Emotional Development and Tantrums

By Barb Grady

Children come into this world with the capacity to feel the same emotions that we do as adults. By the end of the first year, children usually have displayed the primary emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and surprise. The secondary emotions such as embarrassment, empathy, envy, pride, shame, and guilt appear later when the child has reached a higher level of cognitive development. Young children have a well-developed set of emotional responses by the time they reach the preschool period. These responses come from feelings children have within themselves about other people, things, and events in the environment.
Children can do one of three things with these feelings: express them, repress them, or release them. Holding feelings inside (repression) is not mentally or physically healthy. It is important that children (and adults) have opportunities and methods for expressing their feelings. They also need to know that having feelings is normal and that feelings aren’t right or wrong. Adults in our culture often deny their feelings and may lead children to hold their feelings in check. Dealing with emotions is an important part of parenting and working with young children. Adults must be aware that children have different experiences that shape their individual emotional reactions and behaviors and be prepared to act accordingly.
In our efforts to protect children from painful emotions, we may deprive them of the opportunity to develop a means to cope with those emotions. For example, my daughter had a hamster that she loved very much. When this hamster died, I was tempted to go out and replace it before she found out, but I realized that she had a right to feel the experience of loss. My daughter was devastated (which broke my heart) for a while, but she was supported through this process and learned how to handle those feelings. By allowing her to mourn her hamster, it will help her when the time comes to face the loss of a friend or a family member. She was also able to work through her feelings about death and dying.


Young children have a limited ability to express their feelings in a verbal manner. When they have a tantrum, they are releasing emotion in the only way they know how. This can pose a problem since most parents view tantrums as “bad.” When our children are happy, cooperative, loving, and polite, we take pride in them and in ourselves as parents. When our children are unhappy or unreasonable, we figure that something has gone wrong, and we tend to blame ourselves or them. We have been taught to think of children’s upsets as “bad.” I challenge that mistaken belief and propose that tantrums are necessary, healthy, and healing.
The tantrum you permit your child to have is a way of releasing emotional energy and clearing her emotional system so she can think again. When an upset arises, we want to put an end to it as quickly as possible (especially if we are in public or at our in-laws). Some parents try distraction or reasoning; others use intimidation or force. Whatever the methods, conventional wisdom says that it’s our job to end the upset. We require our children to repress their upsets and be “good” again. We don’t want them to grow up uncivilized, and we don’t want to feel or look like “bad” parents with “bad” children.
Contrary to what we’ve grown up believing, tantrums and other expressions of feelings are actually useful. A tantrum is like an emotional sneeze and the usual struggle of parent versus child at emotional moments does not have to take place. We can throw away the judgment that meltdowns are a mark against our children and ourselves. Then we can begin to change our perceptions and the way we handle our children’s emotional outbursts.
If you now believe the truth that tantrums are healthy emotional releases, what is your role? All you need to provide is support and warm attention. It takes courage to listen to your child’s tantrum from beginning to end. It’s usually an emotional wringer for the parent who tries it. However, the results are thoroughly convincing. Your child feels heard. She sees that you’ve stayed with her though the worst of how she felt. Her mind clears, and life is OK again. As parents gain experience staying close through their children’s emotional storms, they find that the trip no longer feels quite so risky or grueling. Their child’s upsets, which once seemed to point to a serious failure, now simply signal the need for a good cry, or a good tantrum.

General Guidelines for Weathering Tantrums

  1. Stay close to your child and keep him safe, but don’t try to stop him. A tantrum is full of noise and movement. Your child may become hot and perspire. He needs to writhe, wiggle, and throw himself around to get the frustration out. Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, gently put your hand between his head and the floor, so he can use force without hurting himself. Let him know you are on his side by saying things like, “I’ll stay with you.” Most tantrums are relatively short. Once it is listened through, a tantrum clears rapidly, perhaps with some giggles and warm affection between the child and listener. This transformation of your fallen-apart child into a gently reasonable person is one of the real wonders a parent can work.
  2. If you are in a public place, you may carry your child to a more sheltered spot to ride out the tantrum. Children often pick public places to tantrum. It might be that they feel safer to explode with lots of people around, or perhaps the strain of being in an adult environment finally overloads their tolerance. Often it’s worth the trouble to move your child to a less public place, so you feel freer to handle things thoughtfully. Most onlookers will be glad that you look like you know what you’re doing. In fact, most have been there at one time or another. Don’t worry too much about others.
  3. Try to remember that your child’s frustrations aren’t your fault, or hers, and that this tantrum is a good and healthy event. Often, being exposed to our children’s emotions makes us feel emotional. Set good boundaries and realize that your child has a right to express his emotions and to release them through tantrum. In my parenting classes I teach about boundaries and expressing our own feelings, so that when our children express their feelings, we don’t take it personally.

Aren’t we reinforcing a lack of control? This is a common question. Supporting a child to complete a tantrum looks permissive (if we believe what our parents believed), but it isn’t. Permissiveness is ignoring misbehavior or failing to set reasonable limits on behavior. It doesn’t help children when their misbehavior is ignored or when reasonable limits aren’t set. Children rely on us to let them know what is OK and what is not OK. Step in when your child is going off track and gently but firmly prevent any hurting, grabbing, throwing, destruction, withdrawal, or giving up. Go ahead and limit the child, physically stopping the behavior, but allow the feelings while you are holding those limits. Tantrums, crying, trembling, and perspiring in the release of fear, and all the loud noises that go along with that release, are not misbehavior. They are part of a healing process. Permissiveness and punishment result in patterns of behavior that grow in depth and difficulty as the child signals that she can’t think and needs emotional release.
When we dread the times our children have tantrums and cry, it is often because most of us were left alone or actively attacked for showing our feelings. My mother said I was the most difficult of eight children to raise and had many temper tantrums. I asked how she handled the situations and she said she used to slap me until I stopped. My memories of emotional moments are not ones of gentle support and acceptance. I am grateful to my mother for doing the best she knew how and for giving me the passion to find a better way. I had fears about helping my children while they expressed their feelings. Those fears are connected to our experiences, not to the experiences of our children, who visibly benefit from the listening we do if we can remain with them throughout the whole emotional ride. In fact, when your child is falling apart emotionally, it’s actually an effective time to strengthen the bond between you. He won’t look as if he hears the love and acceptance you offer—he’ll be busy and not on receive at that moment, but every word that you say and every loving tone in your voice and touch will seep in. He’ll see that you stay no matter what. This is the best a parent can offer.