Have you ever thought of a tantrum as a gift? Could there ever be anything positive in this storm of your child’s emotions? Tantrums provide key opportunities for emotional development of our children.
I know it may be hard to believe, but there are a number of developmental opportunities in a tantrum. It is through the experience of unpleasant emotions that children learn to process what they feel and why. It is important to understand these dynamics so that we can do our best to support the child in his or her emotional development. We already talked about why the child expresses his emotions through a tantrum. When we know the bigger developmental role tantrums play in our child’s emotional development, we are better able to help the child cope with these big emotions.
The three most important keys to healthy emotional development are emotional regulation, understanding cause and effect of emotions, and boundaries. All of these help develop the child’s sense of self and set him on a path towards a strong self-esteem in the future.
THE INNER POWER OF EMOTIONAL REGULATION
The way we work through tantrums lays the foundation for the child’s emotional competency later on. One of these opportunities is to experience the power to self-regulate. Learning to self-regulate is a long process, and with each tantrum comes the opportunity to practice this important life skill. Self-regulation is an important milestone in the child’s emotional development.
A child who learns to calm down on his own without external prompts and superficial rewards, is a child who learns the power to be able to feel good on his own. He understands that the path to feeling good lies within him and not other people around him. If we teach the child how to calm down, he will be able to do so when we are not around. He will have important tools such as reminders and self-talk, integrated with his inner voice.
Knowing how to access his own emotional tools will shape the child into a confident individual who does not depend on other people for comfort.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should raise a selfish creature who has no regard for others. That is quite something else and is not an indicator for a healthy emotional development. If we stay close to our child, however, and show a lot of compassion for him and his situation, he will develop qualities of a kind and warm person.
There are many ways in which we can help the child help himself, while at the same time remain empathic and supportive. Let’s say for example, that the child scraped his knee. We can’t make the burning sensation go away, but we can help the child by showing him what he can do for himself. We can acknowledge the child’s experience and show empathy for his feelings, we can show him how to breathe, blow on the scrape, and let him be the one to place the band-aid over it. All of this empowers the child and builds his ability to self-regulate.
CAUSE & EFFECT
Another important opportunity for emotional development is understanding cause and effect of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. The child learns to understand that certain situations lead to certain feelings. He also learns that tantrums come with their own bad feelings. At the same time, the child begins to appreciate that these bad feelings are the child’s own feelings. He cannot simply pass them on to someone else, and needs to deal with them. (That is what the emotional regulation skills are for.)
This understanding that the child is the source of his emotions is liberating and aggravating for him at the same time. Think about it. Have you seen a child who continues to make himself cry only because he hates the idea of how simple it was to calm down? He is done crying and tantruming and yet, at the same time, he almost resents it. Shouldn’t it be someone else’s fault the way he felt so bad? Shouldn’t it be someone else’s fault that he didn’t get his way?
This is a temporary transition, and eventually the child learns to prefer positive feelings of calm over the resentment of not being able to blame others for his feelings.
Understanding that both bad and good feelings come from within the child, helps the child learn what to do to feel better. The child learns that when he slows down, takes deeper breaths, listens to the options available, and stops crying — all these things make him feel better. When, on the other hand, he screams and kicks his feet, he feels worse and is not getting his way.
In order for the child to truly experience cause and effect in this situation, it is we who need to be aware of how we interact with the child during tantrums. Are we stepping in and taking over the situation or are we there to help the child see how he can solve it? The latter reinforces the child’s own sense of control of the situation. He can see what actions to take, which then lead to feeling better. In a separate article, we will explore in more detail the kind of guidance an adult can give to a tantruming child.
This approach establishes the connection between the child’s actions and his feelings, rather than the child’s feelings and the parent’s actions.
The goal of this opportunity is to teach the child what he himself can do to feel a certain way, rather than what the parent can do to change the child’s feelings. If we soothe the child with superficial means (giving him candy or a toy he threw a tantrum over) this will create a shift in causality and lead to erroneous attribution of cause and effect.
In other words, the relation between the child’s behavior, the origin of his feelings, and the source of relief will become unclear. The reason for why things happen they way they do will be attributed to the wrong factors. Was it the parent’s fault the child felt such strong negative emotions? Is the parent the one to thank because now the child feels good? Is it the candy that made it all bad and then all good again? Or, was it the child who knew how hard to cry to get what he wanted?
Yeah, I know, I’d be confused too, let alone a small child who is just now learning about cause and effect. To help him through these situations, a consistent and calm approach with appropriate limit setting will make things clear over time. Which is, “if I tantrum every time I want something, I will end up feeling bad and not getting what I want.” But, “If I calm down, I will be able to enjoy the choices available to me.”
BOUNDARIES & SENSE OF SELF
As was already mentioned, tantrums come with the child’s own feelings. Helping the child understand which experiences belong to him (with all the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that come with them), and whether they are negative or positive, shapes the boundary of his own self. The child begins to understand where his own experiences end and where those of other people begin.
The calmer we remain during the tantrum, the more clear is the contrast between what the child is feeling and what we are feeling. This makes it easier for us to communicate that these are the child’s own feelings and that he has the power to do something about them. Again, an important note here is that we are not leaving the child alone to suffer the fate of his emotions. That would be cruel and neglectful of the child’s needs. Instead, we are guiding him through the process of dealing with big emotions.
Those who do not understand the boundaries of their experience, often rely on other people, food, and other things, in hopes of feeling better.
Our goal is to help the child understand that just as he owns his current state of distress, he will also own his state of calm, because that, too, will reside within him. His calm is his own, and is available to him as soon as he stops screaming and kicking. This is the message we send when we are by the child’s side showing him how to access calm on his own and helping him with regulation of emotions, rather than soothing him by artificial means (candy, toy, etc.). The magical powers lie within the boundary of our own self, not within other objects and people.
As the child’s emotional development continues to progress, he learns to access his own feelings. He begins to own them. Quite literally, his feelings belong to him, though he does not understand that yet. In fact, he will not be aware of that for a long time, but the foundation for that understanding is laid in childhood. This distinct awareness is not necessary for being able to self-regulate. In fact, many adults go through life without that knowledge. Intuitive sense of trust in oneself and integrated past experiences alone can be enough for emotional regulation, as long as they begin early.
We will talk more about emotional development and emotional competence in the future, but for now, fill up your heart with lots of patience and compassion. It takes work and commitment to help a young person grow!