Why we should stop using the word “tantrum”

cat-shaped toy with an angry expression

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 p…

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4 thoughts on “Why we should stop using the word “tantrum”

  1. So, as a pediatrician seeing kids with behavior complaints, some of whom have previously been abused, I see s lot of kids who have pretty substantial fits of tears, screaming, rage, aggression and etc. What most frequently provokes these, from the parents’ views, are unwanted or unexpected change, and being denied something they desire (not getting their way, or hearing “no”). Learning to deal with discomfort and disappointment without dysregulating emotionally, is an important developmental task. It starts in infancy and continues, often, through adulthood. Having a secure attachment to a person who manages their emotions well, and helps you manage yours, is a great help. Trauma, household chaos, ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, insecure attachment, and parent role models with poor emotional regulation are the commonest reasons that things go awry, in my experience. Some of this, too, is cultural. Different cultures expect different behaviors, role model and reward different behaviors, and thus produce children with different behaviors.
    I am not one to get caught up on linguistic purity, thus I don’t mind the word tantrum. If you have faced the sadness, frustration, rage, and powerlessness of a two year old screaming, rolling around on the floor and throwing things in the grocery store, you will have a negative association whether you call this a tantrum, meltdown, emotional dysregulation, or fit of pique. The point is to know when it is more than typical development predicts (we call the “terrible twos” “the age of normal negativism” and it has to do with individualization in Erikson’s model of psychological development, a good thing!). If it is a problem, I think it is important to divide tantrums in two (at least).
    Some tantrums are learned strategies for the child to win a contest with a controlling figure (mostly mom). These children have learned that a certain amount of fuss gets them their desires. When mom pulls back, the child ups the ante, mom caves, and a greater degree of fuss is rewarded. The cycle can repeat until things are pretty out of hand. These children have a problem, you are not giving them what they want. They are successful social engineers, and have solved their problem, they use their behavior to prevail in a social contest, pretty amazing when you think of it! The answer is simple (in theory, not in practice), stop rewarding the tantrum when it occurs; teach another technique to resolve the social contest of wills that is acceptable to you and within reach for the child; reward amply, immediately, and frequently when the child uses the new skill; and practice, practice, practice. The first new tool you use may not be your end point, but rather a step in the right direction, to be followed by successive steps until everyone is happy.
    Other children, however, have a different problem, they lack the skill to deal with strong emotions. These children are not solving their problems. These are the children for whom modifying the environment to remove frustration is most important. When frustrations are more manageable, they may be able to learn better coping strategies. The strategies these children need to learn, however, may be more psycho-emotional, and less practical (think breathing and meditation and repeating a calming mantra rather than “use your words.”) A therapist might be helpful here. I would recommend two books at this point, “The Whole Brain Child” and “What To Do When Your Temper Flares.” Sometimes, however, books are not enough, and you need a therapist. Sometimes, the person who really needs the therapist is the parent, or the family unit.
    Just to make it more complicated, there are kids who have both things going on.
    To be clear, kids in both camps are doing their best to solve their problems. The kids in group one are successfully solving a problem, it is just not the one you want them to solve. The kids in group two are failing to solve their problems due to some form of disability. Both kids deserve our sympathy, and our well directed efforts, not our rage and recrimination, whether you call it a tantrum, meltdown, emotional dysregulation, or fit of pique.

    1. Hey Steve, what a great, insightful comment! Thank you so much for this.
      I love how you highlight that “learning to deal with discomfort and disappointment without dysregulating emotionally is an important developmental task”. And I also love that you say that different cultures have different expectations and hence behaviours will most likely differ as a result.
      I also really like your bottom line: kids need our sympathy and our help, not our rage of recrimination. So maybe the point is not about changing how we call a certain behaviour but rather what underlies that word or concept. Thanks for this, it’s pushing me to think further, and I will share with the wider community!

  2. Some spontaneous thoughts on this subject and the interesting comments above:
    I agree that is it not about the word, but mostly about changing our perspective. The big challenge is to see the child as an agent, a subject that is unique and acts, not as an object of observation, research, let alone critique. Children act and have a reason for it. Most of the times this reason is linked to environment’s stimuli’s and adults’ expectations. This is at least my experience as a developmental psychologist and mother of two pre-schoolers (including both categories: children of typical and non typical development). Yet now matter how we call it (tantrum, or meltdown, or even banana), it still remains a difficult and demanding situation to deal with. Not just because we -parents, therapists, educators- are lacking of skills and patience, which is of course on a daily basis often the case. But how about the total attitude / culture we bear as western capitalistic societies? As a psychologist being raised up in this antagonistic society and being educated to classify children/people in general, how difficult it is to deconstruct this way of thinking in my praxis in order to see the child’s agency in this world!

  3. Agency is an interesting concept. Children are clearly agents (at least as much as we adults are), acting to solve problems. That was an underlying premise in my over long response above. BUT, agency sometimes invokes concepts of culpability. As I look at developments in the neuro-psychological nexus, I see us moving away from an unbridled concept of free will ( and sometimes entirely away from an unreservedly free will at all). So, while I don’t want to go there lock, stock, and barrel, I do want to say that neither children nor adults make fully conscious choices to engage in each behavior they manifest. Biology and past experience (via biology) constrains what behavior is available to them. As parents we want to shape that for success (happiness, safety, and wellness).

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