You are out in public, and your child wants something they cannot have. The word “no” is an affront to their young sensibilities. Your child attempts to enlighten you on how much they need this thing by repeatedly asking for it (with words or gestures, depending on their age) or negotiating with you. You look on as your child’s body goes limp, and you think to yourself, “Not again!”. You try to hurry yourself and your child through whatever task you’re doing to leave the public sphere as quickly as possible.
And then the screaming starts.
All parents have had this experience at one time or another, whether in public or at home and at the most inopportune time (read: while you’re trying to get out the door to get to work and you’re already running late). Tantrums and other forms of externalized anger can be a complicated emotional experience for parents and children and often leave everyone with difficult feelings. I have worked with many families over the years, and no one, child nor adult, has ever said, “I want to spend my time this way”.
Yet, many parents find themselves spending a lot of time this way, confounded by their child’s outbursts and anger, and hoping it will somehow go away. Or trying to will it away with rewards or punishments. Before we get into how to stop the tantrums or externalization of anger, we need to understand its origins.
What is Aggression?
Aggression is innate in all of us and is the drive that moves us toward things we want and need (e.g., food) and away from things we do not want or need (e.g., pain). It is necessary for our survival, and what moves the infant to scream when hungry or uncomfortable to alert caregivers of a need. I have seldom heard more aggressive cries than that of an uncomfortable and hungry infant! As infants grow into toddlers, they learn to use their aggression in bodily mobility; to seek out items of interest like a toy or beloved caregiver by crawling or toddling, to feed themselves, to hit or bite others to express pain or frustration (remember, aggression moves us toward something we want or need, but also moves us away from/stops something we do not want or do not need).
Toddlers will often still scream, but as they develop the use of language, they also use their aggression to develop autonomy and assertion*. Assertion is important, because when allowed to develop a helpful sense of assertiveness, your child will be able to effectively communicate, using words, what they do and do not want and need from others. The “terrible twos” should be renamed “assertiveness training, step one” because as your child tells you “no!” or “I do it!”, they are working on asserting their own needs and desires, even though their cognitive understanding of their basic needs and desires is still developing.
(*Some foundational ideas in this post have been taken from the brilliant parenting book, Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children, by Kerry Kelly Novick and Jack Novick. It is a book I recommend to all parents, and you can get your own copy here.)
But Why the Screaming? Why the Hitting? Why the Tantrum?
As mentioned before, your child is asserting themselves to meet their own needs and desires, which is a necessary building block for independence and autonomy. They do not have life experience, or the cognitive development, yet to see how unsafe playing with a knife or fiddling with an electrical cord can be, or that eating sixteen chocolate-chip cookies can compromise their bodily health. All they know is that the blade is shiny, the cord feels interesting in their hands, and chocolate-chip cookies taste delicious.
“If my parent loves me, why won’t they let me have this thing that is so interesting and gratifying?”
It is an important practice to talk with a two-year-old who is fixated on a shiny knife about how unsafe it is, but they are not far enough along in their cognitive development to understand your adult reasoning. Instead, they likely experience your “no” as a withholding of gratification by the person they love most in this world. Imagine if you told your significant other that you needed a glass of water, and they said, “You cannot have water today.” That would feel like an unloving act because you need water. Similarly, your child experiences a need for that interesting and shiny knife, and it is your job to help them continue to grow in understanding about what is and isn’t safe, and what they actually do need versus what they desire, and which desires can be delayed and which should not be fulfilled. This is the reason why most Elementary School curricula call for explicitly teaching students “Wants vs. Needs”. When your young child (or even your older child) has a tantrum after being told “no”, or being denied an experience or item, it is because you are hampering their assertion (as it should be in cases of safety and health concerns!).
Working with Your Child to Develop Autonomy
One of the best ways to help a child struggling with tantrums is to allow them to practice asserting themselves in as many different situations as possible. When your child wishes to do something on their own, make time and room for them to struggle with and complete the task they are hoping to accomplish. When they have finished the task, admire the effort and hard work your child displayed.
As adults, we don't typically think about buckling a seat belt or closing a car door on our own as a huge accomplishment, but we wouldn't ask a four-year-old to cook a delectable five course meal! For your young child, struggling through and finishing a task on their own, paired with parent admiration of sticking with and completing the task, assists not only in the development of assertion, but also in the development determination and a growing sense of self-efficacy.
Turning a situation which typically results in a tantrum into an opportunity for your child to assert their own independence can feel difficult at first, and at times, there may not be any wiggle room in a family’s busy schedule or in the boundaries parents set for their child. However, something like a meal-time tantrum can be shifted into a learning opportunity by allowing a child to make a meal for themselves if they do not like the food parents have prepared (if they are old enough), or allowing the child to pick one food item they would like to have at dinner. These are both great examples of allowing a child to do for themselves at their age-appropriate level. Parents can work with their children in order to help them develop autonomy, by having flexibility in areas like:
What foods the child eats, and who prepares them
The time of day the child completes chores or homework
How the child obtains toys or other materials they wish to have
Leisure time activities
Listening to your child shows them that what they have to share is valuable and important, which is a lesson they will carry with them into adulthood. When I am working with parents who are struggling with tantrums and other maladaptive behaviors at home, I help them keep in mind that internal compliance is not the same as outward obedience. Stopping the maladaptive behavior is secondary to the primary goal of helping their child understand and internalize how a different behavior is more helpful to the child, as well as others. Imagine your child as a teen, and you have helped them practice assertion for many years. What choice do you imagine they will make when faced with the pressures of fitting in with peers who may be involved in dangerous decisions? This is where internal compliance and outward obedience, seemingly the same on the surface, become very, very different responses.
Finding a Provider
If you and your child are feeling stuck in a cycle that involves tantrums, and shifting things at home hasn’t helped, finding a family therapist or counselor is a good step in resolving some of these behaviors and dynamics. If you are in the Houston, Texas area, you can always reach out to the clinical services department at The Journey School of Houston by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for referrals or to ask questions. You can also find many parenting and family resources on psychologytoday.com.
Keep a look out for our next blog post, where we discuss how you can help your child shift tantrums and aggression to assertion and autonomy.