Three Things that Where The Wild Things Are Teaches Us About Tantrums

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is so much more than an adventurous tale. Buried deep in its storyline are meaningful truths about how to think carefully about tantrums and big scary feelings. So here are three important messages in this beautifully sophisticated story.


But first, let’s remember the story


In the book little Max, dressed in his wolf-suit, is sent up to his room without supper for misbehaving. From there, Max sets sail to an island inhabited by the ferocious Wild Things, who name him king and share a wild rumpus with him. But then from far away across the world, Max smells good things to eat and longs for home where “someone loves him best of all.” For a full reading of this book click here.


So what does Where The Wild Things Are teach us about tantrums?




In the story misbehaving Max is sent to his room in an absolute flap. He is seething with anger and beyond furious with his mom. In his imagination he meets the wild things who “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” Now while this presents as a dream of sorts, all this “terribleness” is actually a reference to Max’s enormous feelings of hostility and rage he is feeling in those moments. These overwhelming feelings take him far away, over stormy seas and transport him into another dimension. This doesn’t feel too far from the experience of an inconsolable toddler (for example) whose wild tantrum possesses his body and mind and no one can soothe him. The truth is that angry feelings can feel wild and terrifying. Not because they’re bad, but because of how out of control they can feel when experienced, as if they could gobble you up if they get too big. But don’t worry there’s hope…




As the story goes, Max eventually tames the beasts “with a magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once.” But this isn’t magic at all. Because what Max is really really doing is feeling his anger, riding out his “rumpus” thoughts, remembering what is good again and ultimately surviving it all.  It’s important to remember that the wild feelings themselves are not so terrible – they are just feelings after all. But it can feel pretty nasty to experience them. At the end of the story Max realises that he can have the wild feelings in all their glory, but that mom will still love him and all his big feelings no matter what! This understanding that mom loves ALL of him, is what helps him pull himself back together and ultimately re-centres him.




Psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff, points out that this story acknowledges that when a child is in a crazed tantrum, they lose sight of all the good in that moment. What is often overlooked, she says, is the effect a child’s emotions has on the carers, and all the wild things they stir up within the grown-up. When a child screams at you, this is extremely triggering and anxiety levels rise in both parties. Either consciously or unconsciously it drums up our own “terrible roars” from childhood. This results in a confrontation of sorts where our wild things meet theirs, anxiety rises and once anger subsides, guilt takes over. So what causes some parents to lock horns and others to disengage, many to disengage and other to verbalise all the mixed feelings. There are many ways we as parents manage our kid’s tantrums. Raphael-Leff suggests this boils down to our own childhood experiences and how (once upon a time) our own big feelings were handled or mishandled. If your child’s tantrums feel too out of control, it’s important to go and talk it out with a trained psychotherapist to try and name these left-over feelings that may well be lurking in your own jungle. This will allow you the parent to separate from your child in their wildest moments, be more objective and allow the situation to simmer down.


The bottom line

I’m not sure we can master all our gnashing feelings, but I am sure that we can organize them better. The beauty of stories like these is that they put into words what feels abstract and overwhelming. When a child and their carer sit together and read stories about unspeakable things, something important happens between the two of them. So that at the in spite of all the terrible beasts that cause a ‘rumpus’ inside us, we can all lovingly find eachother again (like the “still hot” porridge)  and at the end of the day remember that someone still loves us “best of all”.



Raphael-Leff, J: Introduction to Parent Infant Psychodynamics “On wild things within- An introduction to psychoanalytic thinking” (2004) Karnac Books

Sendak, M: Where the Wild Things Are (1984)

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