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Why Tantrums Are Good For Kids (and Parents)

Does this sound familiar? You finish work, race over to daycare to pick up your little one and make a quick stop at the grocery store on the way home. Everything is going well—you even remember to grab more toilet paper.

You hit the checkout line. You're next up. Then your toddler sees the candy, which is just out of her reach.

Fireworks. (The kind that screech!) Your darling has gone from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds flat. She's in a full-throttle tantrum: arched back, red face, feet kicking.

Cue judgment from everyone around her—including, most of all, yourself. "Why my child? What am I doing wrong?" You'll do anything to calm her. All you want to do is get everything bagged up, so you can get out.

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One arm pushes the cart, and the other carries your child like a football. You leave the store sweating bullets, panting, convinced daycare replaced your offspring with a banshee.

Most parents know frequent meltdowns are a developmental stage. At best, they think this is a phase to suck it up and get through it. What's rarely acknowledged is that tantrums, painful as they may be, have an upside—lots of upsides.

Among the benefits? They help us parent better, says Eileen O'Sullivan, parent educator and RIE teacher. O'Sullivan brings more than 20 years of experience from a variety of parenting philosophies and experiences. She's seen the power of observation and slowing down when working with children. This understanding comes from the RIE approach, which encourages parents to respond to their children with the same level of respect they bring to their adult relationships.

O'Sullivan has taken a close look at how emotional explosions in toddlers and teens are a chance to parent better, to get insight into a child's point of view.

What's rarely acknowledged is that tantrums, painful as they may be, have an upside—lots of upsides.

Getting to that shift in focus can be a challenge, particularly if you're deep in the tantrum years. Embracing the tantrum is quite a new concept for those of us who have tried everything to avoid taking down entire malls, grocery stores and public parks with shrieks, tears and surprisingly painful kicks. O'Sullivan, a mother of twins, has experienced tantrums on a personal level. Based on her experience and experiences, she developed a preschool transition program called Becoming Social, which helps parents and children adapt to the coming changes school brings. Together, families ddress issues such as working as part of a group, asking teachers for help and becoming more self-sufficient. Parents learn how to support their child through this process.

Dealing with meltdowns are a big part of this process.

So what she feels when the crying starts isn't dread. It's quite the opposite.

"I have always found it a defining moment, when a child relinquishes control and surrenders to their big feelings," she said.

Instead of trying to soothe the child—or outright working to make the tantrum stop—O'Sullivan says she tries to understand what triggered such a big response.

"I get excited to try to find where to meet that child," she said. "I'm helping them begin the very basic steps of building their emotional intelligence." O'Sullivan explains that she stays present and doesn't let her own reactions overwhelm what is going on with the child.

This is not to say meltdowns are fun or easy on parents or children, but O'Sullivan offers some tips for how to deal with frenzied moments.

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1. Finding control

"I get a sense of glee because [tantrums] are defining moments for that child," says O'Sullivan. "I get to see them experiment with losing control and regaining it. I equate it with the way they learn balance and get control through walking. They lose balance and fall, then get up and try it all over again. I feel honored to be there as they learn to flirt with losing and regaining control of their emotional state."

2. Be a physical presence

Talking your little one through a tantrum is less important than you might think. Sitting with them and waiting for the storm to roll out and subside is key.

"This means more to any of us as human beings than we're aware of," O'Sullivan said. "I would say center yourself so that you're ready to take this on. You have to measure and think, 'OK, I'm in a public place. This really can't happen here. I'm going to have to explain that I'm going to have to pick him up and take him out of here.'"

Keep in mind that children let loose with people they trust.

When it's time to pick up your child, bear in mind that your emotions are likely to be running high, too. As you reach for your child, keep your hands open like you would when picking up a mug or a melon, she explained. This helps you to intervene in a way that's not going to set your child off more.

3. Assess the situation

Take a breath and get down to the child's level. Standing up and over your child presents an insurmountable distance if they need to reach out to you.

"For a child at that age, it's very easy for them to come close to you when they need you physically." They can reach out a hand and connect with you, she says. Moving toward your child and sitting down near her gives you a moment to take stock.

4. Be the sportscaster

Maybe your toddler has gone from kicking to bumping his head against the floor. Here's your chance to combine language and observation.

Focus on what you see right then and say, "I see you bumping your head. That's a hard floor."

Start to bring awareness to what is happening. "You could say, 'You were working so hard on that building with blocks, and it's not working and now you're laying down and crying,' O'Sullivan says.

If you say you don't want them to bump their head, it gives them something to push up against and something to react to. Instead, keep the focus on observing them, not describing how you feel. "You are an observer, but you're not an active participant. They own it."

5. Help them recharge

Tantrums take a huge amount of energy. Your responsibility as a parent is to help your child recharge. You may notice their breathing starts to slow as the tantrum subsides. Share this with your little one. Bring awareness to the physical reactions without judgment or comment. Keep the observations simple and be available to hold or console them if they reach toward you.

"They still need to feel the invisible cord of communion that any human being wants in a time of crisis," O'Sullivan said. "They want to know that someone sees them. That someone has what appears to be empathy for their situation."

Tantrums take a huge amount of energy.

She says this support, this connection, is sacred. "We owe that to each other as human beings. We owe that to children because they're just beginning to grasp all of this. We model and show them compassion and support."

You may not always be able to stay calm and grounded in the face of a wild, overwrought toddler. While you may not remember all of these strategies right away, you'll have chances to practice this steady calmness even into the teen years—though the expression and frequency of these big emotions changes.

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Keep in mind that children let loose with people they trust. Your bonds with your children are strong, and they're counting on you to hold the moment.

Take a breath. Maybe even two or three.

You can do this.

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Image via Twenty20/PrincessAmy

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