Why We Should Let Our Kids Have Tantrums

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Yes, you heard me correctly: we should let our kids have tantrums. This overall concept has been one that I learned and agreed with for a few years now; I first learned it while I was in the thick of my college studies in a family science major. But it really hit me within the last couple of weeks: I need to let my kids have tantrums. I need to let them cry, even scream, kick, and thrash if that’s what they feel like doing. I apologize if this is triggering some anxiety-like symptoms for you mamas, but bear with me!

Children need to learn that it’s okay to feel the whole spectrum of emotions. No feelings are off limits. Certain behaviors are negative and can cause harm to the child and/or to others, so these behaviors should be answered with consequences. But feelings – feelings are so personal and so part of the human experience, that I just strongly feel that kids should not be shamed if they aren’t happy or content all the time. We all get mad. We all have hard days. We all get sad sometimes. We all get jealous, even. We all want to feel happy most of the time – I think that’s the goal. But I believe that peace, freedom, and serenity can be achieved more easily within ourselves when we are honest with our hearts and minds. I want to teach my kids how to recognize what they’re feeling, know that those feelings are acceptable and valid, and then how to channel those feelings into what they want to think and feel – into what they want to achieve.

I’m getting some of my ideas here from the Gottman Institute. Seriously, the Gottmans are my heroes. If I ever get the chance to meet them… Well that would be a dream come true! I love what they teach and the help they provide couples and families. Here’s a quote from a Gottman Institute  article “Positive Parenting: Accept Feelings, Limit Actions”:

“Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They simply are what they are. We feel what we feel. What we do with those feelings, though, is extremely important, and that is a large part of emotional intelligence. It’s not about just understanding and accepting feelings but also teaching children appropriate actions around those feelings.”

Kids need to be allowed to express their emotions. This goes along with the ideas above. In order for kids to understand their emotions I think they have to experience them. Toddlers and little kids do not have much control over their emotions. As adults, we have learned over time that lying on the floor and kicking and screaming, is not going to get us anywhere- even when we are feeling furious about something. Little kids don’t understand this yet; when something in their little world goes awry, almost nothing can console them until some time has passed or until an acceptable alternative or arrangement has been made. This may sound silly, but honestly! I’ve heard toddlerhood described as a “time of disequilibrium”. When your toddler’s emotions boil over, sometimes there isn’t much you can do except let their emotions take their course.

Obviously, we do need to teach our kids about positive and negative behaviors. So even though we shouldn’t shame them for having a tantrum at the park, we also should explain to them that it isn’t nice or respectful to act that way. In my family (we are very familiar with tantrums), a phrase that we use is “use your words”. Some of my most difficult moments in parenting have also been my proudest. When I have so conscientiously looked my screaming or thrashing toddler in the eye and said to them “I’m sorry you’re sad, let’s use our words”. My goal is to set things up so that my kids feel safe expressing any and every emotion, while slowly learning what behaviors can actually help them. First they need to feel safe expressing their emotions to their parents- then slowly they will (hopefully) be able to handle the emotions on their own in healthy ways, or make amends when they don’t handle them in healthy ways.

Give kids room to express their emotions, and set a limit. What my husband and I are working on with our preschooler right now is helping him feel resilient. He has a tendency to get fixated on things. So when something doesn’t go his way, he has a hard time moving on from it. Lately we’ve been trying something a little new: when he throws a tantrum about something (these days it’s less tantrum-y and more just whining), we let him fuss about it and yell at us about it for a few minutes, then we tell him that it’s time to be all done. Sometimes I think he really would try to keep the issue going for hours if we would let him! But we just say things like “okay, we understand that you’re mad about that. Take a deep breath. It’s time to be all done talking about it now.” If he acts mean or disrespectful after we tell him this, then we tell him that he can be sad/mad in his room by himself. Sometimes I have less patience and just immediately carry him into his room when he acts like a wild beast, but I’m trying. 😉

I know that teaching new humans how to act appropriately and how to manage all their crazy emotions is no walk in the park! But I truly believe that our kids will benefit from us helping them feel safe with their feelings.


Tell us: what are some ways YOU try to instill emotional intelligence in your child?