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Why A Tantrum Is Not Always What It Seems

Why A Tantrum Is Not Always What It Seems

Sometimes our children have the biggest cries over the smallest of things.  We can be completely baffled why they are so upset over something so minor as the wrong colour plate, the wrong t-shirt or event a biscuit being slightly broken.

It can lead to us becoming infuriated, bewildered or upset ourselves.  Sometimes we can frantically try to fix the situation – running around the house searching for the right plate or t-shirt.  Sometimes we can become angry and just want them to be grateful for what they currently have.  Sometimes we can belittle their upset and tell them not to be so silly.

And yet, the reason they are crying, may not be the underlying reason why they are upset.

So Why Are They Crying?

Stresses build up for all of us from everyday occurrences.  Being late for work, someone cutting up off in traffic, our phone not working can irritate all of us as adults and we can usually rationalise things in our minds or have a quick moan to a colleague or friend, and then forget about it.  Children, on the other hand, are highly sensitive and these innocuous stresses can build up, and up, and up.  Sometimes it can be because we’ve answered the phone when they were wanting to talk to us, or because we didn’t watch the cartwheel they just did.  Or sometimes it can be because they miss us at day care or someone was mean to them at preschool.  Everyday, normal events that we often can’t do much about.  But as these accumulate, so does our child’s sense of unease which, even if they can’t put it into words, is still there.

So when something innocuous like the wrong colour plate is presented to them by their safe, loving parent, they overreact.  It becomes the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” and all of their sadness, frustration, etc comes pouring out over this single item.  This becomes the tangible thing they can focus all of their attention on and they cry, and cry, and cry.

What Can We Do?

The most important thing we can do is listen and take their upset seriously.  All of us always have a valid reason why we cry, even the reason is not immediately obvious or considered valid by others.  It’s important to us.  And so our children’s upset is important to our children.  It sounds simple & obvious, but it’s not always easy to treat it as such.

Mum listening to crying daughterWe can empathise and say that we’re sorry it’s the wrong colour plate, t-shirt, etc.  And if they frantically ask to change it, and you recognise that there are underlying feelings which are coming out, you can gently say that no, you’re not to change it, this is the plate / t-shirt for today.  All the time, being really loving and providing your warm eye contact and attention.  This then provides the safe, loving space for all of their big feelings to come pouring out.

You can recognise when there are underlying feelings, when it is out of character for them to becomes so upset over such an event.  If there is a charge and a frantic, almost panicked response.  If they calmly ask for a different item, then of course respond accordingly and change it.  This is only when you can tell there is something else going on and a tantrum brews.

Once your child has finished, you will most likely find that they are perfectly happy with the colour plate or t-shirt.  Or, if not, they are happy & relaxed to go & choose another one.  The stressful feelings they were carrying around have now gone and they are ready to deal with everyday life again in a calm, happy manner.

Here is an example of when my 2 year old daughter had a massive reaction to being given a pink plate.

I had been working really hard for several months on a big event I was organising. I worked during Emily’s sleep and in the evenings, and, for the previous couple of months, had a friend who looked after Emily a day or so a week. The month running up to the event was particularly stressful and I was more focused on my work than being with Emily. So that, even whilst I was physically with her, I had an underlying stress and was preoccupied.

Pink plateSo, the Monday after the event, I devoted myself entirely to Emily. It started with breakfast where I made sure she had her pink cup, pink plate and pink cutlery as pink was then her favourite colour.

However, the pink items became the issue and Emily protested that she didn’t want that colour. Initially I was surprised, and so suggested she go to the cupboard to choose the colour she did want, which was easy for her to do. At which point she refused and just kept on repeating she didn’t want the pink ones.

I then realised that this was not about the pink cup, but about missing me the past couple of months.  She now have the safety of finally having my full attention so all of her upset about that could finally come out.

I gently held the limit saying that I wasn’t going to change the colour, but that she could if she wanted to. The feelings came pouring out, all focused on the pink cup. At times Emily would go to throw the cup or plate, but I would gently hold her arm saying “no sweetie, I’m not going to let you throw it.”

The tantrum lasted for about 30 mins and then turned into her having a big cry whilst being cuddled on my lap. Once she had finished crying, she was ready to happily eat her breakfast out of all the pink items without any further upset.

Her upset wasn’t about the pink cup, but had much deeper roots. By Emily focusing on the cup and by me gently holding the limit, she could offload her sadness about my absence and preoccupation in the weeks leading up to the event.  It showed me, yet again, how amazingly powerful tantrums and crying are.   It could have been easy for me to dismiss her protests as silly, but by holding the limit and being loving towards her, she got to release her sadness in an incredibly effective way so that she didn’t need to carry it any more.



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