If the child throws a tantrum

Reading time: 4 minutes
What they are, how to manage them and why we should stop calling them that

The word “tantrum” is commonly associated with the world of children. Very few children get through their childhood without hearing phrases like:

“Stop this tantrum”,

“What a spoilt child you are!!”,

“Tantrums made by little children and you’re a big boy/girl now!”.

It is now accepted that these common remarks are going out of fashion, but not without difficulty.

But if we had to think about it calmly and give a definition to this term, what could we say?

The big problem that develops around the meaning of tantrum is that in those moments the child is given total responsibility for their existence.

A tantrum is seen by an adult as a bout of crying, a protest, a groundless dispute that has no reason for existence, linked merely to the child’s need to cause a parent difficulty. 

But is it really sustainable to say that a child can engage in behaviour that is intended to annoy an adult who is close to them?

To answer this question it is a good idea to stop and analyse the issue in depth. The first thing to say is that tantrums with the above meaning do not exist.

It is not plausible, as children do not engage in conflict with the adults around them: when a child cries, quarrels, screams or refuses to do what is asked of them, they are actually asking for help, they are desperately looking for a way out of an inner unease that they are unable to deal with.

“Tantrum” is therefore an improper term that simply encapsulates all the negative meaning of that moment, without taking into account the real and objective difficulty that a child suffers in response to their own emotionality. 

No one is born with a wealth of knowledge and skills, especially when it comes to emotions; knowing how to decipher, name and process them is something we will face for a lifetime.

Something that for an adult may be as trivial as accepting that after eating one ice cream you do not eat a second one, may actually trigger in a child an uncontrolled angry reaction because at that moment their focus and energy are all centred on that much-desired ice cream.

In such a situation, a child can truly assimilate and discover what to do to overcome their frustration, but the fundamental condition for this to happen is that an adult becomes their guide, a beacon of light in the darkness of emotional fatigue.

This step is fundamental, it is a sort of reversal of perspective: the “tantrum” does not allow me to see beyond mere behaviour, but if I learn to define that moment as an “emotional crisis” I will realise how much potential power it contains.

But effectively, what should one do?

The “guiding” adult acts in advance to prevent any emotional crises and, where that is not enough, they should deal with these moments without judging.

10 concrete actions that could avoid the onset of a crisis:

1) When we talk to a child, we should communicate firstly with our body rather than words: get down to their height, look them in the eyes and keep a low tone of voice. We express our feelings by recognising theirs as well.

It upsets me to see you like this, I feel sad and I imagine it is painful for you too

2) When a child is annoyed by a situation we should avoid blackmail, threats and punishment. These practices do not lead to respect and dialogue and above all they do not allow the child to understand the reasons, the sense of the behaviour we asking them to exert effort for. We need to seek mediation, a compromise, by negotiating what we want to achieve.

I’d like to satisfy you too, but I just can’t, we’ve been watching TV for long enough, how about reading your favourite book together?

3) When we speak to a child, we should show all the respect we would show if we were speaking to an adult. We should give them the right amount of space. We should communicate without imposing our viewpoint but seeking a dialogue.

“I told you to do this and you will do it without arguingàHow about doing [...]? Or have you got any other ideas?”

4) We should relate to each other with trust.

     “If you climb up there you'll fall and hurt yourselfàDo you feel safe climbing that wall?

5) Just a few rules chosen by parents and shared with the child when needed.

Especially with younger children, it makes little sense to list the rules of the house without putting them into context in particular situations; connecting what we want to teach with the reality of the present helps a lot in understanding the values we want to transmit.

6) We should give importance to children’s activities and play.

If possible, we should not interrupt them in what they are doing with superfluous questions or statements so as not to stop their flow of concentration and the logical processes in place. When necessary we can describe what we have noticed but without including any judgements in our narrative.

7) We should limit sudden changes in routine.

It is really important for children to know what will happen during the day, so having routines helps children to feel safe and calm about what they need to do.

8) We should respect the physiological rhythm of meals and rest.

A lack of regular rest and a small or large drop in sugars may cause tension or impatience.

9) We should remember that by nature children have inner and physiological needs related to movement, being outdoors and surrounded by nature.

10) If we say one thing, we should stand firm on that! This will allow us to be clear with our children and with ourselves.


And when an emotional crisis comes?!  What should we do?

An important factor in emotional crises is the brain, the great “machine” that governs human thought and actions. It is the brain that holds sway in these cases and precisely for this reason knowing a little more about it can make a difference!

The brain consists of two hemispheres: left and right. The former loves order, logic, rationality and the organisation of thoughts; the latter, on the other hand, which we could call “holistic”, looks at the overall picture, at general impressions, prefers non-verbal communication, makes us feel the most visceral sensations and controls our emotions.

In very young children (up to about 3 years) the right hemisphere dominates the brain and for this reason there is no balance between the two parts. In this age group, children have not yet fully acquired the logical and communicative skills to express emotions and feelings and this is precisely why they have a strong need for adult guidance.

It is said that the general emotional balance is obtained when the right and left hemispheres achieve the so-called “horizontal integration”, that is, when the two hemispheres of the brain work in harmony with each other.

In response to any situation of emotional imbalance we can focus on the importance of that moment as an exercise in integration between the two hemispheres.

When children are overwhelmed by intense emotions, communicating with them with logic and rationality often serves no purpose if we have not firstly responded to their emotional need. What we can do is try to make contact emotionally and communicate with their right hemisphere talking about the emotions that they are experiencing. 

No judgements and no solutions, just empathy. 

I understand how you feel…

If I were you, I’d feel that way too...

It is normal to feel all this anger and it is important to express it...

I'm happy that you feel free to vent your anger with me

At this stage we may have to restrain more physical reactions such as throwing objects; this kind of behaviour is the result of scarce emotional competence. We should restrain them not only verbally but also physically: we can put our arms round them to contain any blows and also provide a pillow on which to vent their feelings.

When our right hemisphere is in tune with that of the child, i.e. when the reaction has subsided, we can direct our energies onto a logical and rational explanation of what has happened. We can limit ourselves to describing what we have seen and leave room for the child to give their reasons.

Recounting what happened could also bring out some possible solutions and, if it does not, we can ask some appropriate questions so that the child can (re)balance the situation.

Do you remember what happened before you got lost your temper? We had agreed you would have one ice cream, two is too much. Ice cream contains a lot of sugars and could ruin your teeth. We went into the ice cream shop and... then it happened that... in your opinion, is there anything you can do to remedy this? Can I suggest something to you?

It is wonderful to be able to conclude the emotional crisis with a search for a solution: everyone can make mistakes, but mistakes are always positive and allow us to find new alternatives for growing and developing.

Educating in these cases also means first of all enabling an inner change that illuminates the small, big steps with which we can accompany the growth of our children.

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