On Tantrums

I often see on the web these days about how tantrums and meltdowns are different. I understand the importance of connecting meltdowns to sensory and emotional overwhelm, of teaching others to be compassionate and kind in these moments. 

My concern is not with how we characterize meltdowns. It’s important for people to understand meltdowns and how to best support the people in their lives. There is so much good writing out there about meltdowns, and I strongly encourage anyone with children in their lives to go read or watch it. 

My concern is with how we are characterizing tantrums. More and more often, this discrimination is used by the layperson to imply that there is an element of control involved in a tantrum. A willfulness. A “he just doesnt want to”.

I don’t buy this. It’s not possible for me to work from the philosophy of “kids do well if they can” and for me to see a tantrum as manipulative, or to say “well, she’ll learn to stop when she realizes I’m not giving her what she wants.”

Tantrums, like all other “challenging behavior”, happen when a child’s skills bump up against an environment orexpectation that surpasses their ability to cope. Basically: no, they do not have the skills. They are not in total control. They still need empathy, understanding, and support. They need support to re-regulate in the moment. They also need support to learn the long-term skills needed — and to navigate the triggering environments while they develop. Our job is to meet the need (which does not necessarily mean providing the child’s momentary goal, but does mean connecting with them and centering our relationship.)

Let’s take the classic example of the two year old who wants a lollipop in the store, but has been told no. The child begins to scream and kick the cart, yelling “I want my lollipop.” Yes, this is a tantrum. But — this is still a child who is missing the skills needed to cope with the environment and demands they are facing. This is a child who does not yet have the skill to cope with disappointment, who cannot yet safely express disappointment, who cannot yet negotiate for a compromise, who cannot picture when they will next get an item, who has difficulty shifting from one plan to another. 
This is not a child who “is in control” and “just didn’t get what they wanted”. We all face times where we don’t get what we want; how we face those times depends on those skills. And to complicate matters: our ability to use those skills and cope are always in flux. Outsiders may see a child mid-tantrum, while the mom knows that this is also a child who is overtired, who missed their nap, who is late for lunch, who is bothered by the lights of the store, who is dealing with big changes at home, and so on.

With all of that happening, isn’t it better to err on the side of “this is a kid who is doing the best they can”? What harm would come from that?

What does that mean in the moment? Regulation takes priority. Connection comes first. And we don’t let fear of “reinforcing the tantrum” keep us from connecting with the little person in front of us. What that looks like depends on the child. For some students, that means empathy and providing language to match what they might be feeling inside. For others, it may be silence or a deep squeeze or simply waiting out the storm in compassionate companionship. 

Teaching does not come first. Talking and lectures and conseuqences? They all don’t happen here. Because it doesn’t matter how many lagging skills there are, we cannot teach them in those moments of dysregulation. We can only teach when the person we are supporting feels calm, safe, integrated, and connected to their “upstairs brain”. 

And, yes, sometimes that means modifying our expectations. If a toddler regularly has a tantrum in the grocery store about a lollipop, then it might be that they are not quite ready for the grocery store. Maybe it means having the toddler have a grocery “job” so they feel connected to parents during the busy moments of checking out. Or maybe it means that we get our own bag of dum-dums that we carry and provide one upon entering — here’s your lollipop for our trip today. None of this is “giving in”. This isn’t “weakness”. This is meeting our kids where they are. This is providing the scaffolding that is required for our students to be successful. This is helping them get to the next step, one day, when they’re ready.

The best part? Our strong relationship, our many moments of co-regulation? That’s going to set them up for more success than any consequence, ignoring, or lecturing ever would have done. And you are going to feel so much better through the process than you’ll ever feel from leaving a child to cry, placing them in time-out, or otherwise disconnecting.

If you’re looking for more resources on connection first, I cannot recommend the work of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson more highly. The first step in their Whole Brain Child is “connect, then redirect”.