Why Tantrums Are Not A ‘Behavioural Issue’


This week my daughter and I have been home suffering with a bad cold, so I haven’t felt like writing much. In the meantime I’ve been really enjoying getting into the world of blogging, and reading blogs from other parents and joining in link-ups that I’ve been discovering via twitter.

On the #BloggersClubUK link-up I came across this post Made To Feel Like A Failing Mother which really shocked me.

A mother took her son to a local singing group at a children’s centre. He ended up having a massive tantrum, and she left. Later on she was called up by a staff member from the children centre recommending they talk to another woman who worked there to discuss her son’s ‘behavioural issues.’

This is just wrong on so many levels. Tantrums are a completely natural, normal part of healthy child development. Tantrums are not a form of ‘bad behaviour,’ they’re a way of expressing emotion. When they happen in public it can be extremely embarrassing, and we all do our best to deal with them while worrying about what people will think of us!

This mum absolutely did the right thing, she took her son out of the singing class, and stayed with him till he was in a better mood.

Sometimes toddlers can tantrum for a long time, and all we can do is ride out the storm until they pass. This is actually the best thing we can do. To let our children get through their moment of upset, and out the other side. They’ll be in a better mood because we’ve given them the space to have their feelings.

In my post here, I share how listening to children’s crying, and tantrums is actually key to keeping their behaviour on-track.

Sadly, there isn’t a great deal of understanding about the importance of allowing children to express their feelings. Sadly there are people out there who will look at a tantrumming child and think that the parent is doing something ‘wrong.’ Sadly a lot of parenting advice focuses on stopping tantrums, and inadvertently teaching children that expressing emotions is wrong.  I’d steer clear of any parenting advice that focuses on tantrums being a ‘behavioural issue.’

Next time you see a parent dealing with a tantrumming toddler, just remember this, that they are a good parent, doing their best. Instead of rushing in with judgmental looks or ‘advice,’ give them an understanding smile, some warmth, and support. We all have hard days, and we don’t need to make parenting any harder for each other!

You might also like, Why This Isn’t Another Article About How To Stop Tantrums, and What To Do When Children Have Tantrums In Public

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Why You Shouldn’t ‘Calm Down’ A Tantrumming Child


When my daughter was 6 weeks old, I was going out into town to a friends house for dinner. I had just fed her and put her into her pram (I wanted to carry her in a sling but I hadn’t managed to learn how to tie it yet. Then she started crying. I started feeling edgy and nervous about going out into the world with a crying baby.

Then there were voices in the hallway, and suddenly my daughter immediately stopped crying. It amazed me, that already at this age she could have an awareness of when it felt safe to cry.

Of course it wasn’t always like this. Sometimes she’d be so full of emotions that she’d cry and tantrum wherever and whenever, regardless of who was around.

It sometimes seems that it’s the job of parents to teach our children to ‘calm down,’ to self-regulate and to learn to control their emotions. But that observation of my six week old daughter made me realise that no child actually wants to have fits and tantrums in public. Just like adults they’d much rather keep their emotions for private moments.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll be familiar with the concept of staylistening, of how crying is a healing process which allows children to release stress and tension, providing there is an adult that stays close to listen to them. (If you’re new to the concept, I have some links to learn more at the end of the article)

If our toddler throws a tantrum we may have a strong urge to make it stop, to distract our child. We may be tempted to offer our child a toy to shift their attention, to turn on the TV or to ignore their tantrum so it stops as quickly as possible.

There’s lots of advice out there about how to get children to ‘calm down’ during tantrums. A lot of this advice is gentle but it actually sends the wrong message. It gives our child the message that expressing emotions is unacceptable.

It also interrupts their natural healing process so that they don’t get to release the stress and tension that has built-up. These unreleased feelings are one of the main reasons children ‘misbehave.‘ Tantrums are challenging, and can try our patience, but when we interrupt them, we are actually making parenting much harder than it needs to be.

With staylistening, we stay and listen to the upsets, without trying to stop them or distract our child from our feelings. Instead we stay present, riding out the storm together.

If we can create a safe space for our children to have their feelings at home they’ll be less likely to have their feelings spilling out in random moments like the supermarket queue or on the bus. And as they are less full of feelings, their behaviour will be easy to manage too!

You might also like this free e-book The Secret To Transforming Tantrums, and  5 Ways To Prevent Public Meltdowns

“I didn’t want THAT cookie!” –A StayListening Guest Post from Sarah MacLaughlin

sweet boy

I had picked up my three-and-a-half year-old at preschool and we headed to a nicer café, you know, the kind where adult professionals are having coffee and potentially reviewing business documents. We were there to get a snack and spend some time together before heading home. Of course, the café was busy with people.

I lifted Joshua up and held him so he could peruse the cookie case and choose a treat. It was difficult for him to decide, and by the time he did I was nudging him and had grown a bit impatient. Eventually, we sat down; me with a lemon bar and him with a cranberry white chocolate cookie.

We sat, happily munching our snacks until Joshua’s cookie was about halfway gone. At this point he inexplicably stopped eating, set down his cookie, and said, “I didn’t want this cookie.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s the cookie you chose.”

“I wanted the other one. This one is too sweet.”

“Well, you already ate half of this one.”

“No!!! I didn’t want this one!! I don’t like it!!!” As he flopped in his chair and the volume of his voice rose. I understood immediately that there would be no reasoning with my boy. I talked myself through some embarrassment with some reassuring self-talk—“Children are part of this community too. My three year-old is entitled to take up space and have feelings,” I repeated in my head.

I leaned in close and kindly told him,

“I’m so sorry you didn’t get the cookie you wanted. Next time you can pick a different one and I’ll be more patient while you choose. This is the only cookie for today.”

He started wailing and I calmly picked him up and carried him outside to our car. He kicked and screamed and I had to set him down in between my car and the next one to corral him. I crouched down to block him from running into the parking lot.

“I need to keep you safe,” I said.

Interestingly, I was concerned that people might think I had taken him outside to hurt, punish, or belittle him. I reminded myself that I was doing a good job. I got him safely into the backseat and then climbed in to join him.

He continued to kick and scream and he tried desperately to hit me. He said, “I want to hurt you,” “I hate you!” and, “I didn’t want that cookie,” over and over. I stayed near and blocked the blows while telling him,

“You are safe. I’m right here with you.”

After about fifteen minutes (that felt more like an hour) we mutually decided that he was ready to go back into the café because he wanted to eat the rest of his cookie. He also requested a glass of water to drink. We headed inside for both.

I was floored by his ability to reset and regulate once given the opportunity to offload a portion of big, messy feelings and restore his dignity with new choices and decisions.

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, is a certified Parenting by Connection Instructor near Portland, Maine. She is also a social worker, speaker, and author of the award-winning book: What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. With a background in early childhood education, Sarah has worked with children and families for over twenty years. She is mom to a spirited five year-old boy who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. You can learn more about her work at www.sarahmaclaughlin.com.


Getting Ready for Company: How tears made the difference!

A guest post by Angela Jernigan

It was a Sunday afternoon, shortly after we had moved to our new house. My four-year old daughter Leah had just come home from an overnight at her father’s house and we had two hours until our House Warming Party. We had been happily anticipating this party since our move. Leah was especially excited to share her new tree house with our friends. Leah had returned from her dad’s house chock full of feelings—she seemed sullen and sad and had lost all enthusiasm about the party.

I decided to help my daughter get in better emotional shape so that she would be able to enjoy our party. I asked her if she wanted some Special Time in order to help her really know that she had me. We did 10 minutes of Special Time, in which she wanted to hang out on my big bed and snuggle and wrestle. I offered lots of warmth and body contact. We did “flying airplane” and “trot-trot to Boston” and other physical games, with snuggles in between.

When the timer went off, I told Leah that Special Time was over and that it was time to start getting ready for our guests to arrive (I was already ready for the party, but wanted her to begin anticipating the arrival of our friends). She said that she only wanted to be with me and that she changed her mind about the party. I said, “You have a little bit longer to be alone with me, and the our friends will come over.” She insisted that she didn’t want to see anyone else. I repeated again (in a light, warm tone, while giving lots of eye contact) that soon lots of our favorite people would be coming to our house.

She became more adamant. “No! I only want to be with you! I don’t want anyone else!” She began to cry. I kept my words simple, saying that I was sorry it didn’t feel like what she wanted, but that our friends would be arriving soon. Soon she was crying mightily, telling me that she never gets enough time with me and that she misses me when she’s with her dad.” I stayed in close and told her, “You’ve really got me. And you get to be close to other people, too.”

Her cries were deep and hearty, with big tears streaming down her face, which was getting red. She cried like this for about twenty minutes, continuing to repeat that she didn’t want to see anyone else, that I was the only person she wanted. I reassured her again and again that she really has me, and that she has other people who love her, too.

After about twenty minutes her crying slowed down. I continued giving her eye contact, and staying in close. Suddenly her eyes brightened and she said, “Do you think Hazel will be coming to the party?” I said, “Yes!” She perked up and said, “Yay! Because I haven’t seen her all weekend!!”

Soon our friends did start to arrive, and Leah enthusiastically welcomed each person—squealing and hopping up and down as each new friend arrived. She played hard all afternoon—bringing her friends into her tree house, showing them her new bedroom, and the back yard. She thoroughly enjoyed herself, playing and laughing with friends for over three hours. That night she went to bed happily and easily, and slept deeply.

Angela Jernigan is `a Parenting by Connection Instructor based in the East Bay, find out more at her website here

What’s behind the ‘I wants’



Yesterday we went on a beautiful overnight trip to a lake here in Switzerland. As soon as we got there my two year old daughter was saying, ”I want be carried,” ”I want food,” ”I want a drink.” There seemed to be no end to her ‘wants,’, and they all seemed to come in a rush. How could she be hungry, I thought, we’d just had a big lunch. And as soon as she’d claimed she was hungry, she was onto the next want, her need for food seemingly forgotten. ”I want to go home” she demanded, which was impossible, as home was three train rides away, and it seemed a shame not to enjoy the beautiful sunny day.

Recently when we’ve been out and about she’s been asking to go home a lot. It started when we tried out a new playgroup, and although the experience was exciting for her. it seemed to leave her feeling overstimulated, and needing down time. I wondered if it was a feeling of disconnection that was causing this barrage of ‘wants,’ and that what she really needed was to process some of her emotions.

”I want to ride” my daughter said pointing at a carousel we passed by the lake side. I thought about it for a moment, remembering how much she loved the carousel at the autumn fair in Basel, and how she’d spent weeks in imaginative play afterwards at home, making rides for her dolls and teddys. I also knew that sometimes when we want to help our children with their feelings, especially at times of disconnection, that it’s good to say yes for a while. So I bought some tokens for the ride, and we had a great time together. After the first go she didn’t want to come off, and I knew that a tantrum was coming. But the ride was quite short, and I didn’t want to interrupt her fun so quickly so I let her stay on for another two rides. Then I realised that it was actually quite expensive, and it was really time to stop!

As I told her it was time to go, she was clinging tightly to the car she was sitting in. She started crying. I didn’t want to seem like I was angry, and dragging her away, and usually I would wait till she felt better before we moved, but I did need to prise her hands away in a hurry, as we had to jump off before the carousel started going again. She was crying, as I went to sit on a wall by the lake. She kept crying, as I gently explained why we had left. I gave her time to finish crying, to get all of her upset out. I knew that although she loved the ride and wanted to stay on, it was about more than that. She’s often very flexible, and can understand and accept when we need to go, or when we can’t do something. But this time it was also about the upset feelings she’d been carrying with her all week, that were making her feel like she desperately ‘wanted,’ and ‘needed’ something, when in actual fact what she really needed was some warmth and connection to release her feelings. After crying, her kind of desperate ‘I want’ attitude had completely disappeared. We spent a lovely time, paddling in a pool by the lakeside.

So if you find your patience being tried by constant demands, perhaps see if your child actually needs a bit of extra connection. Special time, or doing something our child loves together is a great way to rebuild our connection with our children when they’re upset, or have experienced a separation from us. And what often happens is that afterwards our children may start to cry. Patty Wipfler refers to this as the ‘spoiled outing’ phenomenon, that amidst all the love and connection, and togetherness our children might have a meltdown. It may seem like our children are ungrateful or greedy or just spoiling everything by letting their feelings spill out over a day that was meant to be fun. But we can look at in a different way, that they’re soaking up our love and attention, and they feel safe to tell us how they’re feeling. They may not tell us in words. They may tell us by crying when we say no to an ice cream or tell them it’s time to go home. But I hope you’ll remember the message of this blog, that crying is a healing process, that our children shed upsets, and stress from the not so special times through tears. If we can wait till the end of the tears, without distracting or interrupting our children, but instead giving them lots of closeness, and connection, then we may find that the day, far from being spoiled, is even brighter than before.

Healing Aggression Through Laughter and Tears


It was a shock when my one year old daughter learnt to bite me. She seemed to find it so amusing. I tried saying ‘ow’! loudly, or ignoring it, but that didn’t stop her. She’d often bite me when I was busy, and distracted, if I was holding her while trying to write an email, or in a rush trying to get ready to go out.

I knew through my understanding of Parenting by Connection, that biting is really a sign of fear. There was nothing intrinsically fearful about me paying attention to something else for a short moment, but somehow this small disconnection was triggering a bigger fear.

All children experience fear, from everyday situations such as falling over, or being separated from a parent for a short time. Then there are bigger more stressful events such as medical intervention, or a traumatic birth. Our children can recover from these stress or upsets, by crying, but they don’t always tell us about their fears in a straightforward way! When something stressful has happened they often need an extra big dose of connection with us, before they can release their feelings.

The biting wasn’t so bad, as usually I could deflect her teeth from chomping down on me. However one morning when I was busy getting ready she bit down on my arm and wouldn’t let go of me. We stared at each other like wild animals for about thirty seconds. I couldn’t do anything to make her let go!  For the first time I felt intense anger. I knew then that I needed to do something. So far it was only me that she bit, but I didn’t want her to start doing it to other children.

I decided to give my daughter some Special Time. This is when we listen to what our child wants to do, and follow their lead for a timed period. I had to ignore the thoughts in my head, that my daughter didn’t ‘deserve’ special time, and remember that was just me being triggered. I had to remember that the biting is a sign of fear. She didn’t mean to hurt me, she was trying to tell me how she was feeling in the only way she knew how. As I got down on the floor and began to play ball with her, I reflected upon what must have scared her. My pregnancy had been easy and straightforward. We had relatively stress free, happy lives. However her birth had been difficult. A long induction that ended in a vacuum extraction. I thought of the book, Birth without Violence, by Michel Odent, and felt so sad that she had experienced violence as such a tiny baby. I no longer felt angry, and began to cry suddenly feeling such empathy for her.

Later I experimented with using some playlistening to help her release some of the fear. When she tried to bite me, I would scream and try to crawl away. We had a few giggles as she chased me around the bed. I also gave her a pillow to bite which she enjoyed attacking! We had fun playing this game. My daughter seemed to enjoy the chance to play in a way we hadn’t before. To be given permission to express her power in play. It reminded me of the way kittens play, biting and scratching gently not wanting to cause pain, but just playing for fun. I began to understand that if I gave her opportunities to play in this way, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel the need to bite at other times.

My daughter would also scratch my face, particularly when she was tired. One afternoon when I was cradling her in my arms before sleep, she started scratching me. I moved her hands away and then began to initiate a game. I would say in a playful tone,

‘’you are my lovely sweet baby, so sweet and gentle,’’ and I would look into her eyes, and gently stroke her face or her foot. Then she would attack me with her arms grabbing or her legs kicking. I would respond by moving in close and giving her a hug to ‘protect’ myself. This elicited a lot of giggles. She really got into this game, and understood that my words and gentle stroking where a signal for her to attack! She was laughing much more than with our earlier playlistening games, and I could see her becoming more and more relaxed as we continued. She was peaceful and joyful. We were making a lot of eye contact. I felt like I had finally found the right game to help her release tension. It was a beautiful moment of connection where she could bring her up her aggressive feelings, and I could respond with affection and love. We finished the game and she fell asleep within seconds. That is a rarity!

The next day when we were getting ready to go out, my daughter bit me. I did not have time to play games, so without thinking I gently set a limit. I picked her up and told her ‘’please don’t bite me.’’ She started to cry, very suddenly and powerfully. I sat on the floor, as I cradled her in my arms. After that day my daughter stopped biting completely! I also began to see other signs, that she was discovering her natural confidence. Whereas before she would often be clingy and wanting to be picked up all the time, she now plays independently, at least some of the time. And I feel more at ease and accepting of what’s happened. Her birth may have not been what I wanted, but she can recover from this early trauma, using the natural healing process of laughter and tears. I’m letting go of my regrets about her birth because that was a time when I didn’t have many choices. As she grows up, I can make the choice of how I parent her, ensuring that she will grow up without violence, only love.

Need more help with aggression? Check out my 20 Fun Playlistening Games for Healing Aggression. Hand in Hand parenting also have an online self study course, No More Hitting.

Listening to Our Children’s Pretexts


Having an intellectual understanding of the healing power of tears, didn’t help me that much when it came to listening to a real live baby! Well it did, but it took me a long time to untangle my natural instincts as a parent, from my drive to stop my daughter from crying, even when she had no particular need.

As a new mum it was such a steep learning curve to figure out what my daughter wanted, that for most of the time, I seemed to forget what I had read about how some times babies cry for what seems like no apparent reason, simply to heal.

I think this is such an important distinction to make. Our strong urge to stop our children from crying when they don’t have a need, isn’t actually our natural instinct, even though it sometimes feels that way. It’s the history of our own childhood talking, when our parents couldn’t always tolerate our tears. We might have been told, ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ or ‘don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ and so this compulsion to stop our children from crying happens automatically, unless we have paid some attention to it, and become aware of what we were doing.

I’m not sure I could have managed that big job of untangling my childhood history, and discovered the inner awareness I needed to really listen to my daughter, if it wasn’t for Hand in Hand parenting. The articles I read, and the support I got from my Building Emotional Understanding Course, helped me dissolve the confusion in my head, about what she was trying to say without words. I finally had the confidence to trust my intuition. And I also got some really useful information, that helped me see things in a completely different light.

One sentence from an article by Patty Wipfler jumped out on me, ‘Children pick lots of pretexts to help them release pent-up feelings. They will cry about a shirt being pulled over their heads, about having a shampoo, about you moving six steps away to do the dishes….”

My daughter always hated me putting a top over her head. I would rush through the process to get it over as quickly as possible, and then get in a panic when it got stuck and the ordeal would last longer. I always felt guilty that it was as if I was doing something without her permission, something I had to do, but that she hated. I started to dread the moment when I’d have to get her dressed, and these moments became full of feeling for both of us.

The sentence about pretexts drew my attention to something I’d never considered before. That this was a small moment that had a lot of feelings for her, and if I could help her release her feelings, she wouldn’t be so bothered about it anymore. So next time, I decided to listen. I didn’t rush to put the top on, I showed her the top and told her what we were going to do. She cried for a while, much longer than that split second cry, before I yanked the top over her head and interrupted her feelings. This time, when she stopped crying, I would gently show her the top again, and tell her I needed to put it on. She’d start crying again.  Now I was fully giving her the chance to express whatever fear or upset was being triggered by the top, and when she’d completely finished crying, I put the top over her head, slowly and she was completely relaxed and at ease.

After that she never felt upset when I dressed her, and most importantly getting dressed was no longer something I forced her to do, but something we could do together. It was amazing to see, that suddenly beneath all these feelings, she was completely happy to co-operate with me when upset wasn’t clouding her view.

t never found out what was it that bothered her about having something pulled over her head, though I suspected it had something to do with trauma from her birth. When she’d first been born her head was incredibly sensitive after being born by vacuum extraction.  She hated wearing hats, or having her head touched. I’d felt guilty that I hadn’t had a natural birth, but I learnt an important lesson in acceptance, that there may be many aspects of our children’s lives that we can’t control but we can always help them to heal.

After this incident, I realised that there were all sorts of little pretexts, moments when my daughter got upset, that I could help her heal from. I didn’t have to force her to clean her teeth, or change her nappy. That these moments didn’t have to be unpleasant experiences. That if I listened long enough, she could tell me about whatever big feelings got stuck onto these small everyday events. She could get comfortable in her own skin, experience the sensations of being in the world, and we could take our time together. Investing this time is absolutely priceless, because then feelings don’t come every single time, over lots of little pretexts. There are less little edgy moments in the day for both you and your child. There isn’t so much to be fearful of in the world when feelings have been released. Are there areas of your child’s life where they have big feelings about a small pretext? They can be good places to start listening.

Listening Heals Connection to Dad, By Stephanie Parker


Thanks to Stephanie Parker, Parenting by Connection Instructor in the UK for this guest post, about how the way we set limits with our children can be a wonderful way to heal connections.

When Innes was four she was going through a period of not connecting so well with her Dad. In the past they’d had a brilliant relationship but for a number of reasons it had not been that way for a while.

Innes enjoyed putting our cutlery on the table at breakfast time. However she always pulled out the camping spoon for Jim to eat his breakfast with. It wasn’t a particularly nice spoon but she was adamant that was the spoon Daddy was going to have. We always seemed to be in a rush in the morning so there was no time to set a limit and listen to her feelings.

After a few days I realised that I needed to do something about this as I could see how much tension Innes was carrying about it.

The next morning I made sure there was plenty of time to set a limit around it as we had breakfast slightly earlier. As usual Innes went to get the camping spoon out of the draw to give to daddy. I moved right in close to her and prevented her from picking this spoon up. I said ‘today we’re going to give daddy a different spoon, not this one’. ‘No’ she shouted ‘this is daddy’s spoon’. I continued to set the limit and repeat what I’d already said. It’s best to keep things simple here and not go into a big explanation as to why I wasn’t letting her give daddy this spoon.

Innes started to cry very loudly, she was also angry that I wouldn’t let her give daddy that spoon and kept running away from me into another room. I followed her as I want her to know I am there for her when she’s having strong feelings, I don’t want her to be on her own with them. I gently asked her to come and eat her breakfast but for a while she wouldn’t and kept crying and screaming at me.

She finally sat up at the table but tried to pull her chair right up to me and away from her Dad. I set another limit by stopping her from moving her chair and I gently said ‘we are going to leave your chair where it is’. She started to cry again and I listened and told her I loved her and daddy loves her and that she’s safe. After a few minutes of tears she ate her breakfast and then we had to leave for kindy.

When she got home from kindy she was in a very happy mood, much happier than she’d been in a while and she stayed like this for the next few days. She was also much more connected to her dad and they were back to their close and loving relationship. She didn’t try and give her dad the camping spoon again but happily gave him the same spoon as me.

Connect with Stephanie, on Facebook, or at on through her Hand in Hand Parenting.