Your kids are communicating with you, not manipulating you

“Kids always know how to manipulate their parents.”

I heard someone say that just a couple of days ago.  The topic of conversation was tantrums, and it was one that was going on right beside me, but one that I wasn’t a part of.  The general gist was this:  Kids have tantrums to play their parents.

I disagree.

I see a tantrum and I see a child trying to communicate.  (By the way, I really don’t like the word “tantrum” but I use it for the sake of this post because it’s a common and fairly universal term.  We can all hear the word tantrum and envision essentially the same thing.)

We just spent three weeks driving across the country and spending time around a lot of different people.  I witnessed many tantrums, by children and adults alike.  The difference is, the adults weren’t put into timeout, or held against their will, or punished, or ignored. With other adults, we generally take it for what it is: an expressed moment of frustration. One would hope that adults could always communicate their feelings kindly and patiently, without resorting to what we’d classify as a tantrum. But the fact is, we’re human. We get stressed, frustrated, angry, and disappointed. Sometimes the heat of the moment gets the better of us. Sometimes we whine. Sometimes we yell. Sometimes we stomp and we huff and we skulk about. Yes, sometimes we’re the adult counterpart of the disappointed and crying toddler who was just told that she couldn’t get the doll she wanted in the toy store. Do we know that there are probably more effective ways of dealing with our emotions? Of course! But we’re human.

So sometimes, despite our best intentions, we have tantrums. Sometimes it’s just plain hard not to. How much harder it must be then for a 3 or a 5 or a 7 year old?  For a child who doesn’t have our life experience, or maturity, or language skills? For a child who for some reason is not only expected to behave as well as a grownup, but somehow behave BETTER than a grownup?

Conventional parenting advice would have us believe that children should essentially be seen but not heard.  They should be quiet and docile, obedient and submissive at all times.  If they happen to have a strong emotion, they should suppress it, or at the very least express it only in a way that is convenient and comfortable and pleasing to us as their parents.  They should be less than human.

We hear things like how we need to stop it immediately, to “nip it in the bud” so it doesn’t become a bigger problem later on.  To ignore it, and to ignore the child.  We’re told we must never give in.  They’re trying to manipulate us!   They’re playing us!  We must stop it!

I’d like to suggest something else entirely.

A tantrum is a way of communicating.  It’s an expression of an emotion, a feeling, or a need.  Your in-the-throes-of-a-tantrum child is not trying to manipulate you.  He is trying to tell you something.  And based on the deliverance, it’s most likely something pretty darn important!  When an infant is crying because he has a soiled diaper, we recognize that it is legitimate need, and we attend to it.  When an adult friend is crying because she’s had a bitter argument with a family member, we understand that she’s having a hard time, and we listen.  Why then, should it be any different for all the ages in between?  Discomfort, sadness, frustration, disappointment, anger…. these are normal, universal, human emotions.   A child having a tantrum may be communicating any or all of the above, and she deserves to be heard.  Many tantrums’ root cause is something even more basic:  for example hunger, fatigue, or over-stimulation.  Not only does hushing or punishing or ignoring do nothing to address the problem, but it also takes you further from a mutually respectful, and highly connected relationship… one in which no one feels they need to have a tantrum to get their needs met.

Kids will have tantrums.  Sometimes kids will have lots of tantrums.   And it’s not because they’re “bad”, or “naughty”, or “fresh”, or “playing” us…. but because they’re trying to tell us something.

It’s our job as parents to listen.

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9 Comments

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9 Responses to Your kids are communicating with you, not manipulating you

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  2. Gosh I wish I could have a written reminder of this hanging in front of my face at all times! Nicely put!

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  4. Krista

    Brilliantly expressed! My 9 yr old has been having what I call, melt downs for years. Everyone would like to FIX the problem, but I would rather find the source. A wise Teacher said to me, find the “missing emotion” and the melt downs will dissolve. That is exactly what I did, I beleive children are our best teachers, just be present and listen!

  5. Fiona

    Sounds great, but just wondering how you would respond using the above suggestions? For example, how would you respond to a 3 year old having a full blown tantrum in the middle of a shopping centre because she wants something she can’t have??

    • Mette

      Fiona, it all depends on what the child has been used to and what you mean by “can’t” have. Do you mean something she truely *can’t* have, because it’s too expensive or not allowed by law? Or do you mean something she *could* actually have, but that the parent has chosen to deny her? Is the child used to hearing “no’s” often? Many arbitrary not real reason no’s? Has the child been accustomed to mainly being taken notice of once she’s “acting out”? Is there usually a great effort put in by the parent to seek out solutions or not?

      All these are important questions to ask oneself.

      Shopping-centre-tantrums are a classic, but they mostly occur, imo, in families where a climate of respectful listening and dialoguing hasn’t been installed. So, to know what the best course of action to a particular situation is, you would need to reflect on the larger context.

  6. Stacie

    I was taught as a child to be obedient at all times. Acting out was not allowed. I understand that. I understand, that as an adult, it’s better to act maturely, no matter how you feel. The problem is, when you’re raised like this you hold stuff in too much. You often end up feeling like, not only is it wrong to act out, but that you’re wrong for having these kinds of feelings. It’s taken me a long time as an adult to feel like it’s OKAY for me to feel upset, frustrated, angry, human. It’s still not a license to act however I want, but acknowledging those feelings goes a long way toward effectively dealing with them. Because I was made to “hold it in” as a child, I still have a very difficult time talking about things that upset me. It’s something I really have to work on. It’s been reacted to negatively all growing up it’s hard to do as an adult, but SO important in a marriage so it’s something I work very hard on. I know, as a parent I want my kids to be able to talk to me as they get older, to share how they feel so I can help them, but how are they supposed to feel comfortable doing that if they are never allowed from a young age? Well, I’m finding out, with my older ones, it’s very hard. So I’m looking to BE different and handle things differently for all of them now.

    One thing I’ve realized recently, I sure know when I’m frustrated and stressed one of the fastest ways to calm me down is for my husband to come over, give me a hug and listen or tell me that things will be okay. Why would I do any less for my children? As you said, they probably need that even MORE than an adult does because they are less experienced and have less “tools” in their arsenal for dealing with unpleasant situations and feelings. I will try to be more patient and more understanding of them than I am with adults from now on!

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