Why we all have them, even grown-ups,
and how to deal with them mindfully
“You cannot be serious!”
Thus spoke John McEnroe, one of the most tantrum-prone sports players in modern times.
We generally perceive tantrums as a sign of childish selfishness. Depending which side of the fence we are on, we are either horrified, amused, or empathetic when we see an adult flying off the handle because a decision doesn’t go their way. When young children start rolling around the floor of Sainsbury’s kicking and screaming like banshees, we put our mortal shame to one side, and accept this as a normal part of child development (a part we really, desperately hope they will grow out of). But are tantrums a ‘normal’ part of child development? How does context and culture affect the expression of tantrums? And by what process do we hope to grow out of them?
Before we break this down, lets have a moment of honesty: we all have tantrums, they are just different in shape and tone. If you are not a headbanger wallpuncher, or umpire-slayer, then you probably experience internal tantrums, also known as ‘sulking’ or ‘being passive aggressive’. You probably think one is better than the other, right?
What is a tantrum?
Put most simply, a tantrum is a prolonged expression of frustration when someone does not get their own way.
From a biological or evolutionary point of view, a tantrum is a very normal aspect of behaviour: chimp and bonobo infants, our closest relatives, pout, whimper, and bang things when they don’t get their own way.
However, to really free ourselves from the tyranny of tantrums, we need to break this definition of tantrum down:
That frustrated feeling of ‘not getting your own way’ only emerges in relationship to something or someone else. In that original all-inclusive holiday called the womb, the foetus has all it needs on tap, and so there is little scope for frustration. Outside of the womb, the dynamic between parent and infant is no longer all-inclusive. Beyond the primary needs of comfort, food and sleep, other needs are not innate, but are created as a result of the infant-parent dynamic. It is very important for parents to remember that we seem to naturally want what we can’t or don’t have (see Tantrum Judo below).
The definition of ‘prolonged’ is highly subjective, varying from one family/parent/partner to another, from one culture to another. Some people have a much lower threshold for emotional outbursts than others. Conversely, some people perceive a highly-charged emotional response as something to be celebrated, not curtailed, rationalised, or treated. In a famous study on temper tantrums, Barbara Ward showed that parents from Kau Sai, China would simply ignore their child’s tantrums, leaving them to cry it out, and even on occasion purposefully instigating tantrums, as a means to teach self-regulation.
In fact, the word ‘tantrum’ may be derived from 11th century Southern Italy ‘tarantism’: an ecstatic dance that would take a hold of people and seemed to replicate the writhing movements and emotional turbulence of someone bitten by a tarantula. The only cure for this was music.
The ‘terrible twos’ is not a universal phenomenon of child development. Research with the Aka tribe in Africa and with a Mayan community in Guatemala showed that infants made a smooth transition away from physical dependence on parents, with very little sign of anything terrible. So, we can be very clear: culture determines how we understand tantrums: ecstatic dance…or a clinical issue. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-conscious/201111/are-the-twos-terrible-everywhere
How to Deal With Tantrums Mindfully and Heart-fully?
With this appreciation for how culture and upbringing determines our understanding of tantrums, lets now take a look at how to deal with tantrums mindfully. (This bit applies to children, but it can also apply to adults, and especially to your self).
BEING VULNERABLE: next time your child has a tantrum, first check that they are safe, then gently bring your awareness to your physical sensations. Do not do anything else at this stage. Just be still and notice your body’s response to the tantrum. If your attention keeps moving to thoughts, gently bring it back to the physical sensations in your body. This is an essential first step. Your response to your child or partner’s tantrums will always be coloured by deeply-stored somatic memories of how you were treated as a child. The thoughts you have about your child in this moment are usually your ego’s attempt to take control of the situation. It is essential that you come to know this vulnerable physical place in yourself. Otherwise, you will be reacting rather than mindfully responding.
HEART-CENTERING: once you have practiced becoming aware of your physical sensations a few times, the next natural step is to access a place of compassion in yourself. This compassion will arise naturally when you let yourself be vulnerable, connect with your physical sensations, and remember that you experience frustration too, especially when your child is having a tantrum! This process is heart-centering. Your heart has intuitive wisdom that your ego (with its wish to control) ignores at its peril.
HELPING YOUR CHILD BEAR THEIR FRUSTRATION: once you can bear your own frustration, you are now in a very strong position to help your child bear their frustration. Now you realise that frustration is not an energy to be expelled, but a raw material to get to know, to nurture, and to transform. Transformation of this energy happens in the parent-child dance.
TANTRUM JUDO: In Judo, the practitioner is trained to use the weight and strength of their opponent to overcome them. With tantrums, when a parent flips the usual mindset and starts to embrace and flow with the energy of the child, rather than actively resisting it, they are more likely to help the child calm down. In practice, this means finding a non-verbal way to enjoy your child’s tantrums. This might seem sadistic, but in fact it is the safest way in which we can help our child to bear their frustration and at the same time bear our own frustrations with them. When asked what the definition of a ‘good parent’ was, Family Therapist Carl Whittaker replied: 'someone who enjoys being hated by his children.’ A strange psychic alchemy occurs when we can turn the tantrum into a light-hearted, playful interaction. Find a way to turn the situation into a game. You could try seeing their tantrum as an ecstatic tarantula-bite dance☺
BODY-MIRRORING: if the child does not engage in your light-hearted response, body-mirroring is an excellent way to settle things down. Just as you have practiced being aware of your own physical sensations, with this technique you help the child be aware of their physical sensations by gently placing your hands on parts of body where the child might be feeling the frustration. There are several points in the body that hold emotional tension, and which, when rubbed, tapped or simply held, activate the body’s innate relaxation response (associated with the parasympathetic nervous system). You will learn through trial and error which parts of your child’s body stores their emotions. If the child reject your physical touch, then you mirror their sensations by putting hands on your own body, making sounds and gestures that indicate you know they are hurting, and activating your own relaxation response. If the child sees the effect it has on you, they will soon imitate. Using the body in this way provides an essential bridge between the verbal (adult) and non-verbal (child in a tantrum) realms of experience.
SACRED SPACE: To take this mindful, heartful response to the next level, create a sacred space in a corner of your home specifically for your child. This is infinitely better, less punitive and shaming than a naughty step or a time-out. Have in the corner objects that the child can associate with peace, so pillows, transitional objects (blankets, teddy-bears), some lavender, some meditation bells, and some healthy treats that the child enjoys eating (honey, milk, and bananas all contain Tryptophan and other nutrients which activate the relaxation response). Give this space a personal name that you both can relate to (e.g. ‘The Forest’). When you have this space, whenever a tantrum is thrown, after your mindful, heartful response, you can habituate your child to spending time in this area. In this way, they will quickly learn to use sensory triggers in their environment to regulate their own emotions.