Tantrums and behavior problems in young children

Behavior problems at home or at school are often reason for concern in young children.  These children are often described as delightful at times and at other times they turn into little monsters.

As parents and caregivers of these children it is important that we think about the causes and meanings of these intense and uncontrollable emotional states that children experience at times.  Young children do not have the ability to think about and understand the meaning of their emotional states.   Parents need to survive the young child’s emotions without the parent becoming as overwhelmed and destructive as the child.  Parents and caregivers also need to think about the meaning and causes of the child’s behavior.  Cathy Urwin wrote a lovely article (“Where the wild things are”) about this.

Normal tantrums are common in 2 to 3 year old children and reflect the child’s process of discovering his/her own will.  This is part of the normal and healthy development towards a clear sense of his/her identity as separate from others and different to others.  During this period parents have to start recognizing their young children as little people in their own right with their own ideas, feelings (loving and angry feelings), likes and dislikes.  It is a great concern if parents struggle to give children the space to discover themselves and expect of the young child to be/behave and feel the way their parents want them to be or expect of them.  The development of a sense of self is crucial during this period in a child’s emotional development.   Yet, parents must remember that even though children want to be more independent and find their own will, it is still very painful to become more independent.  Some children manage the emotional pain of becoming more independent by becoming overly active (almost like adults who become manic and in that way avoid the pain of loss).  By doing this they deny the part of themselves that are still very vulnerable, small and dependent.  These children might also fight against sleep (because sleeping to young children is a time of separation from their parents and if they find this painful they might avoid sleep).   This defense against feeling small and vulnerable fails at times and then the child could react to the anxiety of feeling small by having a tantrum or exhibiting destructive behavior.  If children struggle with loss and separation they might find it very difficult when there are changes in their world (e.g. dad goes away for work or a new teacher at school replaces the previous one).

Children who have to be more independent because of their current situation (younger baby in the family, going to a creche, depressed of unavailable mother) may try and avoid recognizing that they feel small and vulnerable and dependent.  These children could seem overly independent and overly active and strong.  The role of parents is to understanding the child’s need to be more independent and develop their own identity, but also to remember that a part of the child is still very small, dependent and vulnerable and not to deny that (even if the child tries to deny/avoid these needs).  When children feel small and overwhelmed the child’s anger as expressed in a tantrum, keeps the anxiety at bay.   In this way holding the child together when a part of him/her feels very vulnerable and overwhelmed.  Parents need to understand that the overwhelming feelings expressed during tantrums cannot be managed by the young child, therefore the parents must be able to weather the storm of the young child’s intense emotions.  Parents need to have empathy with the child’s intense emotional experience that cannot be managed by the child.  Parents need to bear the child’s communication (via strong emotions and at times destructive behavior), as they (the parents) think about and try to understand the child’s feelings and behavior.  For some parents and in some circumstances this can be very difficult.   Small children’s feelings of fear and rage are extremely intense and can evoke similar feelings in their parents.  If parents come from an abusive or destructive background their child’s intense feelings can evoke very strong emotions in the parents and this can cause parents to act in destructive ways.  If a child experiences that their parents are overwhelmed by their emotions it can give the child a feeling that their emotions are unmanageable and intolerable.  This can cause enormous guilt in children.  Some children can even provoke punishment by behavior to try and get rid of their guilt.  Some children can start avoiding their emotions if they sense that their parents can’t tolerate the emotions.

At this age (between 2 and 5) children are often still struggling with the process of separating form the parents.  At times children can enjoy feeling big and independent, but it can be very painful to give up being a baby.  It can be particularly difficult if a new baby is born and the older child has to make space for the new baby.  The mother’s relationship with the father and other siblings can give rise to feelings of rivalry.  These feelings can cause children to feel hostile towards their parents.   Explosive tantrums often link with struggles about becoming separate and independent and having to give up being small and vulnerable.  Sometimes children long for more time to be a baby, particularly if that early time (infancy) was compromised (e.g. mother was depressed or next baby was born before the older one was ready, other losses in the family) in some way.  Parents sometimes treat children (and expect of them to be) more grown up that they are.  If a child needs to be more grown up than he/she is they can seem extremely strong and independent on the outside, but inside hides a part of themselves where they still feel very vulnerable, overwhelmed and scared.

Children often have developmentally normal tantrums that centers around developing their own will and identity, other children’s tantrums can indicate greater difficulties.  The emotional intensity can easily escalate if the child struggles with intense feelings that also feel unmanageable to the parents. For example, when a child feels very intense feelings and that is met by alarm in the parent, the parents alarm will increase rather than contain the child’s own emotions.  If parents struggle with certain emotions they will find it difficult to deal with these emotions in their child and this will cause the child to feel more overwhelmed.  If the parents can think about the child’s anxiety, anger and emotional pain, without the parent becoming overwhelmed, the emotions becomes manageable as something that can be thought about (and does not have to be acted on by the parent).  The parent can then see the child as a young child with emotional states that are overwhelming and unmanageable to the child instead of seeing the child as a monster.

Contact Louise Malan via email:  louise@pehoogland.co.za or her contact numbers: 041 366-1116 and cell 073 3903010

Louise Malan

Louise has been practicing as a Clinical Psychologist for the past 20 years. She specializes in: • Early childhood emotional development and parenting issues. • Mothering and mother-infant bonding. • Divorce and adoption related issues. • Adult psychotherapy and works with all emotional, psychological, sexual and relationship problems. • Marital therapy. • Psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Louise knows how important it is for mothers and fathers to ensure their children’s emotional wellbeing. It is very concerning to parents if their children are anxious, insecure or has other emotional or behavioral symptoms. As parents our own psychological history can consciously and unconsciously influence our relationship with our children. Louise’s theoretical orientation is psychoanalytic. This approach is aimed at an in depth understanding of the conscious and unconscious aspects of functioning. She believes that internal views of the self, others and the world are formed during an individual’s childhood. The ways that emotional needs and different emotions are dealt with during childhood continues to influence the person. She has a thorough knowledge of human psychological and sexual development, the meaning of symptoms and the consequences of specific traumas and experiences. She believes that early childhood emotional development is the corner stone of emotional functioning, personality structure and emotional health. It is important for Louise to see her clients as people with struggles and not to judge their feelings, thoughts or actions. Judgement is in opposition to insight and therapy is about insight.

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