Arwan Sutanto

Oh, Those Tantrums!

6 minutes

Have you ever seen a frazzled mom count menacingly at her child to make him stop misbehaving? I think we all have. I get the concept. I used to count, too. My son always straightened up by two. One day, he asked what happens on three? This savvy little boy was gearing up to test me. Obviously, he was ready for more intellectual discussions about character and responsibility. I stopped counting.

It mystifies me to hear a parent count all the way to ten or count to three and then start over all while the child continues to cause a ruckus.

If your toddler is over-tired or over-stimulated, don’t get mad; just take her home. Even if you’re in the grocery store with a loaded cart. Tell a checker where you left it, so stockers can put perishables back. Then, go home. It’s not her fault if she didn’t get her nap on time. Little ones have trouble controlling their emotions. You might not remember that far back, but toddlerhood can be frustrating. They have so little control of their world. Desires cannot be conveyed. Everything is out of reach and they can’t keep up. They aren’t yet capable of understanding much more than their needs. Teaching children appropriate behavior at this stage is very much like training a puppy.

As children move from those “terrible two’s” to being little kids, modeling takes care of a lot of behavior issues. I never told my child to say thank-you. He just picked it up because those around him said it. And I would never tell my child to apologize. Insincerity sucks the value right out of that kind gesture. But hurting someone—in any way—warrants a discussion about empathy. If apologies have been modeled well, your child will likely offer one on his own. If not, let it go. Don’t teach him to lie. 

Maria Lysenko
Maria Lysenko

Children go through a variety of challenging phases. The out-of-control behavior that used to exhibit itself in tantrums turns into emotional meltdowns. The lack of self-control can also manifest itself in bullying and defiance. Throughout my teaching career, parents have occasionally told me that their child is out-of-control. This usually does not surprise me. I will have seen some evidence in classroom behaviors fairly early on. I see how desperately one or both parents make excuses and fret. Lots of fretting. When kids are in high school, it’s difficult to regain lost authority.

In many ways, teaching is quite similar to parenting. Courtesy is usually reciprocated. Making your wishes known in a friendly way works wonders. And forgiveness is crucial. Many students believe that their teachers hold grudges. I think some do, which is cruel and ineffective. If a student is out-of-line on Monday, we can still be friends on Tuesday. Everyone can have a bad day. In fact, some of my student helpers were problem kids the year before. They respected that I didn’t give in to their shenanigans and they appreciated the many opportunities to reclaim their dignity and our rapport.     

Parents and teachers should guide, not throttle. When students say something thoughtless, without malicious intent, allow them to save face. Sometimes, just making a humorous comment and then moving everyone’s attention elsewhere will take the heat away from a potentially explosive situation. When a student complains about someone’s rather benign although hurtful comment, take the opportunity to talk about intent, empathy and forgiveness. Sometimes, we just need to develop thicker skin.

But when a child is belligerent, there must be an immediate, firm, but calm consequence in the classroom and at home. I never allowed students to roll their eyes at me or walk away when I’m speaking. I will call them back every time until they demonstrate an appropriate demeanor. Of course, this was back when teachers could assign detentions for disrespectful behaviors. This tool seems to be disappearing.

I have learned from elementary and middle school teachers that disrespectful students are simply required to write a letter of apology to the teacher, and that’s that. Remember what I said about worthless apologies? This has resulted in an uptick of unruly behavior. Something has gone seriously wrong.

Taylor Flowe
Taylor Flowe

When a student does not respect and mind the teacher, other students won’t feel safe. Most kids would be mortified by someone’s hostile chiding or snide, critical remarks in or out of the classroom. When students see that their teacher has no power to stop such behaviors, every moment in that class can be terrifying. How do kids learn when they are always waiting for the next snide remark?

Temper tantrums and bullying are about gaining power. For little kids, tantrums are the natural result of living in a world that is hard to manage and understand. Tantrums seem like they stem from self-control issues more than bullying because bullies seem to be very much in control, of themselves and others. Peer pressure and fear of retaliation are powerful weapons. But despite appearances, it still boils down to a lack of self-control. People should not be held hostage by someone else’s willingness to be cruel.

Unfortunately, a lack of correction validates a child’s bad behavior. That reward is seen as a gigantic green light for more of the same. Children need boundaries and correction. According to Professor Sara Goldstein, bullies hurt people to look “cool in front of their friends.” They use it as a “go-to strategy to get what they want.” It is also “just a way to get ahead.” And some kids “simply have difficulty controlling themselves.”

Self-control is a cornerstone of maturity and civility. Our culture seems to be losing its way in this regard. That won’t bode well for the future. In the May/June See Beyond Magazine, I will share some research and observations about self-control and its effect on success. In the meantime, talk to your children about the mood in their classrooms and on campus and the playground. If you are a student in an out-of-control classroom, speak up—even if you are not the target of the bullying. Talk to the teacher, the principal or counselor. Tell your parents. Either the school’s policies need to change, that teacher needs some help or both.

Work cited

Goldstein, Sara. “Why Are Bullies so Mean?” The Conversation,, 27 Nov. 2023. Accessed 4 Feb. 2024.

Oh, Those Tantrums!