It seems natural to use distraction as a form of tantrum management. When parents sense a storm brewing they may quickly try to cheer their toddler up by making a funny face, or pointing out something interesting, getting them a snack, or just about anything. And then breath a sigh of relief when the storm has passed.
Distraction comes as easily as breathing. We all do it, or have done it, including me!
Tantrums are one of the most challenging behaviours we have to face, so why would I suggest that it actually makes parenting harder to distract children from them?
Here’s why: when your child is on the brink of a tantrum, She’s not feeling good. She’s feeling a storm of unhappiness and stress and tension. To feel better your child actually needs to get the tantrum out. She needs to rage and storm, and cry, and move through anger, so that she can come back to feeling good, as nature intended – by actually having the tantrum.
When we distract or try to stop a tantrum that tantrum is still there, inside of your child. It’s going to come out sooner or later. It might come out in another tantrum, five minutes or five hours later. Those upset feelings might also come out indirectly through off-track behaviour -such as aggression, whining, moaning, and just about any other form of ‘misbehaviour’ is actually due to unexpressed feelings. Distracting tantrums appears to work on the surface, but overtime those feelings will manifest in other more challenging ways.
This information won’t come as news to you if you’re a regular reader of my blog, but as I still often see parenting experts misinforming parents and telling them to distract their children I felt the need to write about it again! Distraction may be a good emergency measure for weddings or funerals, but as a regular parenting technique it’s going to make your job much harder, and it will also effect your child’s wellbeing.
I think sometimes we think that since our little toddlers are crying about such small and inconsequential things, that their emotions are inconsequential too, and so we should avoid them. However that red cup they wanted instead of the blue cup feels enormous in their world at that moment, so we can empathise with them rather than avoid, and also acknowledge that their may be a deeper upset below the surface that they can’t articulate in words.
I really like this blog post from MindfulMummyMission, in which she describes how we can learn about Mindfulness from the Disney film Inside Out. One of the big messages of the film is to stay with the sadness, to feel it and let it go rather than avoid it and try to fix things. No matter how small our little ones are, they need to have their big emotions heard.
Parenting becomes easier when we take a mindful, listening approach to our children’s tantrums. When we sense a tantrum brewing, we can slow down, and connect, set limits if necessary, giving them eye-contact, and offering hugs. When we do so we give them the message that their feelings are allowed, that we welcome them. Our child’s tantrum may go on for longer, because they sense that we are available to listen to them. But over time they will have less tantrums because they get their feelings out.
If you’re dealing with any kind of behaviour challenges with your child, things will improve radically if you move from distracting tantrums to listening. A lot of the behaviours that we dismiss as being unavoidable issues for toddlerhood such as sharing struggles, aggression, night-waking or power struggles can all be dissolved with a listening approach.
It doesn’t take long to turn around your parenting approach from distraction to listening. Even I am always amazed and overjoyed when I hear stories like this one from Cherry at The Newby Tribe blog who describes how she now has a deeper connection with her son, (and less tantrums!) since reading my book Tears Heal and putting the ideas into practise.
As well as the benefits for us, there are of course a myriad of benefits for our children. They get to know their emotions, and how to process them instead of bottling them up. They build their emotional intelligence and have more empathy and understanding of other children’s emotional moments because they know what it’s like themselves. They grow up having deeper relationships, because they don’t run a mile from their own emotions or other people’s.
And they will be happier. Research shows how adults in therapy make better progress in their lives when they cry during therapy. Really what our children are trying to do is have little (or big!) therapy sessions so that they don’t grow up to be one of the 1-4 people who will have mental health difficulties in the adulthood. It’s a pretty smart move really to throw a tantrum, and all we need to do is stay and listen.
Having said all that, although listening to tantrums will make your parenting life easier, it can still be challenging! We didn’t have this kind of deep listening for our own feelings as children. That’s why as parents we need to find support for our own feelings. Read my blog post here about how we can catch up on our own tears from childhood so that parenting can be a healing path for ourselves and our children.