Colman Noctor: Temper tantrums open a window to child's inner world 

Children very quickly realise that if they really want the adults in the room to sit up and listen, then acting out is the most effective way of getting it
Colman Noctor: Temper tantrums open a window to child's inner world 

Picture: iStock 

We have all been this soldier: after saying 'yes' to the first three requests, we say ‘no’ to the forth one and our child reacts by screaming uncontrollably, hitting out, and/ or saying things like ‘I hate you’ or ‘I hate my life’. When it happens in a public place with onlookers, it can be one of the most embarrassing experiences as a parent.

Such incidents, often described as ‘meltdowns’ or ‘tantrums’, are among the most common queries I get about children aged between four and 11 years.  These children tend to not take well to any changes in routine, unexpected events and they tend to dictate the atmosphere of the home where parents commonly describe ‘walking on eggshells’ around them so as to not trigger another ‘episode’.

When I unpick the circumstances around their stories, there is undoubtedly some evidence of upheaval, such as the arrival of a new sibling, a loss, a history of childhood illness, for example, colic or reflux, and/ or perhaps interpersonal difficulties with friendships. The major issue will appear to originate from the child experiencing some form of anxiety.

However, tantrums and intolerant behaviours are not what we traditionally ascribe to anxiety.

We often expect anxious children to be shy and retiring, not overtly hostile and certainly not aggressive. So very often these children are labelled bold or spoiled.

It doesn’t help if the ‘back seat parent’, adds the gem of advice, suggesting that ‘a bit of manners and discipline’ is all that is required. Not surprisingly, the old-style sanction, discipline and school-of-hard-knocks approach does not work with these children. Instead, their behaviour tends to escalate, and it can take an age to come down from the high levels of emotional upset resulting in the parent/ parents feeling exhausted and frustrated.

Often these children are testing their environment because they don’t feel safe. By safe, I do not mean they feel in any physical or actual danger, but safe in the knowledge that they are able to secure the love of their parents. The child who does not believe that they are enough will go to great lengths to secure the attention of others and will go out of their way to achieve that in the most effective way possible.

Visibility in childhood 

Traditionally as parents, we tend to leave children to it when they are managing well and only intervene if there are incidents of misbehaviour. Children very quickly catch on to this dynamic and understand that if they really want or need the adults in the room to sit up and listen, then acting out is the most effective way of getting it. This comes down to the old saying ‘the less you listen the more I shout’.

This is also where the important relatively unknown concept of ‘temperament’ comes into play. A concept that I believe is often beyond the influence of parenting. For some children they just have an assured temperament, it allows them to believe that they are enough, and they do not continually seek proof that they are being ‘kept in mind’. Whereas other children, who do not have that sense of assurance of their being enough, need tangible proof through visibility.

Tangible fairness is very important for children. For example, a child will assess the division of a slice of cake like a forensic scientist to see who got ‘the bigger half’ and therefore the visual, tangibility of fairness is being observed and noted. You may hear this child say ‘you kissed my brother three times today and you only kissed me twice, so you must love him more than me’.

The great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said, ‘the mother holds the child in her gaze’, which suggests that during this formative and significant phase, the role of visibility in childhood is important. This is often an undervalued concept in modern parenting. Children live in an ‘attention economy’ and in the eyes of a child love, safety and care are valued and measured by the visibility and attention of the parent. 

This can be observed through what is known as the ‘squeaky wheel syndrome’, which is the only one you oil. By this I mean that sometimes children need to be troublesome or act out, to be reassured that they are visible, that they matter. None more so than in the anxious child.

Relationship-seeking behaviour

If you take two children to a playground, and one is anxious and the other is not, watch the dynamic unfold. The non-anxious child will explore, play and interact while intermittently looking over to you to make sure the adult is still there. This is done because the child knows that they are ‘kept in mind’ or, in other words, they know you will not leave, and they know they are enough and they feel safe.

The anxious child, however, may be a lot more reticent to leave your side. They also will be constantly checking back to make sure you haven’t gone anywhere, and they may attempt to engage you in their activities a lot more. This can be interpreted as attention-seeking behaviour. Although this may be an accurate description, ‘attention seeking’ is a loaded term that can imply intent and manipulation.  I prefer to use the phrase ‘relationship-seeking’ behaviour, which I believe is a more accurate description of this dynamic.

The anxious child does not believe in their own worth. They are unconvinced of their value to you and so they need to be reassured of your love, care and nurturance. Often the most effective way of doing this is to be disruptive, challenging or needy. 

Another effective way of securing the attention of an adult, is to be, or appear to be, physically unwell. So similar to the ‘squeaky wheel syndrome’, a dynamic can emerge where the child believes ‘I need to be sick to be seen’. In these incidences, there can be numerous psychosomatic complaints, like phantom tummy pains or unexplained headaches, which result in securing your visibility. 

Often we see an escalation in relationship-seeking behaviour at night, where the child reports having bad dreams before even falling asleep, or they hear noises outside or are struck with a sudden thirst that urgently requires quenching. This occurs at night because when distractions are less and rumination traditionally reigns.

Behaviour is not the problem 

So what can we do? Essentially, we need to reinterpret these behaviours and see them for what they are to strategies to cope, communicate and control. The behaviour is not ‘the problem’, it's the child’s response to the problem.

If we consider the core problem to be ‘anxiety’ resulting in a fear of ‘being invisible or forgotten’ then the best way a child can resolve that feeling is to get attention in the most effective way, which is usually a tantrum, a tummy pain or a bad dream. The reason these strategies are utilised to gain attention is that these behaviours are rarely dismissed by parents and so as an attention-seeking manoeuvre they are effective.

Perhaps the child has tried to get your attention in other more adaptive ways prior to the tantrum. Maybe they tried to engage you in a story, a game or chat about dinosaurs earlier that day, but you were busy at the time, tending to their baby sibling or answering work emails. Whatever the explanation, the subtle request did not work. In fact, their failed attempt to engage you has left them feeling even more invisible now and, as a result, their need for visibility is even greater, and so cue the meltdown, the tummy pain or the bad dream.

The ideal parenting hack here is to be proactive. Catch them being good and cut them off at the pass. The investment in the five-minute chat about the Tyrannosaurus Rex (which you have heard 100 times already) may avert the 50-minute management of the tantrum at bedtime. However, let’s remember that consistent parenting is an aspiration, not a reality, we will all miss these cues and the tantrums will inevitably happen, and that’s OK. But, if we understand them better we will react to them better and hopefully reduce the severity and frequency of tantrums over time.

The more you listen the less they tend to shout. But be realistic, nobody can be listening all the time. Sometimes the work email, or the baby’s dirty nappy will have to take precedence over the T-Rex stat review, and that’s OK too.

What you need to remember is that this is a child who is anxious and feels invisible and not a spoiled child who does not like to hear ‘no’.

This alternate understanding could dramatically improve your management of the situation and in turn your child’s response to you.

It serves you better to give a child what they need as opposed to what you think they deserve.

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