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From Tantrums to Good Citizenship


From Tantrums to Good Citizenship

Debra Jacobs

What do tantrums have to do with helping children develop into advocates for social justice?

As parents and teachers, we want our kids to grow up strong and self-assured, but not entitled. We hope they feel powerful, with a sense of agency enabling them to solve problems and make change, yet not self-absorbed.

We don’t want them to feel so powerful that instead of helpful team members in the family and the classroom, they veer out of control, disrupt others, and make life uncomfortable for those around them.

Many toddlers and preschoolers melt down. They have tantrums not to be manipulative or even to get what they want, but because they do not yet have the ability to regulate their anger or anxiety.

Our response, however, can help them learn that they get what they want by screaming and yelling - giving them too much power - or that the adults in their lives will set firm and loving boundaries, helping them gain the skills they need to (eventually) make appropriate requests and deal with disappointment and frustration without drama.

With every response to our children’s tantrums, we can make one small move towards helping them become good citizens - or not.

In my many years as a preschool teacher and director, I’ve often seen parents fear their children’s meltdowns. They do anything to avoid them, rewarding them with treats or placating them by giving them the cookie they wanted at breakfast that triggered the tantrum in the first place.

As a parent, I understand this. Tantrums suck. You just want them to stop.

But you also want children who feel safe, comfortable, and not entitled. You can do this by welcoming the tantrum instead of fearing it. By calmly saying, “I wish I could give you the cookie, but I can’t,” and “I’m right here if you need a hug,” then leaving your child alone to scream it out until she gets to the other side.

Helping children to self-regulate, to learn that their needs do not always come first, and, over time, to look out for the needs of others, is a long-term project. We can start right now with both kindness and firmness during tantrums.

Here are a couple of really good resources for dealing with tantrums and limit-setting:

What's Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams

This NPR piece describes research where scientists recorded and coded more than 100 tantrums (can you imagine?), and learned that they follow a predictable pattern, leading to recommendations for helping parents and children:

“The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible … was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger, the scientists said, was to do nothing.”

Why “Choosing Your Battles” May Not Be An Effective Parenting Strategy

This thorough article, well worth your time, covers boundary-setting in general:

“ … we really can’t overlook the small stuff … because these are really opportunities for our children to feel relieved that we, the parents, are taking care of things and we are in charge. They get to see us model self-respect and to internalize the right way to treat others. When we set limits around smaller issues, the protests around larger issues may decrease by half or even more. When we don’t set these limits, we allow them to experiment on our reactions, they then begin to feel insecure and too powerful, leading them to feel older than their age and less free to be joyful and playful.”