Opinion: Mind your language!
Friday, June 10, 2022
Tantrum – What's the fuss? Let's talk about words. Spastic. Retard. Retarded. All terms used in the globally renowned Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until recently, to describe a neurodivergent person. It is thanks to the former President of America, Barrack Obama (2010), that such terms were replaced – only in 2013. Did the inclusion of these terms in this clinicians' and psychiatrists' handbook make it acceptable?
Dr. Mine Conkbayir
award-winning early years author, trainer and researcher
Tantrum. Out of control. Crazy. Along with ‘acting out’, are all terms frequently interchangeably used to describe a child who is dysregulated. When we look up the definition of tantrum in the online Oxford Dictionary (2022), it defines a tantrum as:
A sudden short period of angry, unreasonable behaviour, especially in a child-to have/throw a tantrum.
The online Cambridge Dictionary (2022) explains that a tantrum is:
A sudden period of uncontrolled anger like a young child's…
The internationally popular free online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia explains that:
A tantrum, temper tantrum, meltdown, fit or hissy fit is an emotional outburst… is typically characterised by stubbornness, crying, screaming, violence, defiance, angry ranting, a resistance to attempts at pacification… Throwing a temper tantrum can lead to a child getting detention or being suspended from school, for older school age children.
How do these definitions make you feel? Would you feel comfortable if, upon collecting your child from nursery, your child's key person informed you that your daughter had a tantrum because another child took her toy? What about the other associated terminology?: ‘unreasonable’. ‘Hissy fit’. ’Defiant’. Would you readily use these as a practitioner, or would common sense and respect for the child prevent you from resorting to such language?
When language sends the wrong message
One would like to think that workforce guidance would take a more professional and respectful position concerning children's emotional literacy and competence. This, disappointingly, is not the case. In the latest guidance document, Progress Check at Age Two, the Department for Education (DfE) includes three uses of the term tantrum on the same page, to describe some behaviours of a dysregulated child:
Some non-compliance is typical as two-year-olds develop their independence and autonomy. Tantrums, hitting and biting are also common… When they feel frustrated, they may express this as a tantrum. As we help children to talk more about how they are feeling, tantrums become less common.
DfE (2022: 20).
The use of the word tantrum by well-regarded organisations seems to be justification by some academics to include it in guidance as standard. The likes of the Anna Freud Centre (2022) and the Child Mind Institute (2022) use the term tantrum, with the latter including a whole section on their website devoted to tantrums and ‘how to do an effective time out’ – endorsed by clinical psychologists. Again, does this make it acceptable?
Yet, some academics believe that the term tantrum is perfectly appropriate, with the unfounded rationale that terms like dysregulation are not widely used or well understood, whereas tantrum is widely understood by practitioners. This type of counter-argument is inadequate, offensive and patronising. It undermines our intelligence as a sector, while doing nothing to:
- Encourage practitioners to question and challenge the status quo
- Advance thinking, language and practice within the education sector
- Encourage greater understanding and empathy towards children when they become dysregulated
We would not dream of using offensive terms like ‘retard’ to describe a neurodivergent child, so let us exercise the same respect towards children when they become dysregulated.
How should we describe a child who is experiencing strong emotions?
A child who has become intensely upset very quickly and finds it difficult to self-regulate (that is manage their emotions and behaviour, independent of adult support), may cry, scream and shout. They may try to hurt themselves or those around them. This is because they have entered a state of dysregulation – they have become dysregulated – commonly referred to as a tantrum.
Having contributed to the non-statutory guidance, Birth to Five Matters (2021: 20-21), we clearly explained what happens when a child feels overwhelmed by their emotions, i.e. when they become dysregulated:
Emotions running very high get in the way of cognitive aspects of self-regulation, as a child who is experiencing very strong emotions will have difficulty in holding back impulses, focusing attention, or thinking in flexible ways to solve problems. Overarousal of the emotional part of the brain constrains the thinking part, so a child who is very upset will first need help through emotional co-regulation before they can begin to think about the situation.
When the focus is on understanding the child's emotional state and the neurobiology underpinning their dysregulated state, we can reframe the behaviour and better support it. If we are passionate about helping to raise children to be resilient, self-confident and have a positive self-image, we must reassess the terms we use to describe them.
Department for Education (2022). Progress check at age two Non-statutory Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage. London: Crown Copyright.
Early Years Coalition (2021). Birth to Five Matters, Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage. St Albans: Early Education.
The Anna Freud Centre (2002). https://www.annafreud.org/early-years/early-years-in-mind/commondifficulties/tantrums/#:~:text=Tantrums%20happen%20when%20a%20child,aren't%20able%20to%20process. (accessed 23rd May 2022)
Child Mind Institute (2022). https://childmind.org/guide/parents-guide-to-problem-behavior/#block_7b98787e-325d-45fa-88a2-ee5ce9def80f (accessed 23rd May 2022)
https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ (accessed 23rd May 2022)
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/tantrum (accessed 23rd May 2022)