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It Takes Two to Tantrum

Author // Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D.

When Toddlers Act Out, Parental Expectations are a Piece of the Puzzle

Most of the time, when your child is having a tantrum, the episode is more accurately characterized as an interaction between the two of you. Generally, your child’s behavior influences the way you respond, which then influences her behavior, which then influences your reaction, and so on.

This is why, in my practice, I sometimes refer to “tantrum interactions,” rather than “tantrums,” when working with parents. When we focus too much on what’s happening on the child end of things, we miss a crucially important piece of the puzzle: the parent—and, more specifically, the way a particular parent experiences and perceives his or her toddler or preschooler.

To gain a deeper understanding of our children’s tantrums, we also have to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of what we, as parents, bring to the table. Specifically, what are our expectations?

In my work with parents and young children, I’ve often found some truth in the saying that “expectations are resentments under construction.” When parents hold an expectation of how their child will or “should” act, either in a specific circumstance or more generally, they are essentially laying the groundwork to resent when that expectation is not met. And, frankly, with young children being young children, it’s often not met. In turn, once parents feel resentful toward their little ones—that unique blend of bitterness and disdain that feels so incredibly personal—tantrums only get worse. Whether parents voice their resentment explicitly or let it fester silently, toddlers and preschoolers can feel it. Having a sense that your parents resent you (and your inability to meet an expectation you may or may not have known about or have control over in the first place) is a sure path to an emotional meltdown.

Expectations can take a lot of different forms. Here are a few that I’ve encountered (many over and over again) with parents in my practice:

  • We expect kids to know things they may not know (certain rules, societal norms, etc.).

  • We expect sibling number two to behave similarly to the way sibling number one did at the same age.

  • We expect our little ones to act like our friends’, siblings’, or cousins’ kids.

  • We expect our little ones to be able to keep it together based on our schedule rather than theirs.

  • We expect our little ones to act today the way they did yesterday (even when we ourselves aren’t always that predictable!).

  • We expect our little ones’ development to be linear, when, in fact, the path often zigzags.

  • We expect our toddlers and preschoolers to act the way we did when we were little.

  • We expect weekends, special occasions (such as holidays), or vacations to go a certain way.

  • We expect our children’s day/week/month (life?) to unfold according to a certain master plan (of which they are unaware).

The expectations we have of our children are no joke. They’re deeply entrenched in our own backgrounds and identities. As such, they are frequently unavoidable, and, frankly, they’re not always bad. But a lot of the time, our expectations get in the way. They interfere with our ability to parent effectively, particularly in the case of our children’s tantrums.

So how can we tell when this is happening? Easy: when our reactions are harsher than they would be if the expectation were not in place. If you don’t expect your children to wear particular clothes to parties, or put them in the hamper at the end of the day, you’re not quite as frustrated when they don’t. If you don’t expect your son to be on his best behavior at his grandparents’ house, you’re not quite as upset when he isn’t. If you don’t expect that of course your child will love the beach, you don’t feel so irritated when she clearly hates it. If you don’t expect your child to eat (let alone savor) the delicious dinner you just made him from scratch, you’re less likely to snap at him when he takes one bite and declares, “I’m done.” If you don’t expect your child to take only about two weeks to adjust to her new babysitter, you can be more empathic when week three rolls around and she’s still having a hard time with her.

When you are not quite as upset or irritated and are less likely to snap, and are more empathic, your little one is less prone to tantrums and more easily soothed overall.


A Final Note

Young children actually thrive when the expectations you set for them are clear and conscious, well thought out, and developmentally appropriate. The kind of expectations that hinder rather than help them (and us) give themselves away in their sneakiness. That is, often you don’t realize you have them until after the fact. If they made themselves known from the outset, most of us wouldn’t have them.

No one says, “I expect our upcoming family vacation to go without a hitch, that our toddler will be an absolute gem from start to finish!” And yet parents often have much less tolerance for tantrums on family vacations, starting on day one. Why is that (aside from the common presence of our own parents or in-laws)? Because, subconsciously, we have the expectation that maybe, just maybe, it’ll be an actual vacation this time. Then, when it becomes clear that our kid is still our kid—at home in the living room or on the beach in the tropics—we’re disappointed, frustrated, and resentful. The stakes seem higher, we respond more harshly, and the tantrums get worse. This is even more true when the expectation is a deeper, more entrenched and insidious one.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution to the issue of sneaky expectations, other than—per usual—your growing awareness of this dynamic at play. As parents, we are never done uncovering our expectations; we need to check them constantly, so that we become more aware when we’re clinging to resentments that are under construction. It has been my experience time and again that a greater understanding of ourselves as individuals makes us better parents—more focused, attuned, and equipped to handle even the biggest meltdowns.


Excerpted from The Tantrum Survival Guide by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press


Pathways Issue 59 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #59.

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