Before I dig into this week’s material, I wanted to apologise because last week I shared my Google Doc without the right settings. If you feel like adding your thoughts to my investigation about early education, as I explained last week, please check out the document here.
A couple of months ago I wrote a newsletter questioning the idea of the terrible twos. We know that by the age of two children become more independent but they are still not entirely verbal, and there is a lot of potential for meltdowns. But I asked myself: is it useful to call this phase “the terrible twos” and justify every crisis just like that, or does the expression limit our understanding of what may be bothering them? I argued that parents’ flexibility plays a role in children’s emotional reactions and that we may be able to avoid meltdowns if we don’t expect them to be a regular feature of our children once they turn two.
Several people responded to my story, but one email caught my attention. Michael, a reader, sent me a message from north Idaho, where he is based.
“Along with not calling them terrible, how about not calling them ‘tantrums’”, he wrote. “How about describing them instead of using words that have negative meanings.”
His email caught me off guard. I am not a native speaker of English, and I thought I used tantrum as a descriptive word. But when I started exploring my use of the word tantrum, I realised that Michael had a point.
I looked back at previous newsletters – before the one that Michael caught – and I saw that I had used the word tantrum twice already. First in this sentence here: “I won’t lie to you: sometimes I wish Lorenzo was already 18 years old and away at university and that I could avoid his bedtime routine (as well as his tantrums).“ And then I used it again in a piece about Donald J Trump’s childhood, here: “Every time I see Trump in difficulty, he seems to revert to the primitive part of his brain and either end a conversation with abuse or a personal attack, effectively with a tantrum, or trying to draw attention to something he did well – just like a child.”
Did I attach a negative connotation to the word tantrum? I did. In the first case, wishing not to see any more of them in my son, and in the second one attributing them to the (grown-up) former president of the United States.
I got in touch with Andrea Diaz Stransky, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Duke University School of Medicine, US, to understand more about tantrums and whether they are the right word to use. Her work looks at children’s health in connection to the parents’, and focuses on coming up with interventions that support the whole family.
During her time at Yale University, Diaz Stransky collaborated on the Tantrum Tool, an online programme that trained parents to manage their children’s irritability and outbursts. The programme used 12- to 26-second animated videos that showed key triggers which can lead to meltdowns. For example, one shows a child getting frustrated and having a meltdown in a supermarket, while another has a meltdown when asked to put down the smartphone. The animations prompt parents to widen their perspective rather than focus exclusively on the single episode. For example, if the meltdown happens at dinner time, were there too many expectations of the child? Had the child just arrived home after a long day, were they expected to hang their coat, wash their hands and sit down at the table in quick succession? Did they need a break, maybe, or a time to connect with parents?
The Yale study used the word tantrum because researchers found that it was the one word that was most universally understood to talk about meltdowns, but Diaz Stransky is clear that tantrum is not a clinical term. In fact, for the past couple of years, the American Academy of Child and Adult Adolescent Psychiatry has been exploring what the appropriate term could be. She adds that irritability and meltdowns are common symptoms of several disorders or signs of extreme anxiety or depression, but recommends caution regarding premature diagnoses.
“Children that are not experiencing clinically significant mental health disorders might also feel irritable. We all sometimes get irritable.”
As Michael, the reader of The First 1,000 Days, pointed out, the definitions of the word tantrum available on dictionaries may be misleading. For example, Merriam-Webster calls it “a fit of bad temper”. At the same time, Google links its own definition (an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child) to the following example: He has temper tantrums if he can’t get his way.
“How exactly is it uncontrolled if the example is saying it happens because they can’t get their way?” asks Michael.
Diaz Stransky makes the same point, arguing the word tantrum takes an outsider perspective rather than the attitude of understanding what the child is experiencing.
“It limits our ability to help them”, says Diaz Stransky.
At the moment, the preferred term among the medical community is outbursts because the word lends a clearer, less-charged, image to a phenomenon that can happen at any stage of life, but is more common for toddlers.
Used in the context of childhood, the use of a more neutral word may help us make sense of what is a simple, yet important development stage. Around 18 months, children start to become more aware of themselves and gain independence, but they also become more aware of their vulnerability.
“Meltdowns are not necessarily a bad thing. Children experience ambivalence and they don’t have the language to articulate this very complex feeling that they’re experiencing. Meltdowns are developmentally appropriate within a certain frequency and intensity and at certain ages,” says Diaz Stransky.
At the same time, parents usually go through a parallel process. I surely experience this myself, shifting from moments of joy when I realise that Lorenzo can now go to sleep by himself, to sudden moments of nostalgia, where I want to hold him like a newborn again and rock him in my arms to sleep.
“This relationship shift creates a lot of strain in both directions, since both the child and the parents are experiencing a transformation. And that is part of what leads to, oftentimes, the meltdown. Is it typical? Yes, because children are now acquiring the ability to say no and to manifest that and set their own boundaries. And we do want children to be able to set their own boundaries,” says Diaz Stransky.
In children on the autism spectrum (Diaz Stransky’s initial research focused on their needs), meltdowns may become more frequent. This happens because children on the spectrum often have very heightened responses to noises or light and may have a more limited capacity to express themselves, all of which combined can produce irritability.
“We are not trained as a society to understand what they’re trying to tell us,” says Diaz Stransky. “Children on the spectrum are perceived as difficult and more prone to tantrums, and they are stigmatised as a result. Unfortunately, it is not a population that is well cared for and understood.”
How can we deal with meltdowns then?
First of all, says Diaz Stransky, parents only need to worry if the meltdowns are out of the norm for that child’s usual temper or their age, or if they start interfering with the child’s development and important social relationships. Overall she believes that it is necessary for parents to have enough support first in order to help their children.
“As parents, we like to jump in and fix things, do something. But with meltdowns it is better to take a step back first. Stand there and pay attention. Try to listen to the tantrum, what’s happening? Why is this happening all of a sudden? A child doesn’t have the capacity to do that. It is our job to help them put words to their feelings and understand what’s happening.”
Listening and watching closely can help adults make sense of the rhythm and detect a pattern behind the meltdowns – something that has been observed by different researchers, as NPR’s Shankar Vedantam explains in this report.
When anger emerges, it is best not to intervene and let it pass – not unlike the way meditation teaches us to deal with emotions. If felt through, anger eventually leads to sadness, and when a child softens into sadness, it becomes easier for adults to console her. While we adults mostly fall into the trap of reasoning with a child who is overwhelmed, that makes no sense from a cognitive perspective because children don’t have a developed prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls impulses and inhibits strong reactions.
If we stop thinking of tantrums as whimsical episodes of spoiled children and think of meltdowns as expressions of a child’s needs instead, we can try to meet children’s needs better. But in order to succeed at this, we parents need a lot of awareness and we most likely need our energetic wells to be full first – and that is a whole other issue that I’ll keep coming back to.
Do you find it helpful to call these explosions meltdowns rather than tantrums? I find the idea and the imagery of melting quite helpful – and endearing, actually – to remind myself as an adult of how tough this moment must be for that child, which opens the door of compassion, from where everything else just flows more easily. I’d love to hear from you, as usual, below this article. And remember that if you have any follow-up questions, you can ask them directly to Andrea Diaz Stransky.
Before I go, a message to all of you readers. Last week I sent out a newsletter talking about what it means for me to be memberful – i.e. being aware of the members of my community and involving them in every step of my reporting process. (I also shared a Google Doc asking for your input on a story about early education, so feel free to have a look if you missed it!)
After reading the newsletter, Chris, a reader, unsubscribed saying he doesn’t know how to contribute. It occurred to me that some of you may feel pressure from my prompts, but please don’t! I want to leave you the chance to contribute if you feel like it, but it is by no means a requisite to be a member! If you’ve ever felt any pressure, feel free to reach out – I’d love to hear from you and adjust my wording if needed.
With love and care,
📣 Catarina Fernandes Martins, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Castelo Branco, Portugal. Thanks, Cata! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)