously don’t work with young children (I hope).

      1. You could have said that without the shaming elements. Clearly this person has limited experience, knowledge and scope. Presenting the data in a kind or at least measured way would have been enough.

    2. I have to agree with this. From psychology sessions have taken myself I have learnt that regardless of what has made me angry that by not reacting to the feeling it goes away quicker than if I had an outburst. Also I am less likely to react in the future as the connections in my brain that cause such a quick outburst/reaction start to change and something else starts to become the automatic response. This is what i was taught and it has changes my life for the better. Same with my parenting, I get angry at m toddler I am more likely to get angry again, if i stop what feels like an automatic response then I am better equip to do this again and again and keep calm.
      I very much enjoy and agree with respectful parenting and follow many of RIE principles when it comes to babes play space and freedom of movement and talking to out toddlers and babies but, as my toddler grows I am seriously doubting the benefit of allowing him to express huge outbursts of anger and yelling of hurtful things at me and my husband. It is not the way I want him to learn to manage these feelings, however from the advice here I feel like we are being told to let it be ad accept all feelings. I can stop him climbing on a table but that wont stop any yelling and verbal abuse towards us. Also what happened when they are older, it is not going to to them any favours going to primary school yelling and screaming having a tantrum to work through their feelings.

      Just some of my recent thoughts.

      Anneka

  9. Thank you so much for everything you offer to parents, it has truly helped me as a new mother and I send your blog and books to all my other mom friends and sister!!!

    My usually happy funny gentle 17 month old son recently began having massive tantrums around the same time every day, 8 amish, and then right before bed. I feel it’s a combination of fatigue, low blood sugar, and also frustration over weaning. However 8 am (after a 6 am wake up) feels too early for nap, so I try to direct us to quiet time/reading when I feel it coming on. Usually that has worked but not in the past few days.

    It usually happens after he asks for milk (I am slowly trying to wean him from daytime feedings), and while it seems he’s okay when I say “not until night night,” a few minutes later he will erupt after getting very frustrated with a certain toy, or if I deny him a certain object that I don’t want him to have at that moment (something he points to on the counter–not on the floor, for instance). He is soooo upset that it’s hard to hold him or help him calm down, and today I ended up nursing him to help him calm down as I was afraid he might bang his head in the bathtub (where I somehow got him into in my quest to help him through it!) I have been trying to hold him, tell him “I hear how upset you are and I will keep you safe” and letting him just cry, until he slowly comes out of it through either a new activity offered (but not in the midst of the total rage, more like towards the end of it) or, like today, breastfeeding. But also today I put him in his crib for 10 seconds and walked out, just to gather my bearings and because he was so actively upset and I was afraid he would maybe head butt me. I just wanted to ask, do you think I am handling this correctly? I know I gave in with breastfeeding, but when you are concerned with his safety is it better to just give in or…??? Thank you!

  10. I am loving this blog! I am going to be checking out this REI thing. It seems like what I already do, but I love reading to learn more. Also, I completely agree with letting them cry it out. At daycares I’ve had a cozy corner they can go sit in to calm down, when I nanny, it’s usually somewhere in their room. After awhile you see them go to that place to calm down. That’s when you can go in and give them a hug if they need one or just sit by them to acknowledge their feelings.

  11. My 4 year old is showing extreme behaviour at the moment while we are away with family due to our house being renovated (he keeps saying he doesn’t want our house to change), the family are very authoritarian and I have a 3 month old so we’re having some BIG outbursts and constant misbehaviour.

    He wants constant attention and the minute my back’s turned he will be up to something so I can’t always help him put things down or take him away (family feel I then should be punishing him after the fact). I’m trying to set firm limits and accept his feelings but it’s SO tiring and hearbreaking having to tell him no so much. I get him out all day so he at least has the main part of the day being relatively free (I still explain about respecting other people when out too).

    He does seem to be understanding rules are different at different places now which is wonderful to see done the respectful way but I think it’s me that’s affected by seeing him shouted at, threatened, criticised and his feelings not be accepted. Hopefully I can let him heal.

    I’m struggling to know when to just let stuff go though as it’s probably only temporary and just give him a cuddle or be firm each time (feels like he’s told off enough) – AP & UP advise me to let things go & give him the attention he craves, RIE suggests he needs more boundaries at this time, I follow a bit of each so I’m unsure!

    I’m just interested when you say children react out of hunger, I’m pretty sure my son has never been so hungry it would affect his mood, if they’re eating 3 real food meals a day with plenty of fat (we rarely do snacks) they shouldn’t be over hungry. My son rarely tells me he’s hungry after breakfast. Maybe if kids are having sugary cereals for breakfast that could be why? Also snacks mean they don’t eat enough at each meal time so that may contribute too. Balancing sugar with fat & protein at each meal is important for stabilising blood sugar xx

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