When Frustration Overflows – Tantrums Promote Learning
My three-year-old daughter loves getting herself dressed. She loves the autonomy of choosing what to wear and I see a real sense of achievement in her as she manages to work out the buttons, zippers, arm and leg holes, tags and inside-out bits.
This sense of achievement doesn’t always come easily. Quite often, after multiple tries, she is screaming in frustration at the zipper that won’t move, or the sleeve that is stuck inside out. Her agitation looks like it’s making it worse. She is clearly not looking at what she is doing, instead her little feet are stomping, her hands are shaking and her eyes are screwed shut as she screams. My offer of, “Can I help?” is met with a loud and forceful, “NO!” often accompanied by falling down on the ground, legs kicking, arms thrashing…and the zipper seemingly forgotten.
As parents, we really want to help our children. We want their days to be happy and their routines smooth. However, the more we force our help or our way of doing things (even though it might be quicker or seem better), the more likely we are to undermine our children’s confidence in themselves. Struggling through a new task and achieving it can be so empowering for them. A bit of patience with their tantrums builds their resilience, encourages them to try new things, and rewards their determination with a sense of achievement.
Young children experience frustration multiple times a day. When a child is learning to ride a bike, practicing doing up buttons, or writing their name, there will surely be times when they cannot achieve what they want straight away. Trying new things is hard…and feelings accumulate because of these disappointments and frustrations.
This sense of frustration can build up until it has nowhere to go except out – usually in the form of an emotional explosion we call a tantrum. This is a smart thing for a child to do! Thrashing around, sweating, yelling, and raging all indicate that these frustrations are being released, and the tension inside their minds is clearing. Welcoming this natural process is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. When the storm has passed, he will most likely return to a more mindful way of approaching the task, or a more cooperative way of being.
When you listen to your child through a tantrum, offering your warmth and connection, he learns that you are there for him, even when he’s not feeling good inside. He learns that emotions pass, and that he can come out the other side feeling better. He learns that he is capable of achieving things for himself, and that your support is unshakable.
When we understand that a tantrum is actually how a child recovers from frustration, if we support him through that process, we arm ourselves with vital information to take with us into those heated moments. For example, when my daughter screams “NO!” and falls to the floor after my offer of help with her zipper, I can stay and offer my warmth and presence, and listen. I can say things like, “I’m sorry it’s hard” or “I know you can do it” while she thrashes around me. Usually she only needs to do this for about five minutes, before she can get back to trying the zipper. More often than not, she’s successful; if not, she is able to accept my offer of help. Her mind has cleared, and she is able to think again.
We want the best for our children! We want them to have passion for learning and trying new things, but sometimes it can be so hard to listen and offer connection during a tantrum. Why? Well, because it’s hard work! We take our children’s upsets personally. We think if they are not happy, then we have done something wrong. Or perhaps we were never allowed to “get away” with that kind of behaviour, so it’s really hard to shift our thinking toward offering support when they are full of strong emotions.
Another important piece in being able to listen to our children well, is being listened to ourselves. We need our “connection cup” filled before we can offer more to our children. It might seem like another thing on your “to do” list, but try taking time to set up a listening partnership with another parent. Take turns, each of you talking about what’s going on for you in your life, without interruptions or advice. Talk about the strong feelings that arise in you when your children tantrum. This can help a lot! Chances are you weren’t listened to in this way as a child; chances are you haven’t seen anyone around you modeling this way of being with a child before. Listening to a tantrum is bound to be hard at first, and we parents need a place to go with our feelings as we try out new ways of being with our children and ourselves.
Yes, it would be ideal if we could listen to all of our children’s feelings all the time, but in reality, that is not going to happen! So, if you are willing to try this out, I’d suggest to pick a time when you have some time and presence. It also might be worth thinking about who else is going to be in the vicinity, and whether they will be OK with your experiment.
When you notice your child is getting frustrated over every little thing, or reacting in a volatile way to each suggestion you make, remember that this bubbling over is a good thing! It’s progress toward healing, and clearing his mind so he can think well again. Tantrums can be triggered by seemingly small things, but chances are there are many little things that have built up, and the trigger is just that – the last straw!
Gently move in with warmth, letting your child know you are there and paying attention. Often this will be all she needs for the feelings to start overflowing. Your loving presence while she offloads this tension will help this healing process. Your child’s mind will sense your attention and your presence and use that safety to let go of the hard feelings that are blocking her thinking. It’s your job to keep offering connection, making way for the feelings to come out. It’s your child’s job to feel those feelings fully and empty her mind of tension and upset.
You will most likely notice how effective this way of being with a tantrum is straight away. You are paying attention to connection, which is what allows her brain to function well, rather than trying to control her behaviour. Chances are when your child is in the throes of a tantrum, she won’t be stopping any time soon anyway. It makes more sense to support her by offering connection, rather than trying to distract or punish her. These more conventional tactics just prolong the feeling of upset, and may lead to more unreasonable behaviour.
For generations society has misunderstood this recovery process and labelled tantrums and crying as ‘bad’, ‘manipulative’ or ‘disrespectful.’ However if we can change our mindset, and learn to welcome our child as she tantrums, knowing that this behaviour is purposeful and physiological, then we are offering a chance for healing, for a greater capacity to learn and grow. We are offering connection–exactly what a child’s brain really needs! This is the most effective strategy to help your child get back on track.