June 16, 2003
The Value of Tantrums
On Saturday I had a great visit with my daughter Teri and my 14-month-old granddaughter Tayler.
Tayler is a relaxed, confident, powerful little girl who is running, climbing, singing, dancing, whacking hand drums, strumming guitars, and starting to talk. She is very social and is intensely exploring the world of communication and personal control. She loves the interactive power of games and humour. She pretended to eat a stick and when her mother feigned an exaggerated reaction and said, "That's not for eating!", Tayler roared with laughter. Then the games began. She pretended to eat rocks, leaves, hay, and dirt, holding the ridiculous "food" up to her mouth in anticipation of our exaggerated reaction. She would set up the situation, like a stand-up comedian, and then laugh with us. She was in control and loved the feel of it.
Tayler, like all young people, tests her limits and how the world responds to her explorations and demands. When she is doing something of interest, she is focused and content. When her efforts are frustrated, she lets out the aggravated energy in movements and sounds. Most of the time the situation gets solved and life continues on its merry way.
If, however, Tayler has very strong intentions that are thwarted, she gets angry and protests with her whole body. Sometimes the energy release takes the form of a typical "tantrum." Since she has no reason to be afraid of reprisal, she does not inhibit her expression. The result can be a very dramatic display of flailing, crying, yelling, and wailing. When this happens, her parents make sure she doesn't hurt herself (or anyone else!) and allow it to happen. Like a summer squall, it is intense but short-lived. She takes a few deep breaths, wipes her eyes, and then finds something else to do. She often wants a hug from her Mom or Dad even if they are the ones who thwarted her interest. They never deny her the affection.
That's what it's all about. Teri and Trevor love her. They do not feel she is bad for wanting to do something they prefer she doesn't. They don't feel she is bad for expressing her unhappiness in a tantrum. She is not scolded, shamed, or hit for what she does. They don't think she is bad, so she doesn't feel she's bad. In fact she is neither good nor bad - she is what she is. She is Tayler, and we are delighted.
Tayler lives in a household that respects equality. Teri and Trevor don't live by some intellectual manifesto, they simply respect themselves and others. Equality is the natural expression of that feeling. In a traditional authoritarian household, the parent's interests come first. In an over-permissive household, the child's interests come first. In a household that truly respects equality, things are more in balance.
The powerful physical and emotional needs of growing children create a natural demand, like a vacuum pulling for air. This healthy need drive is a natural selfishness that must be respected. Since children are at the center of the vortex of their own need expression, it feels to them as if they are the center of everything. With the fulfillment of their needs and further experience of the world, they will perceive that they are not at the center. As healthy adults, they will share equally with others. If, on the other hand, the needs of children are neglected - or their wants are continually fulfilled at the expense of others - these children will grow into adults who are either excessively "needy" or excessively demanding. From drug addicts to political tyrants, the results are devastating.
Although children have many legitimate needs that parents must do everything in their power to fulfill, often their natural curiosity and desire will move them to want more. When these demands infringe on the legitimate needs of others, it is appropriate for these demands to be denied. The cat will run away if it does not want to be picked up. A parent who is tired of getting the toy will not comply. Even though this may frustrate the interest of a child, it is within the rights of others to refuse.
Tayler does not get everything she wants. Some things are considered too dangerous, some things belong to others, and sometimes other people just don't want to oblige. If her interest is strong she will continue to push to complete it. If this forward energy is totally obstructed by a person, an object, or her own limitations, the energy will continue to go somewhere - usually into a tantrum release.
A wave is moved along by its own forward drive. Sometimes a wave hits a wall of rock and crashes with fury. The energy does what it does. There is nothing "bad" about it. So it is with Tayler and all children who are allowed to be what they are. It's just energy expression.
Tayler has her angry, frustrated moments. When they are allowed and contained within the respect and love of her mother and father, they pass just like a crashing wave or a little storm. She quickly settles back into self-contained exploration and social play. Allowed expression, her frustrations will not build up to become a tsunami or a typhoon.
In many cases, primals are the tantrums we were not allowed to have. Suppressed for years, they carry great power. Handled with care, respect, and love, we can ride them back to a life of health and balance.