Ask Dr. Vail | Tantrums: What’s a parent to do?

Dr. Amy Vail
Special to the Sun
Courtesy Thinkstock.comWhen your child tosses a tantrum, parents may model understanding without approval of the behavior by simply being present.
Getty Images/Huntstock | Huntstock

Lately my child has been throwing tantrums of epic proportion and I am not sure what to do when these fits happen. Aside from wanting to know how to handle my child properly from a discipline perspective, I am feeling like the more out of control my child becomes, the angrier I get and the crazier I feel. I keep telling my self I should not be embarrassed, but I feel people are judging me based on my child’s behavior. Please help … quitting this job is not an option.


At Wit’s End

Dear At Wit’s End,

Thank you for your honesty. I have come to believe there is a giant conspiracy of silence surrounding the job of raising children. Most people do not talk openly about parenting and truly share how they feel about the dark and dirty parts of the job.

In terms of tantrums, a good policy with children is to try and prevent tantrums. While this is not always possible, there are some things you can do to help prevent them. First, make sure your child is not too hungry or too tired. Second, know your child’s limits and behave accordingly. Most children can and will happily tag along on errands, however, they cannot handle as many errands as we can. When the child looks maxed out, stop. Or better yet do errands without them if you can.

Since I do not know the age of your child, I will make suggestions to be applied to a wide range of ages. When a child is throwing a tantrum, the most important thing to consider is if the child is going to get hurt. If the answer is yes, then as carefully and gently as you can, remove the child from the situation (such as the top of the stairs or in the doorway to a restaurant) and put them where they can continue the out burst safely. If restraining the child is necessary, for their safety, hold the child facing away from you so you don’t get hit or kicked and softly tell them you will let go of them when they have regained their composure.

If the situation is safe for the child to have a tantrum, acknowledge you see they are very angry and then ignore the tantrum, not the child. Stay close and just watch them out of the corner of your eye. This way the child will not feel abandoned and start to feel anger is acceptable but throwing a fit is not. When the child is done, have a conversation about how they were feeling, acknowledge and name the emotion like anger or disappointment that fueled the fit. Tell them you love them, but do not like their behavior. Then move on and do not hold a grudge about them ruining your day or embarrassing you in public.

Feeling angry and crazy?

Projection is a theoretical concept in psychology that can help shed light on feeling “angry and crazy” in relation to your out-of-control child. We all have defense mechanisms we use to cope with stress. Some are referred to as higher-level defenses, like denial and repression, and some are referred to as lower level or primitive defenses. Projection is one of the most primitive defense mechanisms to cope with stressful or difficult situations. Since children are so young (and primitive) they often use this type of defense to deal with overwhelming situations. For example, when newborns are over-stimulated, their (primitive) defense is to simply shut down and fall asleep.

However, as children grow older they attempt to deal with overwhelming and scary emotions by trying to get rid of the unpleasant feelings. One way they can do this is by projecting their feelings out of themselves and onto other people. The unconscious hope of the child is the person to whom the child “gives” the feelings can handle and tolerate them.

Unfortunately most parents have no awareness of this process and when they find themselves “holding” their child’s emotions they become overwhelmed and act out, just like the child. When both the child and the parent are emotionally overwhelmed, disaster often strikes and often looks like child abuse, both emotional and physical.

There is good news

The good news is that by becoming aware of the projective process and parenting, you will be better able to show up emotionally for your child and for yourself. When you begin to feel like you are getting “angrier and crazier” in relation to an unreasonable child, self evaluate and ask yourself if what you are feeling is coming from you, or if it is coming from outside of yourself.

If the answer is outside of yourself (and more often then not it will be), and if you can accept this emotional burden as a gift from your child, you can help them by containing and processing the anger for them and modeling good behavior. Through this process the child will learn anger and unpleasant emotions can be tolerated and they can handle them, because if their parent can do it, so can they. This is a very important part of emotional development, both for yourself and for your child, as this process also applies to most relationships.

Parenting is a very hard job and as amazing as it is, it is often very unrewarding. However, do not be embarrassed by your children, for they are their own people, and remember, to always try to do your best by them and if necessary, for their safety and your sanity, ask for help. Finally, if you are feeling negatively judged by other people for how you parent, look to the truth and to the projective process, both may set you free.

To submit a question for Dr. Vail, email attn: Ask Dr. Vail.

– Dr. Amy Vail, M.A., Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with a private practice Squaw Valley, and a bilingual psychologist at the Tahoe Forest Hospital’s Gene Upshaw Memorial Cancer Center in Truckee. She works with couples and individual adults and adolescents helping them find healthier and more satisfying ways to live their lives. Call 530-581-2539.

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