Should you punish tantrums and emotional outbursts in kids? Find out how research says to effectively work through meltdowns, crying, and tantrums.
With two young kids fifteen months apart, some days it feels like I’m walking through an emotional minefield.
In the food court at the mall, my strong-willed daughter has totally lost it because a bagel has had either too much or too little cream cheese.
Yesterday, my sensitive son had a fit in the parking lot of the grocery store because I undid his car seat when he wanted to himself. He never asked me to do it nor has he undone it before either.
Both scenarios are incredibly difficult to parent. I am under pressure and perceived scrutiny of being in public or being under a time constraint. And, my children are reacting totally disproportionately to the situation. In that moment, I feel tempted to force them to do what I need them to do. Or, I just feel like totally losing it myself.
[Related reading: Positive Parenting Strategies for Difficult Toddler Behaviour]
Why We Want To Avoid Permissive Parenting
In those moments where we need to get something done or all eyes are on us, it is especially tempting to punish tantrums and emotional outbursts. Really, our child isn’t acting in a way we are raising him or her to behave. They aren’t using their words. And, they are angry and shrill. Even if you’re in the privacy of your home, they’re causing a scene. It can be painstaking for us to get through these moments. And heaven knows, the last thing any of us want to do is reinforce this behaviour. Who wants a child who thinks it’s okay to scream when his toast is cut incorrectly or a daughter who throws a doll that isn’t easy to dress? The truth is, no one does. Moreover, know one wants to be a permissive parent. And, that’s for good reason.
Permissive parents are parents who avoid disciplining their children. They do this to avoid confrontation, inciting anger, and facing tantrums. Unfortunately, the result is children who lack self-discipline and have poor emotional regulation. Children from these families tend to be more rebellious, defiant, have low persistence, and more antisocial behaviours when compared to their peers.
[Related reading: Stop Yelling at Your Kids with One Simple Strategy]
Should You Punish Tantrums? What Research Says
It has long been believed that how we react to our children’s emotional outbursts or negative behaviour predict how well they will cope with these same emotions in the future. What decades of research has found since includes:
- When we encourage children to control emotion, they become more distressed when faced with negative emotion. For example, saying “Stop crying,” or “Get over it” does more damage than good. Find more on this study here.
- If we repeatedly minimise our children’s emotions, they become less likely to be self-aware. Also, they exhibit more outward signs of anger. Specifically, their outbursts can get worse. Children who have the permission to express emotion tend to be more socially aware and less angry. Read more here.
- Children who experience punishment for their negative emotions tend to be more reactive. See the study here.
- Finally, punishment as a strategy in and of itself has been proven to be ineffective. As illustrated in the research findings above, punishment in general fails to teach moral reasoning or better conduct.
- Children whose parents calmly coached them through their anger were attributed to have less intense meltdowns. These children also exhibited less anger overall. Read more from this source here.
- Mothers who address their children’s negative emotions in calm and thoughtful ways foster better “emotional balance” in their children. Find the source here.
So How Do We Properly Parent Our Children When They Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?
Obviously, it is not an option to let our children’s tantrums go unaddressed. And, punishment doesn’t work the way we want it to. So what is the answer?
Based on the research referenced above, here is what to do:
- Remain calm. This can be especially challenging, especially when we feel rushed, pushed to our limits, or out of resources. However, parents who remain calm have the greatest success when mediating tantrums.
- Wait until they are calm enough to listen to your words. In some situations or with some kids, that might be right away. For others, this could be minutes upon minutes. All you can do is wait.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Something as simple as, “You’re upset. I get it,” let’s them feel heard. In doing this, they feel empowered to move on and you haven’t dismissed or minimised their feelings.
- Affirm their feelings, not their behaviour. So using the bagel example, we can tell our children it’s okay to be disappointed but not okay to shove the bagel away.
- Coach them. Again, with the bagel example, this would be something along the lines of, “Do you want more cream cheese? All you need to say is, ‘More cream cheese please?'” Then wait for them to comply. If their outburst is more about raw emotion than an actual event, there are wonderful strategies for calming a child that can be found here.
- Hug it out. Children feel more connected to us and more secure when they are hugged in times of intense emotion.