Does it Take Two to Tantrum?

June 23, 2015
  • Los Angeles, March 12th 2015
    Coffee with Geraldine/Presentation-Discussion
    Does it Take Two to Tantrum?
    The Part Separation Plays in Emotional Outbursts

    By Elinor Jewett, MA

    If a toddler in a forest has a tantrum and no one is there to hear it, does he still scream, cry and/or kick? Many times emotional outbursts occur when a parent sets a limit or during moments when parents are engaged in something that interferes with the parent-child connection. Separation issues may be at the core of some tantrums, which helps explain why they can be so intense.

    The Importance of Tantrums

    The expression of intense feelings by toddlers, known as tantrums, is a developmentally normal expression of powerful emotion.

    The reason tantrums are normal and enormously important, is that they signal that the child’s own personality is emerging. In order to grow and become an individual, a person needs to express their true feelings when things don’t go the way they want. It doesn’t mean we don’t set limits. It means we allow children to voice their anger, disappointment, sadness and distress.

    Ironically, tantrums help build exactly what we wish for our children: a strong sense of self, that critical intangible. It’s at the core of healthy social emotional development and plain old happiness.
    That’s why we help parents be their child’s emotional coaches and feeling managers.

    Don’t take emotional outbursts personally: it’s not a reflection of your love for your child or your parenting.
    But how can parents not take it personally? Often the tantrum feels like outright dissent. And many tantrums are. Behind every protest to take a bath is the battle cry: “ I know who I am and it’s not you and not what you want. “

    Tantrums and Separation

    You don’t have to drop your child at Grandma’s to separate from him. It can happen when you are side by side in your living room. In fact, the psychological separation can be more powerful and distressing than the physical ones we are familiar with.

    That’s why the “tantrums that come out of nowhere” may really be coming from somewhere -some loss of connection that is more felt than seen-. It could even be the arrival of a houseguest your child adores. The arrival also signals a separation. He is losing his parent’s undivided attention.

    But wait a second. Which is it? It seems like some tantrums occur when a child is distressed from separating -like when the parent has to get dinner started- (“I want you!”). But just as many happen when the child won’t cooperate with parental requests and demands (“I don’t want you!”).

    The Emotional Balancing Act

    Separating is not such an easy business. While the toddler’s motto is “I want to be me, not you.” At the same time he feels: “Being without you is terrifying.” His task is to balance two conflicting feelings. His survival depends both on being one with his parent and also being an individual. So the toddler is in an impossible situation: what he most desires is also his greatest fear.

    Its no wonder tantrums are so intense and sometimes even terrifying. This powerful internal conflict is played out right in your living room or at the supermarket for all to see.

    Tantrum Dynamics

    Parents also have strong responses to separation. They don’t always like it, either. This may explain why it’s sometimes hard to say “no” to buying a toy. It’s not just that we want to make our child happy; we want to avoid being in conflict and therefore psychologically separated. Giving in helps us stay connected.

    And sometimes parents need to separate. There are practical matters to attend to, like getting dinner on the table. Or it’s so nice to talk to a friend on the phone and get your feelings heard for a change. It’s frustrating when the toddler you spent the entire day with, won’t allow you five minutes to yourself, to literally be yourself. We put parts of ourselves on hold when we care for children.

    So both toddlers and parents want to be connected and separate. But sometimes we get out of sync. Are we destined to feed each other’s fires or can we use our connection to get back in sync and help him negotiate his Emotional Balancing Act?
    It turns out that having awareness of our own feelings is enormously helpful to our children. When the inevitable anger boils up, we need to know what exactly makes us so mad. What are we responding to? The intensity of our child’s feelings? His assertion of power? The separation inherent in the conflict?

    When we know where we are, emotionally, we more easily understand others. And that is exactly how we keep the connection between our child and us alive in the face of conflict. Self-awareness gives us the ability to recognize that our child is a new human being who needs to have this time of self-expression.

    It takes a person to build a person. We usually consider this adage in the context of connection and attunement. But we also know that the separation and even discord are also important parts of growing. A child cannot become an individual without separating. This means he must have someone to separate from. And that someone is you, their parent. Can we celebrate our child’s separation protests? When he says: “I know who I am and it’s not you.” Let’s say: “You are not me. You are you!”


    Elinor Jewett, Marriage & Family Therapy MA, MFTI (310) 751-7547