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.
For example, in the food court at the mall, my strong-willed daughter totally lost it because her bagel didn’t have enough cream cheese.
Then, 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 told me he wanted to do it.
I was tired and two back-to-back meltdowns coupled by perceived scrutiny of being in public felt like too much to deal with. In moments like these, I can feel tempted to tell my daughter her reaction is too much or force my son out of the car. I feel like totally losing it.
Related reading: Positive Parenting Strategies for Difficult Toddler Behaviour
I don’t want to condone these meltdowns.
In those moments where I need to get the grocery shopping done or all eyes are on me, it is especially tempting to punish tantrums and emotional outbursts.
I mean I don’t want to raise a child who will turn up food because there isn’t the exact bread to cheese ration she envisioned.
Even if I’m the privacy of my home away from the food court, it can be painstaking to get through my son throwing his shoes because his shoes feel ‘funny.’ The last thing I want is to 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, no one wants to be a permissive parent. And, that’s for good reason.
Here’s why I don’t want to be a permissive parent.
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.
Should you punish tantrums? This is 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.
Here is what decades of research has found:
- 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 minimize our children’s emotions, they become less likely to be self-aware. Also, they exhibit more outward signs of anger. 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,” lets 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.
Learning to deal with big emotions is an undertaking. With three kids under the age of six, I’m likely to face a few more seatbelt debacles and food court meltdowns. By coaching rather than punishing their emotions, my children are learning to express themselves more appropriately and manage their feelings better.