Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

What’s on the other side of that temper tantrum? December 11, 2009

Filed under: Authority & obedience,Behaviors,Books,Correction,Emotions,Training — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 12:24 am

That temper tantrums are a normal part of toddler life seems self-evident. The question has never been, “should children be permitted to have temper tantrums?” but, “how should one best respond to a child who is having a tantrum?”  The notion that children could be trained not to tantrum never occurred to me. I didn’t know any moms who’d trained their kids not to have tantrums.

This passage in Raising Godly Tomatoes, therefore, greatly intrigued me.

 Some parents… believe that temper tantrums are acceptable. They believe that it is necessary and good for a child to vent his frustrations, release tension, and express himself in such a manner. They go so far as to believe it is the child’s right to do so. I vigorously disagree.

Children seldom truly outgrow of such willful expressions. The toddler tantrums are merely replaced by adult tantrums such as swearing, yelling, road rage, abusing animals, spousal or child abuse, and sometimes escalating even to vicious assaults and murder. I don’t see how anyone could dare defend the behavior that leads to such evils, yet the “experts” do it every day, and are extolled for it in the bargain.

I see only evil in the uncurbed display of rage, selfishness, and wilfulness. Because it is my responsibility to do my best to shape my children’s character into what conforms to the image of God, I must never cease working to help them become loving, self-disciplined, godly human beings. I am obligated to step in and curb temper tantrums and any other kind of wrong behavior.

In Kruger’s view, children engaged in a tantrum are generally not frustrated at a lack of capability but rather angry at not being able to prevail in their wishes. Frustration may instigate a tantrum but anger – “temper” – takes over.  She writes,  “Very few children throw fits because they are ‘frustrated.’ Perhaps frustration plays into the equation somewhere, but when the fit-throwing begins, the emotion children are experiencing and displaying is anger, not frustration. A frustrated child will cry pitifully in helplessness and sadness. An angry child who is hoping to force his will upon the situation will allow his temper to flair out of control and throw an angry fit of rage instead.” 

She also addresses the common belief that children throw tantrums in order to gain attention, saying: “Few toddlers throw tantrums just to get attention. That’s more easily and efficiently obtained in other ways. What motivates and fuels most tantrums is this: the child isn’t getting his arbitrary demands gratified and he is angry about it. The tantrum is simply a display of unrestrained anger. It’s that elemental. Yes, he wants you to witness his anger, but that’s secondary.”

After pondering Kruger’s words I found myself faced with two questions.  First, do I believe that a child’s tantrum is in itself acceptable (necessary or helpful to the child’s development in some way)?  And second, predicated on the answer to the first, is: do I believe that a child can be trained not to throw a tantrum? 

Kruger’s take on tantrums rings true to me.  I’ve been through my fair share of tantrums with my oldest child before we began earnest training, and nothing positive ever emerged from a one of them that I could see.  If I’d known how to curb them at the time, I would have.  More times than not his tantrums became a way for him to hold me – or the household – hostage while he let his anger rage… until he decided he was ready to get over it.  I certainly don’t believe that a child should never cry or that a child should be expected to be in a good mood all the time.  But I do believe that a child can be taught to express his emotions in an acceptable manner.

Onto question two then – can a child be trained not to have a tantrum?  I decided to try it.  Kruger’s strategy is basically to addressing tantrums the moment they emerge (she refers to surprise and ‘ambushing’), not allowing the child to physically lose control (by, say, falling to the floor or flailing his arms and legs), and telling the child the behavior isn’t permitted and must stop – accompanied by the outlasting that goes with any obedience training.  She also notes that a child who has been required to consistently obey his parent is easiest to train not to tantrum.

I’ve been training my daughter in obedience since I encountered the outlasting principle last spring.  We’d dealt with a few minor tantrums, but the real deal began to emerge a month or so ago (27 months).  She’d disobey and then, when I’d correct and begin to outlast her, she’d begin a resistant and mournful cry that wouldn’t stop.  I mustered my resolve and waited for an opportunity when I could address her fully without other pressing issues.  The moment arose one morning with her brother at preschool and the baby sleeping.  She was eating strawberries, her favorite, and began to protest some triviality about her high chair tray– and then wind up for a serious cry.  I got her down, told her she was not allowed to have a tantrum when she didn’t like something, and waited for her to stop.  I calmly said “you’re not allowed to cry like that when you don’t get your way” (occasionally swatting her bottom to get my point across) as I waited.  Krueger describes an initial outlasting session lasting 90 minutes, so I’d mentally prepared to be there a while.  Instead, within 5 or 6 minutes, she was done.  She stopped crying, said sorry, got back in her chair, and ate her strawberries.

I was fairly amazed that the strategy had worked – and worked so quickly.  We were past it in less than ten minutes.  And more than that  – the gig was up.  She could control her angry crying…  I knew it, and now she knew that I knew it.  Every time she was on the brink of a tantrum in the days that followed, she and I would literally exchange knowing glances.  I called her bluff; we both now know that her wish to willfully cry when she’s angry and my disallowing this behavior is at the center of whatever the issue is.  The few episodes we’ve had since “the strawberry incident” have been minor and quickly curtailed.

I’d so dreaded engaging her in the tantrum-throwing business – thinking it would be intense and difficult- and yet it was so doable once I made up my mind to tackle it with her.  We got to the bottom of a tantrum – and basically put a halt to the whole affair – in moments.  What if I hadn’t decided to work with her through this issue as it began to emerge?  Angry crying episodes resulting from my daughter not getting her way could well have gone on for months.  Sure makes me glad I decided to find out what was on the other side of a tantrum.


2 Responses to “What’s on the other side of that temper tantrum?”

  1. Lynn Says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say I really like your blog! I emailed you the other day and have not heard back…maybe it got lost…anyway, keep blogging! You are an encouragment to other moms!

  2. Crystal Says:

    Temper tantrums are one of those parts of parenting I never could sincerely empathize with since none of my four children threw them. I couldn’t really place my finger on exactly why – were they simply angelic beings never given to fits of anger? were they waiting for adolescence to really rebel? Ummm…no. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    I agree with you in that it comes down to authority – do they feel you have authority over them or are they allowed to try to wield authority themselves? Children will always rebel against quasi-authority but never against rock-solid authority. It’s like the difference between trying to kick and push through a broken-down fence as opposed to a solid steel door. When children see the solid door, not only does it make them feel safer, but it also curbs their desire to kick (ouch!).
    I also understand well the “knowing glance” you talk about as it’s also exchanged between myself and my children as well. My children know that look and what’s behind it.
    I wrestle with society’s idea that all emotions are inherently OK; we’re told emotions in and of themselves can’t be evil, and when they’re little, children should be able to express them no matter what emotion it is and how it is expressed. I once heard a mother tell of her young daughter throwing a fit in the back of the car and spitting out, “I hate you and think you’re ugly!” and the mother tells of it breaking her heart but thinking it was important to allow her daughter the freedom to express her emotions w/o any kind of restraint. As parents, it is our job to prevent ugly behavior from taking root. As always, this kind of training starts from the beginning of life.
    Once again, Susan, great post!

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