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Why children throw tantrums

Years ago, way before having my son, I remember doing my weekly shopping trip at the grocery store. As I near checkout, I suddenly hear screams from a toddler as the mom tries to console their rainfall of tears, while trying to avoid being swatted by their kicking feet. “Wow, people don’t know how to get a handle on their kids,” I thought to myself. I could say, now that I am a parent, I get it and that judgment will always be far from helpful. That's all true, but I’ll never forget the uncomfortable feeling I had and still have when my sleep deprived or hungry child flails himself in the middle of produce.

I grew up with harsher discipline when it came to "behaving" in public. I was taught and conditioned to think that a crying child had no place in spaces adults presided. "They lack discipline" was the catchphrase for punishment. Once I realized that was untrue it took me years to unlearn my habit of feeling immediate embarrassment and anger. Some days I still need work.

The things that help me be okay with consoling my child like no one’s watching, is knowing and understanding why he does the things he does.

Dr. María Montessori implemented the idea of sensitive periods into the development of the child. A sensitive period can be described as:

“a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic, has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears”. (The Secret of Childhood)

“During such a period the child is endowed with a special sensibility which urges him to focus his attention on certain aspects of his environment to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity; it is more like a burning passion”. (Her Life and Work)

When it comes to tantrums, Montessori referred to these as a reaction of being out of “order”. Children have an innate need for Order. They like things to have their place and thrive in routine. Knowing when and where things happen within their environment brings a calm and sense of stability.

“The tantrums of the sensitive periods are external manifestations of an unsatisfied need, expressions of alarm over a danger, or of something being out of place. They disappear just as soon as there is a possibility of satisfying the need or of eliminating the danger”. (The Secret of Childhood)

For instance, my son, during his early twos, always liked when I would pull out a juice box from the fridge and take the straw off of its package. Then he would hand the box to his dad who would insert the straw and hand it back to him. One day, I attempted to do all of the steps, since dad was not at home. What seemed like a normal and pleasant exchange turned into a stomping and screaming child running around the house in what seemed like agony.

To the adult, those uncomfortable feelings can come up. It’s not that big a deal right? It’s just juice.

To the child it’s everything. Their sense of order had been pushed out of place. Their ecosystem has been disturbed. Adding on to a day of absorbing their environment and constantly having to learn everything around them, the little sense of calm has been taken from them as well. Distractions, hugs and kisses or even yelling won’t help the child revert back to the calm.

In some instances, it can be easy to backtrack and give the order the child may need. For a juice box, well, I couldn’t take out the straw and put it back in the wrapper.

After allowing the tantrum to take its course, I explained how dad wasn’t there. Eventually he understood, said he would wait for “dada” to return home and went on his merry way as if nothing had just occurred.

“One can at times observe in a child a sudden calm following a state of agitation that seemed almost pathological. We must, there-fore, look for the cause behind every childish caprice, simply because this is what escapes our knowledge. When it is found, it enables us to penetrate into the mysterious recesses of the child's soul and provide the basis for an understanding of, and peace with, the child.” (Secret of Childhood)

One thing to note is that tantrums are a normal part of development. They are a great sign that the child’s environment is out of order. Providing as much stability within their environment day to day can help the child feel balanced and much more calm.

Suggested Reading:

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

The Secret of Childhood - Chapter 7. Psychic Developmemt


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