THE BLOG
09/04/2013 03:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

Should Parents Respond to or Ignore a Tantrum?

I wrote a post recently about how time-outs and self-soothing have been debunked by science because of the harm they cause to the brain and psyche of children. There was some discussion around whether it matters if the behavior is a tantrum or a meltdown.

The thing is I've never looked at my child and thought "He's just having a tantrum." Maybe it's because I'm not interested in the label. I've always wanted to know the why, not the what. Maybe it's because the label is a bit disrespectful. You can ignore a tantrum, but you can't ignore a child in need of help. Maybe it's because I've never wanted anyone to look at me and say, "that's just a tantrum," even when I'm clearly having one. I hope they think instead, she's really frustrated, or upset, or needs some help. That would be kinder.

When I call my child's actions a behavior, when I label it "a tantrum," it kind of lets me off the hook. Oh, that's a tantrum. He has the problem. He needs to learn. It sets us up for a power struggle. Which isn't helpful. Instead, I look at him and say, oh, he's really frustrated, or upset, or needs some help. Because it's kinder for both of us.

And I'm sorry to be the one who says it, but a child in tantrum is still a child in need. It doesn't matter how they got there, they still need our help. Yes, it's true. We're still the adult.

Whether my child is in meltdown or just frustrated by life, he needs my compassionate presence. If it's a tantrum, I don't need to fix it. I just need to offer myself, as Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté call it, as both an "agent of futility" and "agent of compassion." I sometimes mix that up and call it angel of futility. Which makes me laugh. Which is good in the midst of frustration.

An agent of futility throws up their hands and says, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I wish I could help. I'm sorry you're feeling that way. I wish we could do something about it, but we can't. " An agent of compassion hears and reflects the child's feelings and says, "You sound so mad. Oh, this is very sad. I know you're upset."

And acting as both agents (or angels), you stay with your child, not ignoring, but not trying to fix, not unfeeling, but staying calm and regulated in your own feelings -- supporting your child as he rides the wave of anger and sadness.

We all get caught up in our emotions. It's wonderful to have someone support you through them and show you you're still okay. You're still worthy of love.