Tantrums … no matter how many Nobel Prizes you may have won, at some point in your parenting life you’ve undoubtedly gone toe-to-toe with a child melting down, embarrassing you with an unparalleled public fit of incomprehensible intensity, and nothing upon nothing you try will calm the child. It’s a horrendous feeling.
The Baby Tantrum
When your child is very young (under one year), the cause of the tantrum is usually a simple one (“I’m tired!” or “I’m hungry, help me!”). These sorts of tantrums tend to be a bit embarrassing for the parent, but when it’s easily dealt with we breathe a sigh of relief that it was food or sleep related, and not totally our fault from a long-term child-rearing perspective.
Sometimes, though, the glaring and judgmental eyes of the public can make parents feel even worse than they do already when a tantrum goes down in a public space. Somehow, the public feels invited to comment on your situation in a passing moment.
I remember an afternoon strolling my six-month-old daughter around the neighborhood as she was crying her eyes out before her nap. This was her pattern and nothing alarming: she would cry before a nap and then she would crash hard. Done.
Without any of this context (nor apparently any faith in me, the father), two grandmotherly-aged women who were walking nearby made a point to approach and reprimand me, “Why don’t you help your child? She’s crying! You should pick her up!”
And even though I was completely confident in my care of her in that moment, it felt awful to be reduced to other peoples’ snap judgments against me.
“Thank you for caring,” I replied kindly, but firmly. “She’ll be asleep in just a minute.” And so she was.
The Toddler Tantrum
It’s notable that the “terrible two’s” are only so for the parents. The kids are fine! They are just doing their natural developmental thing and the parents are the ones who are continuously surprised by their assertion of personal needs and wants. Because of this, the toddling stage of a child’s life tends, in large part, to be a missed opportunity for many families.
Children begin to show their personalities as early as 10 months old, so preparation for how one wishes to mold and shape a young person’s behavior from an early age would ideally begin on the part of the parent even before the child is born.
When toddlers start to “assert their ideas,” especially if it’s not food or sleep related but behaviors and wants related, this becomes more difficult for the parent. It requires an exploration of potential responses by the caregiver, which can be nearly impossible to do in a stressful moment when you’re put on the spot by a mid-tantrum child.
Behavioral tantrums tend to be related to the child-parent interaction and communication pattern, an area that can either get easier with time or get worse if ignored.
When a parent is in crisis mode and dealing with their child’s tantrum, there’s only getting through the moment with as much calm and patience as possible. The strategizing and rethinking of a plan has to wait until later.
That moment of a tantrum is, however, a very powerful teaching moment and an opportunity not to be missed, because it sets up patterns that will either repeat for the better or worse.
When my daughter was about four, she went with my wife to a sushi restaurant where they met a family friend for dinner. My daughter loves avocado maki and the ritual of dipping them in the soy sauce.
Well, for some reason that night my daughter decided she wanted to drink the soy sauce straight up. It started with a sip from the bottle and a firm warning from my wife not to do it again. It happened again, of course … another sip and a warning that they would have to go home if she did it again.
And (who knows what possesses children in some moments) for some reason this warning threw my daughter off the edge of sanity. She started scream crying in the restaurant, so they went outside, abandoning the family friend at the table.
My daughter howled and thrashed for nearly 20 minutes while my wife held her, sitting on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. There was no lesson to be learned by my daughter in that moment, except that she would always be safe and accepted.
Prepare to Turn Tantrums into Opportunities
Being ready to deal with a tantrum or meltdown is all about preparation. It’s a philosophical parenting-style preparation, though, that needs to come from a deliberate thought process about the values you want to instill in your child.
Tantrums also don’t happen in isolation. They are a symptom of a communication imbalance that usually requires some rewiring of behavior on both the kid and parents’ side. Whatever your values are that you want to instill in your child, being ready to teach them at any moment about respect, expectations, and incentives for good behavior can’t begin too early.
And if you set up a foundation of communication where boundaries and expectations are clear, then you’ll have the tools in place to weather any tantrum, and even turn it into a solid teaching moment for you and your kid.
One night at Whole Foods, my five-year-old, who was tired and hungry after a long day, came upon a fuzzy stuffed animal stocked near the door. Her eyes widened and she froze.
“Mom! Dad! The only thing I would ever want in my whole entire life is this panda!” she begged and pleaded.
This was not an ideal discussion to have at that moment; nonetheless she began to melt down big-time. She was old enough that I felt like it could be a successful teaching moment, and it was, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
She was already in tears by the time I got down on one knee to talk to her. She was soon sobbing in desperate pursuit of the fuzzy stuffed animal, and still I knew we had to have a big conversation. I knew that if I said we would buy it just to stop her from crying that it would set a bad precedent.
So, we had to work through our family’s verbal process we had already put in place regarding buying stuffed animals, including how she earned money to put toward just such items. Thank goodness we had already done all that in a calm setting, over and over, so there was already a pattern for this conversation in place.
With that, as she was crying and loudly, publicly talking about what she wanted, I laid out her options of how it could be possible that we maybe get it for the holidays, but it wasn’t going to happen right now. Many people overheard our interaction at the busiest time of night, and it was definitely embarrassing to cope with sobbing through all that, but the key was that in a crisis moment we were able to reinforce the patterning that had been previously laid down.
All told, it took about 15 minutes of conversing with her on this as the public strolled by thinking, “Wow, that’s quite a tantrum!” But we were able to walk out of the store without buying anything and with a further discussion to happen when there were no tears or upset feelings.
We did end up buying the fuzzy stuffed animal (whose name is now Fuzzy), and our daughter spent some of her own money that she earned to get it. But instead of it being a symbol in our house of appeasement, Fuzzy Panda is a symbol of how conversation, comprise, and transferring values to your kids can turn a meltdown into an opportunity for growth and a reaffirmation of the foundation already in place.
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