As a mother who documents the highs and lows of her journey into motherhood, I have recently been asked why I don’t punish or ‘tell my daughter off’ for her tantrums. So here I’m going to answer why and how I came to this conclusion.
first off, I remember Ravens first tantrum. We were leaving swimming class and she loved it so much she didn’t want to go. My husband was with me and we just sort of looked at each other like ‘okkkaaaay which one of us knows what to do here?’ And neither of us did. I vaguely remembered reading that a tantrum was best left ignored, so we sort of heart heartedly tried to ignore her on the pavement. But I couldn’t, it didn’t feel right, she looked so uncomfortable. I ended up picking her up and cuddling her. That felt right, but I wasn’t sure if I was meant to. So I knew I had to figure out what to do next time.
Thats when I discovered Gentle Parenting. I’ve always loved reading articles and learning about child development. Something about GP felt really right. The title of ‘gentle’ sounded a bit faffy and flakey, but the science and values behind it were not only kind and gentle, but also incredibly LOGICAL. Despite it going against what a lot of mainstream parenting had ‘told me’ to do, GP just made a lot of sense. (Lookup Sarah Ockwell Smith)
I read up about tantrums and began to understand the minds of our children, and from there I became more enlightened about how these little people are really misunderstood so often. Learning about how their brains are forming and their emotions are emerging, I was able to see tantrums from a whole new and profound perspective. And once I had shifted my view of tantrums from the mainstream narrative of ‘resistance and attention seeking bad behaviour’ to ‘age appropriate and developmentally normal behaviour’ I was able to find greater patience and compassion in that moment.
So this is how I feel and deal with tantrums now. When I see my two year old having a tantrum, I can see how much distress she is in. I can see it is uncomfortable for her. I can think of a time when I have been really cross or upset or jealous or frustrated and I can empathise with how horrible that feeling is. As an adult I have the tools to help calm myself down. I have a mature, rational brain that can make sense of the entire situation and understand all the social expectations and etiquettes required in that moment. My two year old does not, she is not able to calm herself down and rationally understand the situation. She is a child, with an immature brain. She doesn’t need my punishment, she needs my help.
Let’s imagine we are passing a toy shop and Raven wants a toy but I don’t have enough money. Imagine that, a child at a toy shop wanting a toy. I remember it myself, the shelves towering high stacked with treasure. I wanted it. Just like I still want to have all the house decor I see. It’s no different, except my little girl has has bigger emotions and no ability to moderate them. I tell her I’m sorry but I don’t have the money and we can’t get a toy today. She gets frustrated and angry. She has a tantrum.
I bend down next to her and say ‘I hear you.’ (We all want to be heard, we all begin to feel better when our problems are heard) ‘You are angry.’ (Labelling her emotions helps her begin to recognise it) It’s ok. (Because it is ok to be angry, we just need to learn how to calm that and were not developmentally there yet) ‘I love you.’ (Because I do, we all want to be loved at our best and at our ‘worst’) And I wait and I repeat gently and I wait. I see if she would like a cuddle and I wipe her tears. Eventually, as with any tantrum, it ends, and we pass the shop.
On top of the fact her behaviour is developmentally normal, this is why GP is so logical. If the tantrum was going to happen regardless, and she was never going to get the toy, then everything that happens in between is in my own control. Once it begins I have a choice. I can join in her chaos and frustration and escalate an already uncomfortable situation, or I can model patience and empathy and help to calm her down. I haven’t rewarded bad behaviour, I have comforted normal behaviour. I have shown her I love her and I’m there for her unconditionally, and she has had another practice at learning to regulate her emotions, all within the safe space of someone she can trust and count on.
I think we have this deeply engrained idea that we need to constantly teach our children how to behave. It’s as if we must instill in them as toddlers and young children that they cannot ‘get their own way by fussing’ or they will never be able to manage as adults. I’m pretty much yet to meet one adult yet (bar a few Buddhist monks and nuns) that are completely capable of not succumbing to emotions they feel. Maybe it doesn’t need to be ‘taught’, it need to be modelled. Like how children copy everything we say, they also copy everything we do. If they see us calm and empathic in their moments of developmentally appropriate (I can’t say this enough I know) uncontrolled outburst, they will model that too.
My daughter has not ‘won’ an imaginary battle, there was no intense power struggle that I have ‘lost’. She hasn’t ‘learnt to get away with it’. How do I know? Well, not only can I see how much she hated the tantrum as much as I did, she also didn’t get the toy.
I’m also just sure to explain beforehand or afterwards (depending on age appropriateness and level of understanding) why we couldn’t get it, and talk about what we could do instead, do we have other toys at home we could get out, maybe we could buy a toy another day when I have some spare money, maybe she could put the toy she wanted on a birthday list.
Is it easy? Nope. Have I had to draw strength in that moment? Yes. Have I always got it right? Definitely not. Will I struggle and fuck up at some point in the future? Absolutely. Are there going to be times when I’m panicking inside and dying from the stares of strangers? Comes with mum territory I think. But for me, it’s totally worth it.