An excerpt of a letter on Temper Tantrums

I am convinced that temper tantrums are a natural phenomenon, as natural as any other bodily function.  It is not simply a cultural phenomenon.  Children tantrum all over the world.  I think about tantrums, though messy, loud and upsetting, as a built-in healing mechanism, in the same way that I believe that laughing and crying are.  It is a natural reaction for children when, for instance, they are frustrated with being at the affect of the busy adults in their lives, or when they, consistently don’t get to do what they want, when they want, or when they simply haven’t been feeling well, or for many other reasons…

And while we can’t always know the reason why a tantrum is happening, we can know that it is an attempt to communicate something to us.  For instance, P. needs you to know when she is having big feelings—children don’t want to be isolated and alone with big scary feelings.  You can imagine, I’m sure, that it might be pretty upsetting for a little one to feel things like anger that deeply. We know it’s upsetting to the adult, so why wouldn’t it be to the child!  The good news is that P. feels safe enough and loved enough to let you witness her struggles—mostly, I believe, in hopes that you can give her a hand out of them.  I think of a tantrum first and foremost as an attempt to heal.  But it’s a partnership kind of thing.  She needs some help at that point…

The idea of partnering with your child in the midst of one of these things is a new way of thinking about tantrums.  It’s what we used to call back in school, a paradigm shift.  The concept of partnering with a child when they are in the midst of what looks and feels like bad behavior might feel radical.  It takes having some new information, and a certain amount of faith, that what the child is doing is an attempt at healing herself from her upset.  As for faith, I feel confident that my more than thirty years of work in this area, first with my own child,  and later with many other children and parents, has shown me that this is not just another parenting opinion.  It has proven itself over and over again.  Though it takes time and flexibility on the part of the grownup, the payoff is great.  There's nothing like the feeling of knowing that you've just helped a child in a unique and lasting way.  There's nothing as satisfying as partnering with a child to heal a hurt or lift a feeling of helplessness.  There's nothing like the sense of closeness and hope that comes from washing away bad feelings, not by forcing them into hiding, but by listening to them until their upset is dissolved.