A different perspective on how to deal with toddler tantrums
It turns out that according to Freud, toddlers are little versions of humans that have a tendency to lose control over their ego. This often results in a series of meltdowns and tears when things don’t go their way. It also often starts at 2 years old, when they’ve reached a level of conscious processing.
Most of the time, parents just accept their fate for the next decade or two until their little humans turn into bigger humans and finally figure out how to remain civilized. We endure pitiful side glances, thoughts in our heads over our inability to keep our little humans and their emotions in control. We live through the possible judgment of strangers that we might just be horrible parents. However, it turns out that there’s more to character development than just waiting for kids (and some adults) to grow up. Time helps. But it isn’t the miracle cure to everything we want it to be.
id, ego, and super-ego
In the world of psychoanalysis, our adult selves are the result of our experiences and unconscious memories created in childhood. Whatever happened during that time contributed to shaping us into the person that we are today.
According to Freud, our psyche — or the human mind — is made up of three different realms: the id, the ego, and the super-ego.
The id represents our senses, our unbridled emotions, instinctive drives, and automated responses. Young children are pure manifestations of id with their changing whims, extreme ranges of happiness, anger, fears, and general impulsiveness. In their short existence, they haven’t developed the capacity to control these urges and release them in a form that is socially acceptable just yet.
The super-ego is the learned values and societal morals, often passed to the child through the parent and their communities. They are things like how to treat people, cultural expectations, and a general methodological understanding of how the world works. Freud puts the crucial age for establishing this at around 3 to 5 years old.
The ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the id and the super-ego. By construction, it is weak and seeks pleasure via the path of least friction. Unlike the ego and the super-ego, the id doesn’t change over time. Freud argues that it’s because the id is part of our primitive nature, is the seat of our most basic desires and fantasy-oriented. The id has no comprehension of objective reality and is selfish by nature.
The super-ego sits on the opposite end of the id and acts as the moral compass that punishes the person when you act against it. The super-ego can be seen as naturally cold and constructs the image of an ideal self. When a person is raised with a high ideal standard of the self and the ego chooses to satisfy the id, the super-ego punishes the mind through guilt and anxiety.
The polar opposition of the id and the super-ego puts them in a constant state of war, with the ego working hard to obtain pleasure while keeping the peace.
the nurturer or the punisher?
As parents, we’re tasked with installing our children with the right kind of super-ego while training up their ego to keep their id in check. While it sounds necessarily complicated — it’s not.
The task of installing the super-ego for small children usually comes in the form of a structured schedule, healthy habits, and kindness towards others. A punishing super-ego is developed when the caregiver installs expectations too high for the ego to implement. When the ego fails consistently and without help, it can result in two potential outcomes:
- suppressed id, where the child will feel inadequate about themselves and unable to experience a pleasure. This is where the super-ego takes over completely and they find themselves fearful of failing the ideal imposed on them, or,
- disregarded super-ego, where they give up completely and succumb to the pleasures of life without emotional repercussions of how it impacts on others.
When one of these things occurs, it’s because there is no ego to mediate between the two spectrums. The child is then seen as difficult and problematic, which can cause issues for them further in life.
How to help little humans become better humans, according to Freud
No one wants to set their kids up at a disadvantage. However, not every kid is the same. Some children are more agreeable than others. Their agreeableness is determined by their ability and willingness to follow the rules.
The agreeable ones tend to have stronger super-egos, meaning that they’re more predisposed to feelings of guilt when their ideal selves are not met in reality. They’re the kids that you can give just a particular look towards and they’ll do what you tell them to do.
The disagreeable ones are children that are predominantly ruled by their id. They’re the ones branded as those that don’t listen and just do whatever they want. They can be seen as unruly and loud. They’re the ‘harder’ ones in the class, the overly headstrong child that simply refuses to accept authority.
Most three-year-olds are still ruled by their id and the lost battle with the caregiver can result in a complete meltdown or passive-aggressive fury. They can stall, dwaddle, drag their feet, complain, or just plain angry whilst doing the thing they’re required to do. In these situations, we need to reward the ego whenever possible for compliance.
What does this look like? Positive parenting.
No. Positive parenting is not happy thoughts and happy words all the time kind of caregiver. Rather, it’s the act of dishing out rewards for doing the agreeable things with the right mindset. If the child is struggling, then it’s up to the caregiver to model the correct reactions and actions.
Installing a form of a super-ego can feel like a punishing act for the child, especially when their id is strong and highly unreceptive. No matter how agreeable or disagreeable the child is, there will always be some sort of battle. How that battle is resolved depends on the caregiver’s ability to nurture the ego, balance the id and successfully install a form of socially acceptable super-ego that isn’t so severe that it seeks to wipe out the id.
Positive parenting is a method of doing this and it’s about creating clear boundaries and lines that are not too overt in their expectations required by the child. It’s about helping the child come out from the battle between their id and ego mostly in one piece. It’s about giving them chances and the ability to practice developing their ego over their impulsiveness and experiences of emotions in real-time.