The Best Advice I Got about Tantrums Will Surprise You

‘Emotional Vomit’: The Best Advice I Got About Dealing With Tantrums Might Surprise You

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I’m just going to get right down to business. When my kids wail and scream like it’s the end of times, it makes me want to flip every damn table in the house. 

Yep, I admit it. I’m a ridiculously triggered parent who grew up in a home filled with yelling, and I’ve had to fight like hell not to lose it every single time my children do. Even if you weren’t raised in total dysfunction, I think you know just how aggravating it can be to have a whiny, chaotic, ear-splitting kid meltdown happening right next to your face. Your blood starts to boil, your chest tightens, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re MacGruber failing to dismantle an atomic bomb.  

Of course, I don’t need to make the overwhelmingly obvious disclaimer. But I want to. I love my kids, they bring me an obscene amount of joy, and they make me want to be my best self. But they also push buttons on me I didn’t even know I had and burst my comfy personal bubble every chance they get. While I’ve successfully learned over the past four years how to stay moderately even-keeled during their hot-blooded outbursts — thank you, therapy and meds! — there are always those moments in my week that tip me over and pour me out. And thanks to the perfectionist in me, I end up spending hours afterwards scouring the internet for ways not to hurl obscenities at my tiny emotional munchkins.

Then one evening during a particularly desperate research sesh, I stumbled upon a podcast episode about kids throwing up, and it unexpectedly changed my parenting game forever. 

Yes, you read that right. A mom and educator has shared a key perspective shift that a mentor once offered her, and it’s the nifty technique of thinking about what happens when our kiddos puke while they are metaphorically barfing out their feelings in the present moment. Just trust me when I tell you to stick around for this, even if it makes you feel a little queasy to imagine. 

“Treat tantrums like emotional throw up,” explains Christina Rochelle, host of the Little Sprigs podcast. “When your child is ill and needs to vomit, what do you do? First, you find a safe and appropriate place for them to do that, whether you’re going to the toilet or reaching for a trash can. And then you understand that it’s really their process — that you are just there for support.”

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This made me wonder for a hot second — how exactly is the best way to support a child who is totally losing their shit? Well, it apparently starts with checking ourselves to make sure we’re not anxious or tense and projecting all of that mental overwhelm onto them. If you really think about it, that’s exactly what we try to do for our children when they’re sick and barfing stuff up. We don’t get angry with them for being messy in that physical state, so why the hell would we get pissed at them for being messy in an emotional one? 

Once you’ve taken your deep breaths or chanted inside of your head or done whatever you can to calm yourself down, it’s all about giving your kids ample space, respect, and safety to express their upset — without hurting anyone or damaging anything, of course. 

“So maybe you’re holding their body a little bit to help stabilize them or moving their hair out of the way,” Rochelle says. “You might say things like, ‘You’re okay. I’m right here for you. I know this is uncomfortable, but you’re going to feel so much better when all of that comes out.’”

I know this concept is much easier said than done, but holy hell is it effective. I decided to give it a whirl a few weeks ago with my Tasmanian Devil of a spirited daughter, and she’s someone who assuredly likes to hit and throw her way out of an emotional breakdown. While she was mid cry-heaving, I sat by her and assured her that I loved her. I gently stopped her from hitting me. I told her I was there for her when she was ready for a hug. Basically, I just let her get her “sads” out without trying to stop her from feeling them. And while I did, I also ensured that she and others were physically safe as she fell apart like the Wicked Witch melting in front of me. 

The result? My daughter was able to feel all the feels, process, and move on. It also led to some majorly adorable snuggling afterwards, which is something that Sprigs advocates for. “And then when it’s complete — and it will complete if you don’t intervene [and] if you don’t interrupt — they will move through and release all of that tension and that stress,” Rochelle explains. “And when that happens, you can just offer some comfort.”

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Of course, we’re all human beings and even parents are going to have vulnerable, messy moments with our children at the times when we’d much rather be the calm, collected CEO’s of their little worlds. But if we could just treat this way of thinking as something to aim for whenever we can, perhaps it could help us raise a generation of kids who are resilient rockstars. What’s more is that when we compassionately give our children the boundaries they may not necessarily want while allowing them the emotional releases they need, we are teaching them to respect both the world outside of them and the world that exists within them.  

According to Rochelle, this way of parenting understandably goes against the grain of so many methods we’ve been taught are useful when dealing with kid tantrums. Whether it’s the harsh response of invalidation, shaming, threats, and isolation or the more passive reactions of distracting and placating our children, we are essentially teaching our kids to push down their feelings and pretend they aren’t happening. Not so surprisingly, this may lead to emotional suppression that can continue well into adulthood.

“What is happening when we’re doing this is [that] all of their feelings, all of their emotions, get suppressed and pressed deep down into the body, and then slowly they learn to control it,” Rochelle shares. “If you continue to tell them that they’re wrong when they express themselves, they will learn to control it to keep the feelings in. And then, they just start to brew. They brew into all sorts of concoctions, like fear, self-doubt, limiting beliefs, [and] insecurity.”

This speaks to me so much, because I was that kid who got told on the regular that her feelings didn’t matter. The emotional, verbal, and physical trauma of my childhood sent a direct message to my younger self that having big emotions during any challenging moment was wrong. The negative conditioning carried into my adult years and left me with anxiety, depression, and even complex PTSD. Thankfully, I’ve seen enough counselors since those early years to get the root of the problem. But the exhausting work of allowing myself to finally experience decades of suppressed emotions is certainly not something I would wish upon my children.

Bottom line is, I want to be a cycle breaker for my tiny, young humans. I’ve decided that no matter how imperfectly I may show up for them, I will continue to do my best to give them space to feel, express themselves, and heal from tough situations. Even if it means grossing myself out a little by pretending that they’re puking when they’re really just pissed off.