A Mom Celebrates Her Daughter’s Tantrums In An Un-Conventional Way

I’m guessing many people may not agree with Christie’s approach to her daughter’s emotions, but I think we can all take away a very valid point she makes. Teaching our children to suppress their feelings is not the answer. Giving them space, acceptance, and the words to deal with their feelings is a powerful tool that they will benefit from throughout every stage of life. How do you handle tantrums?

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There’s nothing radical about my parenting style except this: I support and value my children’s temper tantrums. As in, once either of my children starts with the wailing and the flailing, I celebrate their expression of emotion and embrace their ability to get it out.

And we are a household of high emotions. I’m a lifelong crier; so far, both of my children are as well.  My daughter, Sadie, the older and more emotional of my two children, is exactly like me.  On the second night of her life, she was kicked out of the hospital nursery for crying so loudly that the other babies were disturbed. From my room across the hall, I actually had heard her shrieks and thought to myself, “Could that be my baby?”  When the nurse showed up and informed me that she’d have to stay in my room, I felt a mix of pride and terror that so much emotion could spill out of an eight-pound body.  I held her shaking, angry body in my arms and whispered, “Your anger is welcome here.  Always.”

And that promise has been tested over and over again.

Four years later, Sadie remains a spirited and emotional child.  She has two signature moves: one is to crumple on the floor and keen as if all hope had been snuffed out of her little life; the second is a staccato-sounding scream that could turn concrete to ash.  When I see the storm gathering in her eyes and know she’s going to blow like a 40-inch volcano, I take a deep breath and prepare myself for the outburst.  I remind myself to celebrate it and to let her know that I accept and encourage her expressing her emotions—even when they are loud, inconvenient, and messy. I remind her of the boundaries: we don’t hurt ourselves or other people.  Then, so long as she stays within that guideline, I let her unfurl her rage with all her might.

As friends and neighbors catch wind of my practice of allowing my children to explode with emotion with my blessing, they inevitably pose the question: Why?

The answer is almost cliché—I let them emote like B-movie actors because I wasn’t allowed to.   It’s that simple.  I grew up in a household where letting emotions out into the open was verboten.  An illustrative memory: When I was eight, my beloved grandfather died, and after his funeral I was allowed to ride in the limousine with my grandmother.  Before the long, sad, black car whisked us away to the gravesite, my mother stuck her head in the car and whispered, “No more crying or ‘carrying on’ for today.”  The message was clear: showing emotion was vulgar, even at a funeral

So, I didn’t.  I pressed back tears when I misspelled “radiant” during the fourth grade spelling bee.  I hid in the bathroom sobbing when I wasn’t chosen for the ballet solo I’d desperately wanted.  My memory of every great sorrow and anger is a flash of me somewhere alone hoping that no one would ever know that I had the audacity to both feel and express emotions.

And anger? Forget about it.  I couldn’t even recognize anger in myself until well into my 20’s. I’d so thoroughly repressed it that I’d convinced myself that I just didn’t have any.   When a therapist suggested to me that years of bulimia might have something to do with repressed rage, my only response was a blank stare. What rage? I just happen to throw up my meals now and again.

I paid a high price, physically and emotionally, for repressing my emotions, and it’s not a debt I want to pass on to my children.   When I see my daughter throw her head back over her lost opportunity to have the biggest pancake, I take a deep breath and let her wail.  Is it annoying and inconvenient? Of course.  My preference would be for her to just eat the second-biggest pancake so we could get on with our day.  But I can’t bring myself to tell her to stop crying or to “get a grip.”  I don’t want her to get the message that expressing her rage and frustration is bad or wrong.  I don’t want her to swallow it. Ever.

Make no mistake, I don’t give in—I don’t give her the biggest pancake so that she won’t cry.  To me, that would signal to her that I would do anything to avoid her crying and emoting.  She won’t get the biggest pancake, but she can have her feelings about it.  I validate that life is not fair, and allow her to share her rage at the injustice.

And as she gets older, her tantrums have lost their “little kid” charm; they feel more like a big kid throwing a fit.  We are currently in a time of great transition in her life—new school, new house, new nanny—so her emotions are particularly volatile.  She’s easily set off.  It’s not pretty, and it has more than once stopped the flow of the day in our household.  And I’m more than OK with that.  My goal is a household where we make time and space for emotions, not one where buttoning up and getting everywhere on time is “the most important” thing. 

Will she still have epic meltdowns when she’s six? What about at ten?  The honest answer is that I hope so (at least in the privacy of our own home).

For now, I’ve created a home where emotions are welcomed and celebrated, and my kids know that they have my support in expressing anger, sorrow, frustration, and rage as much as I support them in expressing joy, wonder, excitement and gratitude.  It’s all welcome here, and it’s not always pretty.  It’s loud, sometimes scary, and always messy.  I’m not sure it’s the “right way,” but it’s the only way I know to give my kids something I never had: support for all of their emotions.

Christine Juneau is a lawyer, writer and mother in Chicago who writes a daily blog with tips about how not to do almost everything at www.outlawmama.com.