Interview by Nadia Duncan
If you are the parent of small children, there’s a very high probability that within the last few days you have stood in front of a shrieking, stomping little human and felt like taking a snot-covered white tissue from your pocket and waving it in the air in surrender to the three-foot-high monster in front of you. One day we may look back and laugh, but at the time of a temper tantrum it certainly doesn’t feel like a joke. In her new book, The Tantrum Survival Guide, Dr Rebecca Schrag Hershberg explains why these epic meltdowns occur and what we can do to help everyone step back and calm down…
Q) Temper tantrums are part of normal childhood behaviour, so why as parents do we feel so useless, embarrassed and frustrated when they happen?
I think we have these feelings for a few reasons. First of all, emotions are not always rational, to say the least. How many times do we hear people, including ourselves, begin a sentence by remarking, “I know I shouldn’t feel X, but I still. . . ”. A former colleague of mine called that “shoulding on ourselves”, which I always thought was pretty clever. Just because we know something to be true doesn’t mean we don’t, or can’t, have many different feelings about it. When it comes to tantrums, I have found that when parents truly understand not only that they’re normal, but more precisely why and how they fit into the trajectory of early childhood development, then these feelings tend to decrease a bit. Similarly, when parents learn about the interactive nature of tantrums – the ways in which their own actions may be inadvertently increasing the frequency and/or intensity of their child’s meltdowns – the feelings of powerlessness, which are at the root of so much of the frustration and embarrassment, start to dissipate.
Q) We’ve all been there. In the middle of a busy supermarket your toddler throws themselves down on the floor and screams blue murder over your refusal to buy them a Kinder Egg. What is the best/ worst way to handle it?
I feel like this is a good place to say, because I think it’s important to make it explicit, that there is no one right or wrong way to handle a situation like this. As parents, we beat ourselves up with the notion that there’s a “correct” way to handle behaviour like this, and that, if we choose a different path – whatever the reason – then we’ve somehow failed our children and families. It’s easy to say, for example, that it would be “wrong” to give in and buy the egg, but what if you’re functioning on two hours of sleep because you have a brand new infant and your child has actually – until this moment – been a rock star of a big sibling? Is it still wrong then? As parents, let alone potentially judgmental onlookers, we need to be gentler with ourselves when it comes to these kinds of decision points. One toddler may be screaming to get a Kinder Egg because it works; you always give in. In that case, giving in, though effective at stopping the meltdown in the short term, is likely merely increasing tantrum behaviours in the long term. Another toddler may be screaming to get a Kinder Egg because he’s just getting over a fever, or has started nursery or some other more distal cause, and there’s nothing to suggest that giving in will lead to tantrums in the long term. You are the expert in your child, your family, your current circumstances. The best thing you can do in a moment like that is to calm yourself down long enough to make a thoughtful and intentional decision about which road you want to go down. For today. Because whatever you choose to do – get it, don’t get it – take your child out of the store immediately, get down on the floor to their level and empathise with them – you can absolutely change course tomorrow as you learn more about what may be behind your child’s behaviour.
The only other thing I’d caution in a circumstance like this is allying yourself more with the other customers in the store than with your child. Too often, we become so self-conscious of how other adults may be judging our children, or our parenting in that moment, that we forget our first responsibility is to our child. Once our children feel the rupture in the parent-child connection, they can feel a bit out to sea, which only makes the overwhelming feelings – and thus tantrum behaviour – worse.
Q) Can you identify some of the main triggers that can prompt a tantrum and if we think it’s headed that way, what we can do to avoid it?
Sleep is foundational when it comes to children’s, as well as adults’, behaviour and mood. Doing all you can to make sure your children are getting the sleep they need, as well as nutrition, is essential for preventing tantrums. In addition, a lot of tantrums start out being about a particular thing (e.g. “I want to watch one more show before bedtime”), but then morph into being about a need to be heard and understood. Empathising with your child: “I know, Honey; watching TV can be so much fun, but we’re turning it off now”, can do much to calm an impending meltdown. Similarly, invalidating your child’s feelings, “Are you kidding me? You just watched two shows and you’re complaining because you want to watch another?!” can do much both to hasten and intensify the tantrum that’s coming.
Q) Is there a particular age that tantrums are more likely to occur?
Tantrums usually begin around 18 months of age and last (although typically waning in frequency, duration, and severity) until age four or five years. That said, older children, adolescents, and even adults can have tantrums, depending on how one defines the term. The types of episodes we’re talking about here, though, are generally most common between the ages of two and four.
Q) What’s going on from the child’s point of view?
Your child is having an overwhelming feeling or sensation that, due to their developmental stage (particularly that of their brain), they have neither the language nor emotion regulation skills to recognise and/or express in another, more adaptive way. This may be anger or frustration, but can also be anxiety, exhaustion, loneliness, confusion – pretty much anything.
Q) What are the most common things we parents or carers unwittingly do that may lead to our child having a tantrum?
The number one thing is probably invalidating our children’s feelings. When your child is losing his mind because his favourite shirt (the one he has been wearing for the past 36 hours) is in the laundry, then of course it’s tempting to respond with, “You have a million other shirts in your drawer!” or “You’re being ridiculous!” When we do this though our child’s behaviour intensifies, in part because he’s trying to communicate the importance of the matter at hand: “You don’t get it! This is a big deal to me!”. More than anything else, though, your child needs to be heard and understood. This does not mean that you need to bend over backwards to wash his favorite shirt twice a day. You are the parent and it’s important to set clear limits. You might try giving him a kind look, saying something empathic and brief like, “I know, Sweetie; you really love that shirt so, so much but it’s just too dirty to wear today”, and then doing your best to redirect. Other unwitting things parents do that may result in more frequent or intense tantrums include paying more attention to your child’s tantrum behaviours than to more desirable ones (thus, reinforcing the negative rather than positive), and responding in inconsistent (that is, intermittently reinforcing) ways.
Q) How difficult do you find it as a mum to put your own advice into practice?
It’s more and less difficult depending on the day I’m having, not least of all how much sleep I’m functioning on. When I’m tired, I’m more irritable and less likely to be able to stay calm and regulated when my little guys engage in some of these behaviours. There’s a whole section in the book about the importance of taking care of ourselves as a way of better handling tantrums, and that’s probably the part that’s most difficult for me to practice. I’m always trying to check things off of my (endless, as it is for us all) to-do list rather than going to bed early or taking time out to enjoy a fulfilling meal. When I make a point of prioritising the latter, I’m much more able to parent effectively – not to mention enjoyably!
Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, is a clinicalpsychologist and founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, which specialises in helping kids and parents confront a range of common early childhood challenges. She lives in the New York City area with her husband and two young sons aged four and two. The Tantrum Survival Guide (PB £10.99) is available from routledge.com