The Good Tantrum

“Hi, Hand in Hand Parenting,

My almost 3 1/2 year old is having an especially hard time right now with family coming to visit. He has always had an extremely high need for connection. He still needs to sleep right next to me- not even his super involved attachment parenting dad will suffice. But he won’t welcome other family members, and they seem to elicit tantrums.

My question is how are we supposed to hold him during tantrums/high intensity times? The first time it took 45 minutes of him trying to claw, kick, hit and spit on me when trying to hold him during a tantrum. Then he finally gave in. It seemed to help for a while, then he started getting angrier. He would yell, “No don’t hold me.” I stopped holding him during tantrums and just tried to be nearby.

A few Hand in Hand resources seem to suggest that we should hold them no matter what and that this allows them to face their fears, but I have a hard time protecting myself and my young daughter from his physical attacks. I don’t want my angry vibes to get through to him and make it feel less safe and more controlling. I just don’t have the patience to remain totally calm every time. Thanks.”

Dear Good Mom,

When a child is experiencing change in the family dynamic, the emotions are ripe for the picking!

It sounds to me like your son is signaling you that he needs to work on his fears of being apart from you. He’s clinging to you during the night out of fear, and he’s responding to the presence of others in the family with fear. Our children learn to cover their fear by trying to keep everything around them “just so,” without fail. When others are around, not only do they attract your attention, which he is afraid to be without, but they also introduce all kind of unpredictability into every moment. So he reacts badly.

Continuing to try to meet an impossibly high need for attachment won’t help any child in the long run. Your son needed great gobs of physical closeness and attention minute by minute when he was an infant. And it probably was during that time that he became afraid that there wouldn’t be enough of you to meet his needs. Now the need is an historical one. But the feelings come up as though they are right here and how. What will help him is to release his fears, and you’re already working on that.

What he’s actually doing is not, strictly speaking, a tantrum. Colloquially, his emotional episodes might be termed tantrums, but it’s good, deep work on fear that he’s doing during these times. We have two booklets, part of the Listening to Children series, that will help you understand the difference: Tantrums and Indignation, and Healing Children’s Fears.

When he becomes upset, give him you. Open your arms, offer love, a sweet voice, and your confidence that he’s got all that he really needs at the moment. A child having a tantrum will become hot, loud, and will writhe and throw himself around, or jump up and down, as if he wanted to climb out of his skin. But he won’t attack you. His frustration won’t be aimed at anyone. And it will be over within about 15 minutes. Tantrums release the feeling of frustration, and they’re wild, but there’s no feeling of “I’m going to get you” behind them.

If he’s working on fear, he will either cling to you for dear life, at the prospect of separation, or he’ll fight you hard, as though you were a mortal enemy. It sounds like he’s been tending to do the latter. Stay close to him, because physical closeness is the best nonverbal indicator to your child that you think things are actually OK. That you can tell the difference between his feelings that come from the past, and the present moment, in which he’s OK, you’re listening, and he’s safe with you.

You don’t have to hold him, necessarily, but I find that when fear runs deep, children benefit from physical exertion in order to overcome the feelings of helplessness in the face of danger that is at the core of any fear. Your job is to maintain safety during this emotional episode. If you stay too far away, his upset will be “dry.” He may show a lot of feeling, but there won’t be much perspiration, trembling or crying, the three signs that feelings are releasing and that his mind will clear.

Any time a child attacks, it’s their signal that they need containment by someone who is loving and receptive to their every signal. You can even set this up with him. When he’s not upset, and you and he are in good contact with one another, let him know that any time he tries to hurt you, you will need to come in close and keep him from hurting anyone. So if he doesn’t like that, and doesn’t want you to do that, he needs to keep from trying to hurt. That’s the deal. This sets up a signaling system. When he needs a chance to work on deep feelings, he knows the signal to use, and knows what to expect from you.

Don’t Staylisten like this when you are angry or tired or fed up. At moments when you’re emotionally drained, go ahead and use some kind of distraction to get through the rocky moment. Distraction can buy you some time to get your mind back in better order. So a cookie, a game of CandyLand, a nice warm bath, or a run around the block will provide you and he with an emotional detour. Think of a few distractions to try in advance of the moment you need them. Write them down and paste your list on the wall. Or make a “911 Call” agreement with a friend, to listen for 5 minutes when the chips are all the way down, and he needs a limit that will bring big feelings.

Anchor him emotionally while he cries and fights. Here are a few of the things it will help him to hear from you: “You’re safe;” “I’m watching over you every minute;” “Whatever was hard on you is over;” “You made it” “I’m making sure you have what you need;” “Here’s my hand on your cheek so you can tell I love you;” “I’ll stay with you until it’s better.” The thought that brings the most intense reaction from him is the thought that best counters the fear he’s working on.

One way to try Staylistening with a child without holding him is to open your arms, sit on the floor, and invite him to come to your lap. Sometimes a child can continue a big vehement cry and protest at the thought of coming in to your arms. You just inch a bit closer every 5 minutes or so, announcing that you are coming, to rev the feelings up again. If he can keep from attacking you, and cry and protest in place, that would be great. Sometimes, that’s possible. But if he’s working on a really big fear, he will probably try to hurt you. That’s your loud-and-clear signal that containment is necessary.

We find that every parent who tries to do Staylistening is much much better at it, and much less drained by it if they are getting some listening time for themselves. Our booklet, Listening Partnerships for Parents, will help you set this up for yourself. If you’re giving him big helpings of emotional assistance, you’re going to need big helpings for yourself—nothing drags our stored feelings out of the locker like a child who trusts us with his big feelings.

It’s also vital to balance Staylistening with Special Time and Playlistening: at least as much time needs to be spent doing those other two tools as you spend doing Staylistening. A child feels manipulated unless the relationship is balanced by safe play, and Special Time.

To help him do this work at a time when the whole family isn’t there to witness it all, you can begin to set limits around sleeping. “Tonight, Daddy is going to sleep next to you. I’m going to sleep in the other room.” Propose that, and let his feelings pour out. Night after night. If Daddy can be welcoming and reassuring, and express his willingness to keep him safe, and his confidence that your son will see you in the morning, every morning, he’ll move through this deep fear with big nightly cries, but improved confidence during the day, until he’s happy to sleep without you there. Then, you can try introducing him to sleeping in a separate bed, not every night, but some nights. When he’s no longer afraid of that, he and you will be close, connected, and have lots of choice about bedtime, and sleeping arrangements. He will have worked through some core fears, with no damage to his confidence. Quite the contrary.

Hope that helps,

Patty Wipfler

For your free copy of Tantrums and Indignation by Patty Wipfler click here.

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