Productive Tantrums

One of the wonderful qualities about small children is that they display human nature in its raw, uncensored form. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time. Sometimes, when we try to teach our children to subdue the ugliness in their nature, we inadvertently teach them to squelch what is good.

James recovering after a tantrum
during which he removed his shirt
and demanded that he needed the
fish net.

I don’t know if it’s happening because he was sick this past week or because he’s entering a new developmental stage, but James has taken tantrums to new heights recently. They start with wining and quickly escalate into screaming, kicking legs, and endless tears. They last for as long as half an hour.

Yesterday he went into a fit early in the morning. He was playing with his trains and became upset because he was having difficulty fitting the track pieces together. I offered assistance, but it was too late. For consolation he asked me if I could “carry” him. I held him in my arms for a short time, but when I sat down he erupted (apparently he wanted me to keep standing with him. My back couldn’t handle it). From this point on, nothing could be done. So I took him to his room and told him to stay in there until he cooled off. Screaming, crying, kicking, and rolling ensued–for about twenty minutes. I checked to make sure he wasn’t destroying anything. Then, almost suddenly, I heard his voice transform from sobs into his normal sing-song chattering, as he was recreating some movie scene with his Cars 2 toys. Shortly thereafter he skipped into the kitchen and politely asked for a waffle.

I pondered this scenario for the rest of the day. I knew that this was normal, but I wondered…why?

From birth, we instinctively cry out when we perceive that something isn’t right. It’s too cold, we’re hungry, we get an “owie,” and those train tracks just won’t go into place. Later in life, we’re disappointed, we lose people we love, our pride is wounded, and our hearts are broken. Our feelings are closely linked to all of our physical and emotional needs.

At two-and-a-half James is currently discovering those powerful emotions which can cause destruction if left untamed. This is one reason parents train their children to control their emotions–to prevent them from hurting themselves and others.

No matter how their parents train them, people eventually establish habits in the way they respond emotionally to life’s challenges. Some have healthier habits than others. I was a very sensitive little girl and would cry when my team lost a soccer game, when I didn’t receive a perfect grade in school, or when any of my peers said anything that wasn’t nice. Somewhere around the age of 11 or 12, I learned a valuable skill: stuffing it. While I’m still sensitive at heart, I’ve become a master at concealing my emotions. I’ve even managed to fool myself.

You probably have this skill to some degree. The problem with it is that no one can really stuff emotions forever. They eventually come out, sometimes after fermenting for years, in much uglier and more violent forms than toddler tantrums.

So what are we supposed to do with all of these feelings that are simply an unavoidable part of being human? My current postulation is to throw a “productive tantrum.” This is essentially what James did in his room. He was able to unleash all of that negative energy without hurting himself or someone else. Then he continued with his day.

For an adult, a productive tantrum could take several forms: a good cry, a heartfelt prayer, or a truly honest conversation with a trusted friend or counselor. For those of us with complicated emotional issues (everyone), we often need to have many of these productive tantrums before we are able to move forward and eat waffles.

Psalm 88 captures a productive tantrum moment:

1LORD, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend. 

I love this Psalm because it’s so human and honest. This guy is basically saying, “God, hello, do you hear me? My life sucks; I hate everything about it! I keep asking you for help, but you don’t answer. Why don’t you rescue me when I know you can? Hello???”

What guttural despair. And this is Holy Scripture, given to us as an example to follow? Yes.

Much more could be said about what makes tantrums productive, but this is already a long post so I’ll stop here. In conclusion I’ll just admit again that I have a lot to learn from my kids.

Hey, I'm Gina!

I’m a wife and mom of five, with kids ages toddler to teenager. I’m created in the image of God, made whole in Jesus. In this online space, I help others overcome the overwhelm all of us face when navigating this messy, beautiful journey we call life. Want to join us?

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