Believe it or not, temper tantrums are an important part of your toddler’s emotional health and well-being.
1. Better out than in
Tears contain cortisol, the stress hormone. When we cry, we are literally releasing stress from our bodies. Tears have also been found to lower blood pressure and improve emotional well-being, provided there’s a loved one close for support. You may have noticed that when your toddler is on the brink of a tantrum, nothing is right. She is angry, frustrated, or whining. You may have also noticed that after the storm has passed, she is in a much better mood. It helps if we let our kids tantrum without trying to interrupt the process so they get to the end of their feelings. “Crying is not the hurt, but the process of becoming unhurt,” explains Deborah MacNamara, Ph.D., a parent educator and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One).
2. Crying may help your child learn.
A few years ago I was working as a babysitter for a 5-year-old. He was building with some Legos and started having a tantrum because he got stuck. However, after having the tantrum, he sat down and fixed the Lego structure. I’ve seen many moments like this, where a child is struggling and expressing their frustration helps them to clear their minds so they can learn something new. “Learning is as natural to children as breathing,” says Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting. “But when a child isn’t able to concentrate or listen, there’s usually an emotional issue that’s blocking his progress.” Research suggests that, for learning to take place, a child must be happy and relaxed, and expressing emotional upset is all part of this process.
3. Your child may sleep better
Sleep problems often occur because we parents think the best approach to tantrums and upsets is to try to avoid them. Then, a child’s pent-up emotions bubble up when his brain is at rest. Just like adults, children also wake because they’re stressed or trying to process something that’s happening in their lives. Allowing your child to get to the end of her tantrum improves her emotional well-being and may help her sleep through the night.
4. You said ‘no,’ and that’s a good thing.
Chances are the tantrum your toddler is having is because you said ‘no.’ And that’s a good thing! Saying ‘no’ gives your child clear boundaries about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Sometimes we may avoid saying ‘no’ because we don’t want to deal with the emotional fallout, but we can stand firm with our limits while still offering, love, empathy, and hugs. Saying ‘no’ means you aren’t afraid of the messy, emotional side of parenting.
5. Your child feels safe to tell you how he feels.
Tantrums are actually a big compliment, even if it doesn’t always feel that way! In most cases, children aren’t using tantrums to manipulate us or get what they want. Often your child is accepting the no, and the tantrum is an expression of how he feels about it. You can stand firm with the no, and empathise with his sadness. The upset about the broken cookie or the wrong colour socks is just a pretext, and it’s love and connection that he really needs.
6. Tantrums bring you closer together.
It may be hard to believe at the time, but watch and wait. Your angry child may not look like she appreciates you being there, but she does. Let her get through the storm of her feelings without trying to stop or ‘fix’ them. Don’t talk too much but offer a few kind, reassuring words. Offer hugs. Your child will soak up your unconditional acceptance and feel closer to you afterwards.
7. Tantrums help your child’s behaviour in the long run.
Sometimes children’s emotions come out in other ways, such as aggression, having trouble sharing, or refusing to cooperate on simple tasks like getting dressed or brushing teeth. These are all common signs that your child is struggling with his emotions. Having a big tantrum helps your child release the feelings that can get in the way of his natural, cooperative self.
8. If the tantrum happens at home, there’s less chance it will happen in public.
When children get to fully express their emotions, they will often choose to have their upsets at home where they sense we are more available to listen. “The more we ask our children to ‘keep it together’ at home and in public, the more the tension bottles up inside of them,” says Michelle Pate, a parenting instructor and program manager at Hand in Hand Parenting who lives in Bend, Oregon. “The more we can find time and space to listen to our child’s feelings of upset at home, the fewer bottled-up feelings they’ll carry along with them on every excursion.”
9. Your child is doing something that most people have forgotten how to do.
As your child grows older, he will cry less. Partly this is maturing and learning to regulate his emotions. Partly it’s learning to ‘fit into’ a society that isn’t very accepting of emotional expression. When we adults get angry or stressed or “lose it” with our kids, it’s often because we need a good cry too! It’s hard for adults, and particularly men, to find the sense of safety and connection to really let go of our feelings. So let your child have that mood-enhancing tantrum while her emotions still flow freely.
10. Tantrums are healing for you, too.
When we are present for our child’s tantrum, it kicks up big feelings in us. When we were young, our parents may not have listened to our outbursts with empathy. Our child’s upset can trigger memories of how we were treated, which we may not even be conscious of. Parenting can be a healing path for our own emotional challenges when we get support and a chance to be listened to ourselves.
After emotional moments with your child, take time to practise self-care, talk with a friend, have a good laugh, and maybe have a cry yourself. Staying calm takes practice, but when we manage it, we are literally rewiring our brains to become calmer, more peaceful parents.
Credit: Kate Orson, a mother of one, a parent educator in Basel, Switzerland, and the author of Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children.