Tears and Tantrums – just a storm in a teacup, or a path to peace and presence?

Yesterday my daughter cried.  Her friend had come to play and they both wanted to drink from the blue cup.  She looked at him; her chin wobbled; her mouth trembled.  Her eyes unveiled her sadness.  Then came the tears.  Sitting next to Lana, her dad and I looked lovingly at her.  Joseph sat cuddling with his mum.  After a few minutes daddy said, “Come and have a cuddle, Lana.”  The tears subsided, yet I sensed that his offer had cut the tears short and there were more to come.  The day before, Lana had been with her dad when he injured his leg.  She had seen him calling out in pain, the blood, and my shocked reaction.  So the tears weren’t so much about the blue cup, yet the cup, and the relaxed attention that we were giving, gave her the opportunity to heal from the previous day’s events.  Even after that little cry, Lana regained her willingness to cooperate, and the children found a way to enjoy the blue cup together.

A little later, she and I were in the pool with Joseph and his mum.  The two children were jumping in over and over again.  Each time, Lana jumped closer in to the edge.  Several times I asked if she was willing to jump further out from the pool.  She kept jumping closer.  Finally, she jumped very close to the edge.  My friend suggested that I set a limit, and so I held Lana as she made her way to the step.  Immediately she burst into tears, and cried in my arms, kicking in the water. About 15 minutes later, she relaxed into a hug.  She asked me to swim with her and we did some laps together.  That day there was an added warmth and closeness between us.  She joined in mopping the floor with me, spontaneously took the washing out, and asked if I’d like to hang it up with her.  I remembered how she loved to cooperate and contribute once she’d released the stress from her system.  Connecting became a joy again.

Crying, raging and tantrums can easily be misunderstood.  Manipulation, over-reacting, over-tiredness or “trying to get their own way,” are interpretations parents make.  However, crying, raging, and tantrums are the ways in which children heal from stress and trauma.  They are not misbehaviour but the way back to balance - as long as there is someone present giving the child love and acceptance.

The cup incident and the pool event indicate two of the many different ways in which crying-to-heal occurs.  Sometimes it is stimulated by a seemingly minor event, like not being able to find the favourite shoes; other times a child is gently prevented from hurting themselves or others, allowing the causative emotion to be shed in the tears that fall.  There is a difference between a genuine emotional release/tantrum, and acting out behaviour.  When a child hurts another, or throws something, or shouts angrily, this does not help them to heal.  What does help them are the tears that accompany active movements and crying.  Tears allow stress hormones to leave the body (as does sweating); any accompanying words, sounds or movements help release physical tension. 

A tantrum is different to adult anger, which occurs when we tell ourselves someone should or shouldn’t be doing something.  Tantrums are related to frustration and tension, which builds up to the point of explosion.  A child close to having a tantrum is not able to think clearly, so trying to explain or rationalise with them is pointless.  Once they have let their feelings out, they will come to a natural state of clearer thinking.  The issue can be discussed if need be; often resolution comes naturally. 

Supported crying helps learning and concentration.  Several times I have seen my daughter cry when she was frustrated, and afterwards do that new thing with ease.  Crying releases frustration and allows the child to have more awareness and attention for new learning experiences.  Unreleased frustration can lead to an avoidance of new learning situations, since the child continues to protect himself from the painful feelings.  Pent-up feelings may also lead to hyperactive behaviour, where inner tension stops a child from being able to concentrate. 

Unshed tears often lead to conflict between children.  A friend came to visit with her three-year-old daughter and new baby.  My daughter, then four, also had a new baby brother.  Before long the two children were both holding on to a toy, each trying to wrench it from the other.  I held onto the toy whilst the girls both tugged at it.  I told them that I would hold on to it with them whilst they found a way to meet both of their needs.  I offered them empathy – were they feeling upset, were they both wanting the toy?  One was crying, the other nearly so.  Then the other mother took the toy away, and gave it to one child, and then the other, but neither was interested.  From my point of view, both children had some stored upset feelings about sharing their mother with their new sibling.  The toy-sharing incident gave them an opportunity to heal from a chunk of that pain.  As parents we may try to get children to share, or be rational, or make things fair.  But when we do this, we often stop them from offloading their feelings.  Staying with the sticky places helps them release feelings that have a similar theme to the present situation.  When given the space to do this, they finish crying and naturally find a solution to the issue, often one that the parents hadn’t even considered!

As parents, our emotional state will determine whether our children feel comfortable to trust us with their emotional world.  Raging and tears often come after a period of warm connection between parent and child.  Regular periods of “special time’, when the parent plays with the child whatever the child chooses, and takes the less powerful role in a humorous way, will also lead to more emotional safety for crying and raging.

Raging and crying often come before bedtime – is the child over-excited or overtired, shall we try to calm him down or settle him?  Actually, these interpretations and techniques short-circuit a child’s natural calming ability - a cry or a tantrum.  Like yin and yang, when a child is supported to move into and through his intense feelings, he will naturally return to deep stillness and calm, and a restful sleep.

What causes crying and raging?  When a child experiences stress, frustration, or a sense of powerlessness, the tension in his body builds up.  Stresses include parental tension or conflict, new experiences, violence in real life or on TV, punishment, or events they don’t understand.  When a child enters a new developmental phase, frustration is inevitable, and a parent can expect more tears at such times.  If a child is having many tantrums, parents could reduce stressful events in a child’s life.  Tantrums are more likely to occur if parents often try to pacify their child’s tears.  A child who is supported in crying over day-to-day hurts is able to let off steam regularly so it doesn’t need to build to a tantrum.  Tantrums occur when the feelings are so overwhelming that even the parents’ efforts to pacify cannot stop the flow.

The trigger for the tantrum may be directly related to the held-in feelings (for example, if the child’s dad has recently moved out, and she has a tantrum at the end of playgroup), or it may be unrelated, where the child finds any frustrating event or even “manufactures it” as an opportunity to do some emotional healing.  In the event of the latter, we can avoid trying to fix things, stay with our loving limit, and trust the child’s natural healing ability. 

We have all no doubt seen a parent pulling the hand of her screaming child out of a shop, Public display of such feelings is often judged as “misbehaviour”.  Parents ask me, “Surely a child needs to learn when it is appropriate to cry?”  Yet such strategies often backfire.  When a child knows that his most intense feelings are lovingly accepted at home, he is more likely to express them there rather than in other’s homes or public places. Parents who see the warning signs for an approaching release can help the tears flow before the shopping trip, leaving a co-operative child and a joyful outing for both of them. 

Finally, being there for your child when he rages or cries means far fewer of the behaviours that push our buttons.  Most of these are caused by an accumulation of hurts.  Hitting, biting, swearing, whining, clinging, refusing to cooperate, not listening, doing things that they know you hate; all of these dramatically reduce. We feel more warmth and joy with our children.  Trust and intimacy increase.  Parenting returns to being a pleasure.

For more information,


Solter, A.  (1998) Tears and Tantrums:  what to do when babies and children cry.  Shining Star Press, Goleta, California.
Solter, A.  (1994) Helping Young Children Flourish.  Shining Star Press, Goleta, California.

This article was published in Nurture, Natural Parenting Melbourne, Winter 2007.