Yesterday, my 4 year old had a huge meltdown. She cried and cried and cried for 40 minutes. She yelled and kicked. She screamed at me, “I don’t want you near me! Go away!” and “I don’t love you Mama!!” in between her sobs. I stayed close and watched her with full of empathy and compassion. After a few minutes, I would ask if she needed a hug. She would yell, “NO! I don’t want you to touch me!” I then remained at my spot.
Then, she got up from lying down on the sofa and walked to the table where all her color pencils were kept in a big plastic container. She lifted up the plastic and poured out all the pencils over the table and floor in defiance. She wanted to get to something else to throw but I managed to stop the behavior. This further caused her cries to escalate.
She wanted to hit and kick me. I held her hands and legs and said, “No sayang, I won’t let you hit or kick me.” She cried some more.
As I watched her and waited for her to want to be held, I couldn’t help but feel sadness coming up for me. Perhaps it was a feeling of helplessness as I watched my child sobbing and trying to feel better, and I couldn’t hold her. I teared a lot while holding eye contact with her.
Towards the end, her crying got softer and less intense. Only then she allowed me to hug her while she finished off her crying in my arms. I did not rock her nor did I distract her. All I said was, “You’re alright… it’s okay, you were not feeling good inside and now you are starting to feel better.”
After 40 minutes, the storm was over. She started being her usual self again and was very cooperative during shower and dinner time. She was feeling relaxed and content at bedtime so there wasn’t any struggle or stalling.
Crying, raging and tantrums are very easily misunderstood. Most parents and caregivers would think that children do it because they are being manipulative, immature, naughty or just plain “spoiled”. Parents often wonder how to respond to their children when they cry. Sometimes they aren’t sure if it is appropriate to comfort because then they think this would mean “giving in” or encouraging their tantrums. Then there is also a response to distract with the intention to make their child feel better quickly. Other parents ignore or punish by leaving the child to have his tantrum at a corner as a form of discipline. In other words “time out”.
Why do children throw tantrums? Tantrums do not happen as an immediate result of the thing (wanting the blue cup not red) or event (his toy fell off the table onto the floor while he was playing with it) that triggered it. It is usually related to frustration and tension, which builds up to a point of explosion. A child who is on the verge of throwing a tantrum or already in a full blown one, can’t think straight as his emotions are taking over his brain. His system is overloaded with feelings that want to be freed and released through crying. During this time, it is pointless to try and rationalize with your child. But once they have let their feelings out, they will become balanced and will return to their natural state again.
According to the book Tears and Tantrums by Aletha Solter, Ph.D., “all children experience some stress, no matter how loving the parents are. An important function of crying is to release stress and promote healing.”
“There is always the possibility of physical pain when a child cries. When pain is suspected, medical advice and treatment are recommended. Crying is often considered to be an unnecessary by-product of stress, and many people have the incorrect impression that children would feel better if they would only stop crying. This is incorrect. No matter what the source of stress, children will not feel better until they have been allowed to cry and rage as much as needed.”
This approach of handling crying and tantrum should not be confused with the school of thought that claims it is good to “let babies cry it out.” The use of that expression implies that parents should not pay attention to babies or toddlers during crying spells.
Children need the presence of another human being especially mom and dad, or a loving caregiver for effective release of emotions. Children who cry and rage in the loving arms or presence of mom or dad creates the emotional safety for deep healing to occur.
Young children who are not allowed to cry to express feelings by either told to shut up, stop crying, by distraction, being offered food (solids, bottle feed or breastfeed) may continue to carry these uncomfortable repressed feelings and may result in unwanted behaviors such as hitting, biting, whining, clinging, refusing to cooperate, frequent night waking and doing the things they know would push your buttons.
By creating that safe space for them to express freely how they feel – good or bad – increases trust and intimacy between you and your child. We can enjoy our children much more and get connected to each other on a much deeper level. Parenting then becomes less stressful and more joyful.