As moms, few events are as exasperating and draining, let alone baffling, as tantrums and meltdowns. They seem to happen at the least opportune time, and society tells us that these emotional outbursts are instances of bad behavior and bad parenting. As parents, we will do anything for them to stop or for them to not happen at all. But what if we have it all wrong? In recent years, researchers and experts have begun to shed light on the idea that tantrums and meltdowns might actually be windows into a child’s burgeoning emotional intelligence. We’re learning that tantrums and meltdowns are a way to live a life with emotions. Do we, perhaps, need to be taking notes from our kids?
Tantrums and meltdowns, in their essence, are the physical manifestations of emotional upheaval. Rather than suppressing their feelings, children express them through crying, foot stomping, shaking, rolling, and even hitting. An emerging perspective suggests that these emotional episodes are opportunities for children to develop essential emotional intelligence skills. Emotional intelligence encompasses the ability to recognize, understand, manage, and effectively use one’s emotions, as well as to perceive and navigate the emotions of others. The tantrum is the child experiencing and expressing emotions as they often lack the verbal skills to express themselves and their needs. These bodily experiences, also called somatic experiences, can serve as early indicators of emotional states, eventually allowing children to identify and address their emotions before they escalate into tantrums or meltdowns. Caregivers can assist during these moments by encouraging children to recognize bodily sensations associated with specific emotions, thus promoting proactive emotional management.
Somatic Expression and Effective Communication
Encouraging children to express their feelings through physical gestures, drawings, or simple movements can provide an alternative outlet for emotional release. For example, if your child is upset because it is time to leave the park and they clench their fists and stomp their feet, rather than stop them; let them. In fact, witness the tension in their body and encourage them to experience it. Encourage them to clench their fists as tight as they can and then relax and shake them out. Do that a few times. Do it with them. Have them stomp over and over until the sensation is out of the body. As long as they are not hurting themselves or anybody else, let them express their emotions.
When they are in this emotional state, your child is not interacting with the world from a calm, rational perspective. They have emotional energy in their body that is driving all of their behavior. By giving the energy somewhere to go, they will process the emotion and reset their nervous system. Over time, you can encourage and assist your child in developing a greater vocabulary to describe how emotions feel in their body and enhance their ability to communicate effectively.
Let the Body Be The Guide
Children are so much better at processing emotions. We don’t have to do much other than encourage them to do the movement their body wants to do and keep them physically safe. The body will choose to rock, twist, swing, stomp, clench, etc. Adult bodies are no different, we’ve just ignored or shut down those sensations because we were told that expressing our emotions wasn’t acceptable when we were children. You can increase your own emotional processing and somatic awareness by also incorporating these movements. If you notice your jaw clenching when you are stressed, try inhaling and tensing your entire upper body. Hold it until you can’t any longer, and then release those muscles with a satisfying exhale. Do it again, inhaling on the contraction and exhaling on the release. It feels good!
Somatic awareness allows children to bridge the gap between emotions and physical sensations, fostering emotional regulation, empathy, and effective communication. Let us know what you’ve tried for both yourself and for your child.