Tantrums and whims – the 5 lessons I’ve learnt

Whims and tantrums, is it a recurrent thing for you? Do you ever feel like spending most of the time with your children yelling that you can’t go along with their whims? Only, it ends up with the worst tantrums? Let’s find some tricks that could really help you out! 

whims and tantrums
Is my daughter throwing a tantrum on a whim?

What are whims ? What are tantrums?

I realize I use these worde when my children show their anger, often in an exaggerated fashion, due to some frustration for the refusal of something they wanted.

After several readings and learning, especially Isabelle Filliozat's books, I understood and internalized the fact that until 5 years old, the part of the brain able to control one’s emotions is not mature enough to react as we adults would like.

And besides, even as an adult, I have troubles sometimes in controlling my own frustration (for example when my children don’t listen to me!).

You can actually do a little test by yourself. Just to check on your child’s cognitive developmental stage. Ask him / her to insert different geometrical shapes in the corresponding hole, as in a toy cube (like this one, to be clear).

If he (she)’s capable of inserting all the right shapes the first time, then his prefrontal cortex is mature enough to understand our Nos without too much fuss.

Otherwise, stay on guard! And remember : he just cannot control himself, he doesn’t have the brain capability yet.

Positive parenting, whims and tantrums

I invite you to read these articles of other blogs dedicated more specifically to positive parenting, because I find there very interesting sources of reflection (here, here, and also here, to quote only a few).

According to this approach, there is no such a thing as a whim for a child. Just to be clear with the words I use : by this I mean that children do not try to manipulate us to bend us at their will. We will talk about meltdowns and tantrums and their differences shortly, in a separate post.

Let’s come back to our child’s brain development. Up until 5 years old, the prefrontal cortex is not mature enough. This means, he simply cannot manage his reactions with the purpose of making us do something. Manipulation is a key concept here!

On the other hand, a child’s dominant brain is the emotional one. What the child probably expresses then when he cries and yells, it’s a need that we didn’t catch, or that we didn’t attend to.

Still following me?! Ok then. I go further.. When we react with our own anger, unfortunately we do make things worse. Because emotions are contagious (thank you mirror neurons!) and we, as parents, are a fondamental behavioral model for our children.

Simply said : when we get mad, we send a clear message. “I haven’t understood you! and even if I had, your need wouldn’t have the right to be expressed!”. And more, we amplify our child’s reaction through imitation!

Not the best scenario hum? ..

Some examples?!

But. I don’t know about you, but in my daily life, how many times had I in mind all these principles, yet I did not know how to apply them correctly or handle the situation myself FIRST.

My daughter in particular, who is 5 years old and therefore should by now have the sufficient neural connections in place to listen to me, still has a hard time accepting that we can not always do as she wishes.

Where is the mistake here? and the solution?

Let’s make it real

We are at the airport, waiting for our returning flight of just over an hour, after a very tiring weekend. The elements of risk are all there: it’s the evening, we all just want to be in bed and rest. Very dangerous situation from the start.

My husband makes a mistake and buys a bottle of sparkling water.


“But dad!!! you know we don’t like it!! why did you buy it ?!” with a yelling tone way past the acceptable.

We try to get some gas out of the bottle, but my daughter wouldn’t even try to drink and insists with her protest. At this point, I refuse to buy a new bottle, simply because I want her to learn to ask things nicely, without immediately shouting against us. Whims and tantrums are banned here!

Maybe it boils down to a power struggle?

On the plane, I decline the offer to buy some water, and here’s the big crisis – I believe that migrating birds passing by just changed course when they heard her.

(I admit it, internally I completely understood her. I hate sparkling water too. But still.)

Dad gets to calm her by listening to her, and my daughter manages to tell him that in the end, she was not even thirsty, she just wanted me to do as she’d asked. How do you answer to that ?!

As long as it’s the two of us parents, we can handle such crises by alternating the roles, but when we are in a “duel”, I admit, often I do return to the bad old habit of force battle.

Other scene :

As wee leave the school on our bikes, I stop talking with another parent. My daughter does not wait for me and crosses the street by herself.

I saw her with the corner of my eye and knew that I could trust her; all the same I asked her, for next time, to wait for me. Not to tell her when to cross, but just so that I could look at her, see if she checks well before crossing, and intervene if necessary.

20 minutes of anger. “Mom, you don’t understand! I’m old enough, I’m almost 5, I’m not a baby anymore! I can do it alone!! You never listen to me!” We were in a loop, with me explaining, she repeating her phrase.

In a matter of 5 minutes, I had all kinds of bad images of her future teenage years, and I just wanted to wake up from a bad dream.

Ok right, maybe I chose my words badly, I should have stressed more that I trusted her – something that I told her all the same. Above all, I was not able to show her my empathy towards the need she was expressing : independence.

In the end, she cut it out only when I raised my voice, and explained that she was under my responsibility, and I could not allow that something happened to her because I loved her too much, and the road is dangerous. She calmed down when I expressed my own need, my fragility, and my love.

Any suggestions there?

First resolutions – when things start to ease

Confronting myself with other parents and other children helps me to step back and see the “parent-child” interactions from a different perspective, so I’ll advise you to do it whenever you can (why not here on this blog?!).

Some time ago, I witnessed to the crisis of a 2-year-old son of friends. He was really angry because he wanted to take a bath right away, while his mother tried to make him understand that the bath was only to be postponed later in the day. The boy’s anger was too strong and he couldn’t calm down. He pushed away his mother verbally and physically.

So I allowed myself to intervene; I knelt down to look him in the eyes, and I asked him: “What do you like the most about your bath? The foam? Or the toys? Water jets?”

I could see that even though he was not answering me, he was paying attention and listening. So I continued to talk to him about my children’s bath, and what they like the most, and then we went to ducks and frogs and other animals..

In the meantime we were on the ground, he had stopped crying, and I could even make him do  the yoga child’s pose, at least a few seconds! Apparently, it works magic.

After 5 minutes, he had forgotten all about his bath and consequent tantrums.

The said mother returned me the favor.

We had breakfast together. My son (2 years and half) had put some cereal in his cup, and he was poured milk, as usual.

Suddenly, he started crying and saying he doesn’t want milk.

I replied, “Okay, you don’t have to drink it your milk, what do you want instead?” But he kept shouting that he did not want milk.

I began to get upset and told him that he didn’t have to drink the milk if he didn’t want to, but he had to be quiet or leave the room.

I do realize now that I didn’t really listen to him, I just wanted to have my coffee in peace. Anyways.

My friend took over and asked him: “Maybe you want some coffee in the little cup, like mom and dad?” Silence.

“Yes, let me see!” we gave him the little cup, empty. “Do you want this one, with some coffee?” He shook his head on a vigorous “no”, and a smile.

“Would you rather have milk?” Sign of yes with his head, and very big smile. “I want my milk!”.

End of crisis.

Small tips

From these episodes and these readings, here the 5 lessons I’ve learnt (and for more, you can find some practical inspiration here) :

  1. let’s begin by really considering that our child doesn’t do it on purpose. Let’s forget about whims and tantrums. Our child is facing an emotion he does not understand nor manage it. He’s not feeling good, and he doesn’t want to make you angry. Remembering this, will help us find our empathy towards him. (Or, we can always keep in our pockets a tiny picture from when he was a baby, and look at it when needed to be filled in by all the tenderness it would provoke..)

  2. it’s often useless to get mad at a child under 4. He doesn’t understand, can’t help it..Our anger only stresses him even more. We’d better leave the room for a few moments, and breath with all our lungs.

  3. kneeling down to child’s eye-level helps a lot to get in touch with him, with his emotions. Let’s make use of our mirror neurons!

  4. Try to understand what the child is feeling. What’s the need he’s expressing. Let’s then put it into words for the child to hear and understand. Very often the child doesn’t understand what’s going on inside him. He needs us to verbalize it. Let’s ask him: are you crying because … is that it? Do you feel as if … ? Very often, I noticed, when we get it close to right, the child will say yes, and will begin to calm down. He will feel understood, normal, accepted.

  5. Let’s hug our child, give him reassuring physical contact. Avoid adding our anger to his. A calm environment will instead help him settle from his tantrums.

What shall we do when it doesn’t work, when we end up loosing our own temper, threatening, or punishing?

We can try, once everything has indeed calmed down, to talk to the child again and explain what happened. Why he got angry, why we got angry, how we lost control, and how we can do better together next time..

Lately, I was under stress, and I was home alone with the kids. I had repeated several times to my daughter to go put on her pajamas, unsuccessfully.

I needed her to go on her own, so that I could finish tidying up the kitchen.. We could have then spent more time reading bed stories. But my daughter didn’t want to, and pretended not to hear me.

Now I know, I was in a very bad mood. I had been lost in my own thoughts the whole evening and was feeling nervous.  I didn’t give her the sufficient emotional support and presence. We’re not perfect, let’s face it!

I put myself in such an anger that I could not contain myself. I shut her up in her room and slammed the door so hard that the picture on the wall fell to the ground in a thousand pieces.

Shame on me….

Then we sat down, and we talked about it. I explained that I always ask them to control their reactions to anger, but sometimes even I can’t do it. I showed them the effects. Described my emotions and theirs. And we all learned a little lesson.

Do you know other tips and tricks that work well for you? Then write! Are you facing similar situations with your children, their.. “whims and tantrums” and want to share them with us? Comment here below! 🙂

On this website we use first or third-party tools that store small files (cookie) on your device. Cookies are normally used to allow the site to run properly (technical cookies), to generate navigation usage reports (statistics cookies) and to suitable advertise our services/products (profiling cookies). We can directly use technical cookies, but you have the right to choose whether or not to enable statistical and profiling cookies. Enabling these cookies, you help us to offer you a better experience.

Some contents or functionalities here are not available due to your cookie preferences!

This happens because the functionality/content marked as “%SERVICE_NAME%” uses cookies that you choosed to keep disabled. In order to view this content or use this functionality, please enable cookies: click here to open your cookie preferences.