The Art of Tantrums

January 13, 2015

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‘Hungry Ghost II’ ~ Sara Roizen

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

~ Winston Churchill


I’m typing this as my crying and flailing (almost) 2 year old throws the fourth tantrum in a row this morning. I’m not even halfway through my cup of coffee.

I remember when he was an infant other parents would tell me, ‘enjoy this stage because before you know it he’ll be in the terrible twos.’ I would smile and commiserate about this future stage, but inwardly I would think smugly ‘not my son.’ Surely, there must be some children that skip this stage altogether and he could be one of them.

Zoom back to present moment. (Always good advice right?) I remember our pediatrician’s advice and our own recent method of working with tantrums.

1) Make sure he understands he’s safe and that I’m not leaving the room.
2) Go about my business as calmly as possible in his general vicinity.
3) When the tantrum eventually ends, continue doing whatever we were doing beforehand together without praising or scolding him.

There’s a lot about this way of approaching tantrums that made the object relations trained therapist in me protest. To oversimplify, the object relations psychoanalytic school of thought is based on the idea that our early experiences with caregivers (mom, dad, etc.) largely shape the way we develop and interact with the world and others. Our earliest interactions from infancy and into childhood impact the way we view situations throughout our lifetime and therefore impacts our behavior and relationships as adults. With this background in mind, I wondered if ignoring a tantrum would result in my son feeling invalidated and abandoned?

I had to do some inner searching based on my own experiences with tantrums. Perhaps I don’t fall to the floor kicking and screaming, but I have my own versions as an adult. I think about the times when indescribable anger, sadness, or hopelessness flood my entire being. These are the times that I cannot trace the experience to anything specific. It’s more like my entire body and mind is temporarily hijacked and I just have to ride it out for as long as it takes. It’s like a contraction during labor that seems like it will never end. You just have to be fully in it because there’s nowhere else to go. Whether it’s the pain of a contraction or the emotional pain of an emotional ‘tantrum’ – my experience has always been that I need to be with it alone. In fact, my husband, a friend, or any other well-meaning loved one can’t reach me during those times. I’ve had to learn this the long and hard way. All they can do is sit beside me or let me know they are nearby. When I’m ready, I know they are there. They are not invalidating my experience, but rather giving me the respect and psychic space for me to be in.

The often confusing distinction between a tantrum and a different type of emotional time becomes clearer with practice and observation. I am learning when my son truly needs me to step in with a hug, words, and more hands-on attention. During those moments, my interactions with him help rather than hurt. During a true tantrum, I am learning to give him the space and respect he needs to let those gigantic waves of feeling and energy out. Both ways of reacting are validating. One validates through closeness and respect, and the other validates his experience through space and respect.


‘Eye of the Storm’ ~ Sara Roizen

So how does my toddler’s temper tantrums relate to art therapy, mindfulness, and life in general? I think it is like this: We will all experience our own ‘tantrums.’ Our therapy clients will have them too. You know the client in the group that sits there with arms crossed and refuses to make art? Or the client that throws a cup of paint water across the room? (True story). They are speaking to you loud and clear and they deserve a form of validation. Often this might be me saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here and you don’t have to make art. We are happy to have you sit with us while we make art. Do what feels best for you today.’ Then I continue to lead the art therapy group. Or for the paint water throwing client – ‘wow, I see you’re feeling out of control right now. We need this group to remain safe for everyone. This staff person is going to bring you to the lobby where you can sit and feel safe alone for as long as you need. I will check in on you after group.’

These sound like overly simplistic scenarios or reactions, but in my experience the calm reaction is often so unexpected that it can be effective. Most of my past clients were not used to having the option for space. They were used to punitive actions and an escalation of emotions all around. Space can be a gift when given from a place of compassion and awareness. I think one of the hardest lessons for me as a therapist is remembering that my job is not to ‘fix’ anyone. I can’t micromanage how my clients feel. I can’t make them feel good about the art and work they are doing with me. I can’t take away their pain, anxiety, or any other feelings. That’s not what therapy is about. Sometimes therapy is about taking an active and engaging approach with my clients in the moment. Sometimes it’s about being the quiet and aware presence next to them while they rage. It’s trusting that deep down they have the ability to move through the emotional ‘tantrum’ and that fully experiencing these waves is actually healthy.

The end to my morning toddler tantrum story is that he did eventually stop flailing around on the floor and screaming. I sat reading on the couch. He walked over to the tissue box and then calmly handed me a tissue so that I could help wipe his nose. All of this as if nothing had happened. I marveled at his ability to experience such big feelings and was almost envious of the way he let them take over and then let them go completely. My little toddler Zen master…always testing my mindfulness and ability to sit with what is.

When framed that way, even a tantrum is a gift – even though unwrapping the gift isn’t always pleasant.


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