Anger and Tantrums

Anger is a universal emotion yet one that most people struggle with in some way. New mothers can expect of themselves to feel only positive, loving feelings toward their baby and can experience guilt and shame when they feel surges of anger toward their inconsolably crying baby or about the loss of personal space and autonomy brought on by the care of a newborn baby. A demanding, defiant toddler who protests over every aspect of daily life can make his parents feel exasperated and even infuriated. Although it is normal to feel angry at your child, it can be hard for parents to comfortably acknowledge and handle their angry feelings.

As your baby grows, she will become increasingly assertive about what she wants and doesn’t want. When she becomes mobile, she wants to explore the world around her, without any sense of what is safe. This is the beginning of a phase in which parents must begin to set limits and curtail their child’s exploration. It is easy to get into a battle of wills with your growing toddler, as his developing sense of self is so often expressed by “no” or opposing the wish of the parent. Although your toddler’s angry protestations are also the underpinnings of his crucial ability to assert himself, this can feel impossible in the moment for a mother to appreciate. Rather, she might experience his anger as a personal assault on her authority or as a reflection of her failure to be a good parent.

Parents are often confused about why seemingly innocent events set their toddler off and can, at times, develop into tantrums. “Why does my 14 month old scream, cry and thrash about when I try to change her diaper?” a mother asks. “She loved having her diaper changed a few months ago.” In fact, for her young toddler, having her body held down and manipulated now feels like an impingement on her newfound sense of physical autonomy. Similarly, for a toddler to be interrupted from his play and told it is time to go outside can feel like a sudden assault on his toddler selfhood. These scenarios can develop into an ongoing struggle between mother and child, possibly ending with the toddler having a tantrum and leaving both mother and child feeling misunderstood.

At the Pacella Parent Child Center, mothers are able to talk about feelings evoked by their baby or toddler and see how other mothers struggle with their own angry feelings and those of their child. They feel less alone and guilty, freer to acknowledge their anger and let it go. How angry feelings were expressed and received in a mother’s own childhood will of course influence how she feels about and manages her own anger and that of her child. Under the guidance of a warm, nonjudgmental group leader, mothers explore how their own experiences being parented affect their relationship with their child. As they grow to better understand their child’s inner experience, they can more easily separate it from their own childhood. Although some tantrums are inevitable and necessary, many tantrums can be avoided once a parent is better able to understand the perspective of her child and develop limit setting techniques that promote his autonomy, thereby eliciting more cooperation and less anger. In our groups, mothers also observe how the child development staff talk to the children and set neutral limits within the children’s group. Each mother gets to explore her own unique interaction with her child to gain confidence in finding an approach that feels comfortable for both.