Most parents and early years practitioners will be familiar with the tantrum of a child at around the two-year level. It is that developmental period when the child is beginning to understand that life doesn’t revolve around them in the way they previously believed. They want to be able to put on their own clothes, fasten their own shoes, choose all the items for the supermarket trolley, take the dog for a walk all by themselves, cut up their food, brush their hair and so on.
Often, the first indication of coping strategies emerges from a situation where a small person has been thwarted in their stab at independence.
- Some children will sigh and try again.
- Some children will become cross and agitated.
- Others will be so upset that they burst into tears.
- Other children will rush to a targeted adult, sibling or object and attack with all their might. (Apparently, when my sister was this age, whenever she felt frustrated, she would grab my father’s shirt sleeve and bite it.)
- Some children fall to the floor and wail and gnash their teeth, whilst a small minority bang their heads against a hard wall or floor making a horrific sound which is designed to send chills coursing through parental veins.
All of this behaviour indicates a dawning, albeit reluctant, recognition of the enormity of the universe and our insignificance in it.
There is a lesson to be learned and the sooner the child begins to understand, the better able they will be to cope with whatever life slings their way.
At the first indication that there is a problem, it is better as a parent or carer to step back and watch.
Lei is two years three months. Up to this point, he has been able to fasten his own shoes because they had velcro fastenings. He doesn’t object to being told which shoe to put on which foot, but he has enjoyed the independence and feelings of achievement when he fastens his own shoes. His parents took him to get a new pair of shoes and this time, they have buckles on the sides. Lei is very excited about his new shoes. He even wore them home. In fact he was so thrilled, he was reluctant to remove them to have his bed-time bath. In the morning, after breakfast, he gets his new shoes and puts them on. He sits down and attempts to fasten them.
Lei discovers he cannot fasten the buckle. His mother, in an attempt to be helpful, sits him on her knee and fastens them without asking him if this is what he wants. He isn’t pleased and cries. He is told not to be so silly and to go and play. The next time he has to put his shoes on, he doesn’t try for very long to fasten them himself, so his mother now finds she has to do the task every time, complaining as she does so about his laziness and babyishness.
Lei discovers he cannot fasten the buckle. He tries for a whiles, loses interest and motivation and begins to whine. He continues to whine until his father comes to see what the problem is. He is then guided step by step through the art of buckle fastening. His father gives him lots of praise and encouragement and is able to tell him what a good boy he is for trying. Next time, Lei is still willing to try by himself and knows that he will be guided if he asks for help.
Lei discovers he cannot fasten the buckle. He tries for a while and gets really frustrated. He begins to feel hot and grumpy and eventually throws the shoes away. His older sister comes to see what the problem is. She makes a statement, ‘I see you haven’t yet learned to fasten your new shoes. Would you like me to help you?’
Lei nods and his sister gets the shoes, places them on the ground in front of him and coaches him towards a successful conclusion all the while making positive statements such as, ‘It’s very hard with new things, but I can see that you are trying very hard. Well done.’ By the end of the shoe fastening, Lei is so pleased with himself he runs off to tell his parents.
You can select the option that you feel is the best. The intention of this is to emphasise the importance of allowing children to work things out for themselves, up to the point where their experiences aren’t wide enough and they require the help and support of other more experienced and knowledgeable people.
Most children learn how to cope with their feelings in a non-violent and short-term manner. There are exceptions to this, for example, the child whose temper is such that the family get frightened when ever they begin to get angry. Even this child is hardly likely to hurt another.
The important lesson here is how to welcome anger and work through it in a positive and effective way. The danger is that a child may never experience having to wait or learn another skill to overcome another aspect of life. At the first sign of their child’s anger, the parents immediately give them a reward to prevent the predicted scene, even to the extent of going out to buy shoes with easier fasteners.
Could this be one of the reasons why there are so many angry adolescents and adults who should have learned a safer way to diffuse their own emotions? Most of the violent outbursts I have witnessed in older children or adults look like tantrums. The individuals almost rely on the fearful reactions of on-lookers to get whatever it is they want. In order to act out a tantrum, there has to be an element of selfishness. The only important person is you, so therefore you are within your rights to demand, by whatever means, that you get what you want or bad things will happen. Tantrums are only normal at the two-year-old level. At any other age, such extreme expressions of anger are certainly deviant at best.
Lei is now 16 years old. He has learned a lot about life through his close-knit family, his peers, his school and all other external influences such as the media, music, films.
Whenever he faces a problem, he experiences anxiety because he doesn’t feel he is capable of solving it without help. He is constantly seeking reassurance from those around him. He feels like a failure and doesn’t really see how his secret ambition of becoming a successful businessman will ever come to anything. He is quite frightened of change and would rather stay as he is instead of attempting something different. Risk is not a word within his vocabulary.
Lei has learned to think about a problem before he rushes to act. He has discovered that a systematic approach in most instances reaps benefits. He is a thinker and a doer. He sometimes gets frustrated but handles his feelings in his usual good natured way.
Lei has become a bit of a problem-solver. He welcomes the challenge of overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties. He is fast-moving and forward-thinking.
If Lei had been prevented by well-meaning adults from recognising and handling his feelings, he might not have understood the impact a violent outburst from an adolescent can have. These ‘tantrums’ are more likely to cause physical and emotional damage to others as well as himself. He will appear to be out of control. It may be exacerbated by alcohol and if he does drink, it could be with disastrous consequences. His normal social inhibitors will be unlikely to prevent him from going further than he might have done whilst sober.
Domestic violence is often carried out by an immature adult, who never learned to consider others before themselves. Spontaneous violence after a drinking session is carried out by people who are in the main law-abiding and upright citizens. Add to the mix peer pressure, drugs and weapons and you have a recipe for a catastrophe.
Isn’t it much better to welcome your small child’s emerging emotional and social awareness and provide them with the tools to cope with everything life throws at them?
By the way, Lei is totally fictional and actually, too good to be true!