change the world badge

change the world badge


Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, October 5, 2015

What Adopted Toddlers Really Wish Their Parents Knew About Tantrums

A lot of people who are interested either in adoption or in child care advice have come across Sherrie Eldridge’s book Twenty things adopted children wish their adoptive parents knew. I’ve seen a number of otherwise intelligent and competent people fall for some of Eldridge’s beliefs—especially the one about the child adopted at birth who sorely misses the birth mother and has to be reminded to process that grief. One adopted mother I know spent hours and hours telling her little boy about his birth mother, making scrapbooks, etc., etc., and completely missing the point that because he went to a foster family at birth and was adopted at 15 months, if he missed anybody, it was the foster family!

Eldridge has recently reiterated this advice at She recommends that mothers dealing with toddler tantrums should use what used to be called a “basket hold”, approaching from behind, pulling the child toward them, holding his hands crossed over his chest, and maintaining this position until the child calms down. This is, in my opinion, not at all a bad thing to do if a child is thrashing around and may get hurt--  but not necessary in the more standard fall-on-the-face-kick-and-scream version. But the interesting thing in her post is that a commenter, Mirah Riben, proposes that the adoptive mother should attribute the tantrum to unresolved grief and ask the child, “are you missing your first Mommy? I bet she misses you too”--  to which Eldridge rather testily replies that she has said this many times, but it wasn’t what she was talking about this time.

A couple of issues come to mind here. One is the question: do toddlers (or older individuals) adopted at birth or in the early months remember and miss their birth mothers? Does this make them angry and cause tantrums? Answer: No, probably not, on all counts. Memory for experiences is quite limited in the first months of life, and even events that a baby learns to recognize do not give rise to long-lasting memories unless the events are repeated many times. A toddler or older child who is abruptly separated from a familiar caregiver will grieve and be depressed and irritable for some months, but this reaction does not occur before about 8 months of age at the youngest, and the child recovers completely if given good care and emotional support by a new caregiver.

What about the anger? Is a toddler who is angry only having tantrums because of a past loss? No, to tantrum is human, to forgive, the capacity of a mature adult. In fact, tantrums are not only human, they are characteristic of all the higher primates. Harriet Rheingold, an animal behavior researcher, described years ago how she saw baby baboons on the Serengeti throw themselves on the ground in full-scale tantrums when their mothers would not pick them up and carry them. (Baboon mothers are not the pushovers that humans are--  they refuse to pick up when the baby gets to 7% of the mother’s body weight.)

Tantrums are a response to current frustration, not to long-past separation. Difficult as they may be to cope with, toddler tantrums are also evidence of good development in that the child knows what he wants and recognizes that it isn’t happening, a real step forward from the  easily distracted baby. But they are also an indication of the underlying immaturity of the child, who isn’t yet able to make himself wait or to think about how best to get what he wants.

It’s all well and good to think about how normal tantrums are, but that doesn’t mean that they are easy for parents to tolerate--  especially in public, where stress is increased by people’s disapproving glares or advice to smack the child a good one. Are there things we can do during the tantrum, even when the tantrum doesn’t put the child in any danger? Probably there is nothing we can do to stop an ongoing tantrum, but we do need to keep ourselves from making the tantrum more intense by yelling at the child, hitting, etc. We also need to avoid making tantrum behavior  more likely by “giving in” after the tantrum is well underway.
Are there preventive efforts that can work? I think they are, and some of what I’m going to say about them is drawn from the work of Lisa Poelle, author of Chronic biting extinguished, a book about ways parents and caregivers can change their own ways and improve aggressive and oppositional behavior in children 6 months to 3 years old.

Poelle’s first suggestion, and mine too, is that adults must plan how to work with toddlers in ways that will reduce the frequency and intensity of tantrums. This is not just about what you do when the tantrum begins; it’s about how you structure the child’s life. Poelle suggests using an action plan worksheet, which involves a number of observations to be done before you begin to plan your approach. For each observation, the adult needs to think in terms of the apparent reasons for the behavior: did it have to do with the child’s stage of development? With previous experiences and recent changes in the environment? With the child’s verbal skills? With the child’s physical condition? Understanding these, and working on them when possible, can help reduce tantrums--  and it can improve adults’ ability to tolerate tantrums rather than to take them as personal attacks.

I want to comment on the physical condition issue first, as I think this one is the easiest to work on. Adults need to be aware when children may be hungry or thirsty, and to recognize that additional frustrations at those times may lead to tantrums. (Incidentally, Poelle points out that children in day care often do not get enough to drink.) Fatigue is another contributor to tantrum frequency. This is a situation where the sensitivity of an adult to the child’s needs may make all the difference. I am not suggesting that toddlers should always be given just what they want for fear of a tantrum--  but adults should have the empathetic ability to recognize that the child’s needs  are not the same as an adult’s. For example, imagine this scenario: Mother picks up two-year-old from day care at noon and decides to stop at a store on the way home to see if she can find a wedding present for a friend. She takes the child into the store in a stroller, and from time to time leaves him there while she steps just a few feet away, but to a place the child can’t see from his vantage point. Can we expect a tantrum? Child is  hungry and tired; mother keeps disappearing; mother doesn’t look at him, or frowns when she does so; mother is also hungry, tired, and anxious about her errand, so what else could this combination add up to? Now throw in a few shoppers giving the crying child and mother dirty looks, or clerks muttering to themselves about brats. We have a perfect tantrum-storm, but one that could have been prevented by planning that took the child’s (and mother’s) physical needs into account

Now let’s have a look at the child’s verbal skills. How do these contribute? One part has to do with the child being unable to express his feelings and wishes, another part with his being unable to understand what adults say. (I remember a massive and unexpected tantrum by one of my children when I said I would cut some daffodils for a friend, and then I would cut some forsythia. But to his extreme distress I did not cut any daffodils for “Sythia”!) It can help a lot to work closely with the child’s verbal abilities--  but as Poelle points out, a child can have excellent verbal skills but poor impulse control, so this is not always the answer.

Previous experiences and recent changes? When a child has been subjected to extremes of discipline, both too much and too little at different times, he may have a disturbing level of anxiety about his own distress, creating even more tension and frustration. And recent changes like entering or changing child care, moving to a new house, having a new baby born, and adult moving in or out of the household, may create frustration. It’s critical to remember that good changes as well as bad ones can have this effect, so that wonderful birthday party with the cake and the exciting pony rides and the hats and masks may be followed by tantrums, just as a miserable experience might be. Life doesn’t always allow us to “titrate” a child’s exposure to change, but when it does, we need to think about preventing toddlers from having too much happen in too little time. Or, if we can’t manage that, we should at least be aware that a resulting tantrum is not unreasonable as an outcome.

There’s a lot more to be said about Eldridge’s suggestions—especially at what may result from telling a child he misses someone he can’t remember--  but that discussion will have to wait for another day.


  1. Toddlers throw tantrums, all of them, adopted or not. I can't imagine how being adopted at birth can have anything to do with toddler tantrums, and for children just adopted as toddlers, it probably has to do with the general frustration of dealing with totally new family and circumstances, not missing the birthmother who in many cases the child was not with since birth, coming out of foster or orphanage care.

  2. Excellent post. It's strange how people who focus on adoptive children often forger how children of the same age raised by their birth parents behave!

    And this eternal insistance on missing the birth mother! (As an aside, why not the biological father, too, I wonder.)

    I knight this just a N=1, but I've met and talked with a woman who had been abandonned at birth by her mother: she gave birth and then walked out of the hospital without the child, and without giving a valid name and adress. The infant girl was put in foster care, where she had the good luck to find a new family : she was raised by an older couple whose biological children had "flown the nest" and now cared for her and one or two children in need. This couple had a confortable experience of parenting, took in only a small number of children at a time and provided love and nurture and a place to call home. The girl in question stayed with them until she became an adult, and they would have gladly adopted her. The only problem was that after a years or two, her biological parents made themselves known, out of the blue, and tried to have her back.

    They didn't succeed in taking her from her foster home. It transpired that the birth mother and her companion (the biological father) were more or less living hand to mouth, moving often, quasi homeless. They also both had addiction problems and often fought, would split for a few weeks or months and then get back together. A chaotic situation, in other words. The judge ruled that the girl would stay with the foster family but not be adopted, and the biological parents would have visiting rights twice a month.

    The arrangement proved a protracted ordeal for the child: each visit to her biological familiy was a reminder that she had been abandonned at birth, to begin with. The happiness she felt with her foster family was being negated by the biological parents, who insisted that the other parents were only taking care of her for money, and that they themselves were her "real" parents...

    When she was sixteen, she was able to refuse the visits, as she was legally considered mature enough to make decisions by themselves. But meanwhile, she obviously sufferred a lot.

    I do empathize with the various movements who try to connect adopted children with their biological parents. But telling a child the truth (as much as is appropriate at each developmental stage of course) about where he or she came from, is definitely not the same as forcing the child to build a relationship with the very adults who wouldn't or couldn't raise them in the first place!

    1. This is a very interesting story. I wonder why the judge did not terminate the rights of the birth parents. After all, they had abandoned the child.
      Yes, she must have suffered a good deal-- the only advantage I see to this arrangement is that it prevented her from building up a romantic teenage fantasy about the birth parents as people who would make her life perfect.As you imply,that would be rather different from deciding as an adult to try to find where you came from.

      I recently read a comment by a birth mother who had entered into an open adoption. So often this seems to involve the adoptive parents also "adopting" the birth mother, but in this case the adoptive mother relied on getting the birth mother to sympathize with her parenting problems.

      And the moral of these stories, I suppose, is that one size does not fit all in adoption or fostering.

  3. Tears, screams, the requirements to do as he wants - with children's tantrums absolutely all parents face. The child tries to cope with anger, resentment and other feelings that it's hard to resist. Sometimes hysteria is a method of pressure on the parents or caregivers and attempts to manipulate. All children are different. Age of the child is important. Is it possible to find a single recipe against childhood tantrums? Each case is unique and has an individual decision. In any case, parents should not show fear and confusion. Only calm and composure.
    Demonstration indifference -If a child threw a tantrum in a public place.
    We can not succumb to pressure ...... If a kid wins 1 times ..... then it will use this method all the time.
    We must explain to the child what happens to him. At least he understands that adults understand what he wants and it makes no sense to cry even more.
    Sometimes the humor and jokes can switch to positive child. But the jokes have to be gentle and inoffensive.
    You can not say a sharp NO. This word could trigger a new wave of hysteria. It is necessary to explain why the child's requirements can not be met at this time and in this place .no need to give the child hope for the fulfillment of his desire to run and under other circumstances.
    In addition to be an alternative proposal by parents or caregivers. It is necessary to propose a replacement who will meet the child and adult. So many options for preventing tantrums .... and a lot of different reasons for the occurrence of hysteria in children. Even the nature of the child is important. What is effective for one child ..... can be completely unacceptable for another child. It is necessary to know the cause, circumstances .... Maybe the child was sick or tired?

  4. I would think that restraining a child would prolong a tantrum. Any studies on that?

    1. I would think so too, but as you can imagine it would not be easy to isolate this variable. As far as I know no such study has been done.

      Curiously enough, when the behaviorist John B. Watson was trying to determine what the basic emotions of infancy were, he used restraint (holding the arms to the sides) to make babies angry. This is apparently very effective in early infancy-- which of course does not tell us exactly how things work in later developmental stages. (And in any case, it doesn't create catharsis, just makes 'em mad.)