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Temper Tantrums Are a Cry for Help

One of the most troublesome behaviors of young children is a temper tantrum. During a tantrum the child cries, thrashes about, and usually makes demands upon the parents. Tantrums often take place in public places, which makes it especially embarrassing for the parents. It must be said that children whose parents are too permissive usually throw temper tantrums. In these children the tantrum is not really whatever the child is demanding. Rather it is really a cry for help, a plea for the parent to assert his or her adultness.

Children don’t really want to be in control of their parents. They really want parents to be in charge. When they are given too much freedom, too many options, it places a heavy burden on them. Consider the following analogy. You go to the dentist because you have a sore tooth. Suppose that once you are in the chair, the dentist looks in your mouth and then asks the nurse to look and to tell him what she thinks. If he then wonders aloud which tooth it is and what size drill to use, you are likely to spring out of the chair and head for another dentist. Suppose the new dentist looks in your mouth, sees the tooth, explains what she is going to do, that there will be a slight pain when she inserts the Novocain but that after that you will not feel a thing. In this situation you feel that the dentist knows what she is doing, is in charge of the situation and that you can relax.

The child whose parents are too permissive, who do not assert their adultness and treat the child as an equal, are acting like the first dentist. They communicate to the child that they really don’t know what they are doing and are looking to the child for guidance. This is as frightening to the child as it is for the patient in the first dentist’s chair. But the child can’t go to another parent, and the temper tantrum is what we all might throw if we were stuck in the chair with the first dentist.

Accordingly the best way to control a temper tantrum is to assert our adultness and show that we are in control. Young children are very sensory motor; they respond most to our voice and our physical posture. If we stand straight, square our shoulders, and say in a stern loud voice, “I know what you want but you can’t have it so cut the nonsense!” The trouble is that most parents who are in this situation are unable to take that stance or do it with the necessary force and severity. An alternative is to make up some signs to carry along saying things like, “Mood Under Construction” or “Auditioning for a part in a play.” This usually brings amusement from by-passers and it is not the reaction the child had been expecting, namely, pressure for the parents to give in. But a parent giving in is not really what the child wanted and may throw another tantrum in hopes it will get the parent to finally take charge.

Children really want us to be adults, who are responsible and know what we are doing and what is best for our offspring. This allows our young ones to relax and feel that someone is capable and in charge of their world.

By Professor David Elkind. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive, and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood and how you can support your child’s healthy development every step of the way.

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