islandparent Parenting Behaviour Tantrums & Language Learning

Tantrums & Language Learning

“No! da yewo pwate!” screeched two-year-old Katie as she knocked the plate off the table, sending apple slices everywhere, crying so hard that she was gasping for air.

Jules, her mom, was confused and frustrated by Katie’s behaviour. The apple had started out on a blue plate, but when Katie asked for the yellow one, Jules switched them, only to have it rejected when she put it down in front of her daughter.

This scene is reminiscent of the tantrum videos popular on social media: the child who cries because a broken cracker can’t be fixed, or because they are told they can’t do something they didn’t actually want to do.

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We see these tantrums as unreasonable responses from children who are tired or hungry or not feeling well and so can’t deal with their emotions.

But Katie wasn’t sick or tired or hungry. And she had gotten exactly what she asked for. Or at least, that’s what her mother thought. It turned out that what Katie meant by ‘yewo pwate’ was a multi-coloured plate with no yellow on it at all. She had the wrong meaning for “yellow” in her mind. But from her perspective, she had communicated her wants to her mother, her mother had said she was going to give her what she wanted, and then she was given the wrong plate. To Katie, it seemed like her mother was one being unreasonable!

Miscommunications like this can be at the root of tantrums more often than you might think. Figuring out what words mean is hard, and words that don’t refer to concrete objects are especially tricky. To understand yellow, for instance, you have to understand that the person isn’t talking about the object, they are talking about a property of the object, a property that can look quite different on different objects (for example, a yellow banana is a different colour than a yellow bean).

Words that refer to things that you can’t see at all, like “think” or “sad,” are even more difficult. In our house, the word “hungry” was the cause of a tantrum more than once. The word came up a lot as my son didn’t much like to eat—it got in the way of doing more interesting things. We could often tell he was hungry because of his mood, but when we said he was hungry and needed to eat, he would insist that he wasn’t. And he would get increasingly upset at us for saying it, sometimes to the point of a tantrum—which was of course, made more likely because of his hunger!

Eventually I figured out that he didn’t understand what hungry meant and didn’t want to say he was something he might not be. When I explained that hungry meant having a grumbly sore tummy that wanted food he said “Oh, I feel like that a lot! I guess I do get hungry.” And with that, our tussles over “being hungry” ended.

I should have recognized earlier that language was at the root of our “hungry” problem. After all, child language development is my specialization. But you can learn from my failing.

Try to figure out what your child is trying to tell you. Tell them you don’t quite understand, but want to, and ask them to show you what they want if they can. On the other side of things, make sure that they understand what you are saying. They might think you mean something you don’t and that might be the issue.

Sorting out a miscommunication might have to wait until after the tantrum ends when your child is calm and ready to talk, but if you’re lucky, you can fix things before the tantrum starts. And if you’re not so lucky, the post-tantrum time is a perfect opportunity to help your child understand those especially tricky emotion words. You can explain what sad or mad or frustrated feel like, tell them that you feel those things sometimes too and what you do to deal with your own negative emotions.

It might take a while, but these conversations will help your child learn to deal with emotions without tantrums. And you’ll get a chance to see things from their perspective in the meantime.

Dr. Carla Hudson Kam, PhD.
Dr. Carla Hudson Kam, PhD.
Dr. Carla Hudson Kam, PhD, is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia