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

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

6 thoughts on “The Good Tantrum”

  1. I have been trying Staylistening, just in the last two days.

    Generally, we have assured our five-year-old that any feelings are okay, but that some behaviors / expressions are not okay, and that if she needs to cry (angry cry) or make yucky faces she can do it in her room by herself, and if she needs to hit or bang something she can use her bed, blanket, pillow, or a soft doll.

    Yesterday we had two meltdowns — maybe more but I especially remember these two. One was about what you call special time — child-led playing with parental attention and following — being over. The other was about bedtime.

    Both times I stayed with her. She was thrashing so I held her to keep her from hitting and kicking. She complained and fought vehemently, but after what seemed a long time seemed to melt into me a little and be done. Bedtime was a breeze when it was over.

    This afternoon when special time was over, she seemed to be testing me or herself or both of us. She was crying and sort of playing / teasing / laughing in turns. And I’d think she’d be done and get up to move on and she’d start in again. Later at the boarding school dining hall where her dad works, there were about four meltdowns, ostensibly about losing the uneaten remains of her dessert (because she’d long since left the table to play with friends and we were cleaning up our dishes). I suppose we hadn’t ever discussed that routine / rule before… perhaps what made perfect sense to us was less obvious to her. I had to take her outside twice. It never seemed to end. And yet this time it didn’t seem to involve hitting or thrashing until I caught up to her — it was loud crying and angry tone and yucky faces. I wasn’t sure quite what to do — I now think I should have approached with open arms instead of catching hold of her / constraining (however gently). “I can’t let you make yucky faces at me / speak to me that way” doesn’t seem to be quite the same kind of thing as “I can’t let you hit me.” Maybe she could tell I was uncertain. The worst thing was that two young friends continually came over to stare even though I had asked them to give us space and leave us alone. I was very angry with them and with their dad (and also with my husband) since no one was keeping them away from us when we needed it.

    This Staylistening thing is scary. Do I really dare to presume that I know she needs to be held against her will so that she can fight me and cry a lot, when her words and body language seem to be screaming “Let go!!”? How do I show respect in this situation? I suppose a lot depends on the other aspects of the relationship… if it’s good, then Staylistening will maybe feel less scary to her?

    Any feedback thus far?

    Thank you for listening to a newcomer.

    1. Dear Marcy:

      Good for you for giving Staylistening a try. It’s a brave thing to do, and the results you’re getting are totally typical.

      Special Time heighten’s a child’s sense of safety–emotional safety, to be exact. When children feel very safe, their very vulnerable feelings are much closer to the surface. They sense that you are closer to them, and their instinctive expectation is that you’ll be able to listen to them about the feelings they have been squirreling away, and managing to keep under wraps, at some expense to their good nature and flexibility.

      So the end of Special Time is a prime time for meltdowns, as you begin the process of using Listening Tools. It doesn’t stay this way always, but for the first several months, typically, there are lots of emotional episodes around Special Time, because after Special Time, their sense of connection is strong, so their stored feelings of disappointment are nearby. It helps a child greatly to offload these feelings, and you did so very well at staying with your child for the whole outburst. It’s not an easy thing to do!

      And once a parent listens once, through a whole outburst, the child’s instinct is to “go for the brass ring,” and to bring out big feelings time after time, until the emotional pressure from their particular “backpack” of stored feelings has been lifted. That can take from a few days to a few months, depending on how much stress a child has endured to that point. For children who weren’t well at birth, who have had medical procedures, who have witnessed strife or had lengthy separations from their parents, this “tenderfoot” period can last quite awhile. For other children, it lasts a few days to a week, and then the emotional coast clears quite nicely.

      One of the factors in healing an emotional hurt is the permission to show how you feel, in how one cries, how one struggles and feels frightened, how one screams, the faces one makes, and the words one says. As a child shows you what they’ve been storing inside, the “poison” of holding that feeling is released if the parent can simply receive the message, and not make an issue of it. Not necessarily even say anything about it, except perhaps, “Honey, I see that this is so hard.” or “You don’t have to love me right now, but I’m not going away. I’m going to be right here with you while it’s hard.”

      In order to do this from your heart, you will probably need some Listening Partnership time, so you can let someone see and hear all about the emotional reaction you have to the feelings your child is trying to offload. We need permission, on a regular basis, to show all our feelings, have our upsets, show our outrage or our wish for revenge or whatever comes up for us. Just as our children need this, so do we. We just need not to do this at them.

      We invite parents to draw the line at physical attack. You need to physically stop a child who is hitting, and redirect kicks so they land on the bed or the carpet, and physically separate children who are going at one another. Not stifle the struggle, but keep yourself safe.

      Our booklet “Healing Children’s Fears” is our best guide for what to expect and how to go about navigating these emotional episodes.

      When a child is just walking around the house saying nasty things, or making nasty faces, THAT’s the time to move in close and say, “I’m here, what’s the matter?” or “I see things are not OK with you. Tell me more.” You don’t want to ignore those signals that an emotional offloading is brewing. You don’t act permissively toward this kind of behavior, but you also don’t forbid it. You just bring your attention, which begins the healing process, and helps the child feel safe enough to escalate her feelings, escalate her precision in telling you how awful things are (how awful YOU are, is how it usually goes!). Hang in with that, and in the end, she’ll feel ever closer, ever safer, and deeply relieved.

      I hope that helps: please join our Discussion Group, where we and other Parenting by Connection Parents are discussing questions like yours on a daily basis, and you can search topics like “anger” and “Staylistening” and such, and see a range of thoughts and responses.


      Patty Wipfler

  2. Patty,

    Thank you — I found the discussion group, which I’m sure is going to be a great resource.

    It is going to be really hard to allow the nasty faces, words, and spitting… I can at least require that she clean up anything she spits on, right? But I think it makes sense that she needs to be able to express herself fully in a safe vent, and that I therefore need plenty of support so that I can bear up under that onslaught.

    I want to mention that I had yoga class right after our dinner at the dining hall, where we had the many meltdowns last night. I almost didn’t go — I felt sure I was late, and wasn’t sure that husband would be in a healthy position to be gracious putting Amy to bed. But I went, and I’m glad I did. I missed a sun salutation or two because I stayed in child’s pose crying. When I was done I was able to calmly walk to the locker room to blow my nose, and got back in time to do the rest of the sun salutations. I did my yoga practice that night with a very similar determination — an almost angry feeling, a working it out with vehemence — to that I used in my five-hour induced labor. It was good.

    There’s going to be quite a learning curve ahead, but I think the ideas I’m finding here could be going somewhere good.

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  4. This gets right to what I feel I am in the middle of with my 7 year old son these days (and for quite a while now…) I do NOT feel like I have done well with staylistening when he gets verbally and physically aggressive with me. Part of the problem no doubt is not enough listening time for me — & I am working on that. But I find part of the problem to be practical/logistical. I am 5’5, normal build, fairly normal strength; my son is very average 7yo boy. And he is perfectly capable of hurting me when he tries. One of my struggles is that I have not been able to find any way to truly contain his physical aggression when it is at its peak (so, from a HiH pov, when he is struggling with his biggest fears). The only thing that has “worked” is essentially what you describe as distraction — e.g. running around the block with him. I have many other questions (naturally!) but I’ll focus on just this one for now! Do you have some PRACTICAL tips for containing big aggression from an older child IN THE MOMENT?
    A bit of background — I’m a single mom, I adopted my son at age 2wks. His fears seem primarily centered around issues of separation — for instance, he will still cry out a panicky “mama??” if he hasn’t heard me for a few minutes and doesn’t know exactly where I am in the house.


  5. Hi Wise Mama,

    I am so glad that you reached out. I am a single adoptive Mom, too and we need support!!! My son is 10. I got him when he was 10 days old and he is now as tall as I! I am so glad that you are getting more listening time. I find that there is a direct correlation between the amount of listening time I’m getting and my capacity to listen to my son – especially when he’s trying to hit or kick me. It’s only when I’m getting regular LT can I remember that what looks like aggression is really fear. I think because of his prenatal experience, there is a lot he’s trying to offload. First a practical suggestion: We have several inexpensive kid tri-fold gym mats around the house. When my son starts to use me as the focus for his fear, and tries to hit me, I grab one of the mats, and hold it between us, so that he can hit, punch or kick the mat. This allows me to keep us safe, and still stay tender with him, anchoring him in my love and the reality that he is good and that he will get through this. It’s amazing! When I can stay tender, the aggression will often shift. Either he will become playful – trying to get me over or under the mat – often throwing pillows. Or he might collapse into a good cry, which means he’s gotten through the fear to the grief underneath. Then we’ll have days of lightness, flexibility and cooperation afterwards. So sweet! If you are reaching the end of your ability to listen during one of these tough sessions, you can look for a way to make it playful or little lighter. Recently, I needed a little break, so I told my son I was going to get a glass of water, and asked if he wanted one. He said, ‘if I can dump it on you’. So, I went with it! I said, ‘sure. let’s go outside’. He dumped several pitchers of water on me while he laughed and laughed. Then, soaking wet, I tried to hug him which created a little chase game. The combination of the intense listening and then playfulness really helped him move through a piece of fear. The last thing I would suggest is that YOU intentionally find other times to work on separation. There are lots of great articles here with ideas on how to do that. Here is one of my favorite. You can also work on separation playfully, with some rough and tumble play during which you won’t let him get away from you or you try to catch him and you can’t. Oh, and of course, ramping up the Special Time is a great way to work on separation. It might seem backwards – that giving him your undivided attention will help him work on separation. But when we do Special Time, we set a timer, and when the timer goes off, that is a kind of separation. It’s an ending. And you’ve created more safety so now he can show you how awful it feels when anything ends. Make sure that you set the timer for about 1/2 the time you have, so that you have a buffer to listen to him. You can plan for this by getting listening time and getting yourself resourced before you give him you. I hope some of all that helps. You are such a smart Mama to see his fear and want to help him heal it. Keep reaching out to us here, and let us know how it goes.

    Peace & Smiles,

    Kathy Gordon
    Certified Instructor, Parenting by Connection
    Follow me on FB: Parenting by Connection with Kathy

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