I Know Nothing About… Tantrums

How could you say no to this face?

I got a surprising amount of sassback on my meltdown post.  Sure, most of my commenters related to the complete irrationality of my kids’ tantrums, but some took it as an occasion to attack my parenting skills.  What interested me most is that I got it from both sides — those who think I’m too hard on my kids — “Sheesh give some freedom dad” — and those who argue I’m too lenient — “You’re the adult, ACT LIKE IT. Sheesh.”

Well, at least they agreed that I deserve to be sheeshed.  It’s a starting point.

OK, fair enough.  Proclaiming myself a “Superdad” certainly invites people to test my invincibility.  But hey, even Superman has kryptonite.  Mine happens to be tantrums.  And potty training.  And getting my kids to eat vegetables.  (And about a thousand other things, but I’ll save those for other posts.)

You think I’m in over my head when it comes to tantrums?  Well, you’re right.  I know nothing about them.  Nothing at all.

Except for the following…

A tantrumming child is not necessarily a sign of a bad parent.  I admit that before I had toddlers of my own, I’d sometimes see a kid melting down in public and think, “Why can’t those parents control him?”  I know better now.

Still, those judgmental jerks are out there, and if your kid throws a tantrum at the pumpkin patch or at IHOP, you can expect them to make themselves known.  The nicer ones just shoot you judging looks.  The real assholes think it’s their job to teach you what you’re doing wrong.

Their technique is always the same.  They bypass you, the parent, and crouch down in front of the kid.  Head tilted to one side, they crank the empathy up to a thousand and pout, “Oh no, little guy!  Why are you sad?”

Oh right!  Why didn’t I think to ask my kid why he was sad?  Thanks, Dr. Spock!

Bad news, genius.  Chances are my 2-year-old isn’t going to calmly explain to you that he thinks he should be able to stay in the pool all day even though he’s shivering, he’s hiccupping from all the water he swallowed and we’re running late to pick his other Daddy up at the train station.  The whole reason we’re in this mess is that his little mind isn’t capable of rationalizing any of that yet.  All he knows is: “Pool fun.  Daddy took me out of pool.”

I’d tell you that myself, but you didn’t ask me, jackass.  Go ahead, try your way, though, because you know what always helps kids relax?  Having to talk to complete strangers.  Yeah, that’s like a trip to the spa for them, totally clears their minds.

If my kid does stop crying for a second, it’s because he’s so terrified of this crazy lady who’s all up in his grill that he’s forgotten why he was upset.  So now the crazy lady thinks she’s the Tantrum Whisperer, and I’m the worst parent in the world.

Two seconds after she walks away, the tantrum starts up again, and now we’re a minute later to pick Daddy up.

But thanks, stranger, because clearly, you know what you’re doing.

Tantrums strike without warning.  One second, my kid is skipping merrily along, quoting Muppet one-liners and telling me, totally unprompted, how much they love me.  The next, they’re willing to stake our entire relationship on whether or not I’ll give them a packet of Dora fruit snacks, like, immediately.

Most of the time, I don’t know the tantrum is coming until after it’s begun.  So I’ll make a decision along the lines of, “No, sorry, I don’t feel like listening to that Katy Perry song for the 10,000th time today,” thinking that’ll be the end of the debate.  Instead, my kid melts down for half an hour.  If I’d known that would be the outcome, I would’ve just said yes and suffered through “Part of Me” yet again, but because I said no, I’m forced to defend my decision.  Once the tantrum has started, I don’t want to give in, or I risk giving the kid the message that acting like a lunatic gets you what you want.

And sometimes it does, because dammit, it’s just a Katy Perry song, and if this kid doesn’t stop screaming, I’m going to drive the car into a tree.

There is no single cause of tantrums.  Tired kids tantrum more often, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to put them to bed.  Sometimes, the kid is bored, they’re testing their boundaries or they’re struggling to express something their little brains just can’t process.  Very often, though, they just really, really want more M&Ms.

There is no single way to defuse tantrums. 

I yearn for the days when distraction was a foolproof antidote to the common tantrum.  If my kid wanted to play with, say, a steak knife, the argument would go something like this:

“I want the knife!”

“No, the knife is dangerous.  You can’t have it.”

“I want the knife!  I want the knife!  I want the knife!”

“How about this train instead?”

“Ooh, a train!”

As they’ve gotten older, the “How ’bout a train?” technique has been working less and less.

Sometimes ignoring them for a while helps.  Other times, what they need is to be cradled and soothed.  Sometimes, nothing works – even giving in.

The kid just might need to throw a fit, and if you give him what he wants, he’ll find something else to complain about, or he’ll complain about the way you gave in.

One time, Bennett wanted me to play a song on our car ride home.  I said, “I can’t search my iPod for your song out right now, because I’m driving, and it’s not safe.”  As soon as we got home, I offered to play him the song, but that apparently wasn’t good enough.  “No!” he screamed.  “I want to hear it IN THE CAR!”

Tantrums are like viruses. Find a way to fight them and they mutate into something even more inscrutable.  You can lessen the symptoms, but you’ll never cure them.

There are no winners in a tantrum.  Sometimes, I give in to my kids, but do they smirk and gloat over their victory?  No, they’re usually too exhausted and frustrated for that, and they still need a hug.

Sometimes, my kids calm down on their own, but that doesn’t make me feel like some kind of champion.  It’s hard to watch a kid struggle through a tantrum, and it can be devastating to have someone you love so much scream in your ear for what seems like hours before they finally give up.  No matter how the tantrum shakes out, I won’t be popping champagne for my parenting skills at the end.

If you are keeping score with tantrums, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.  This isn’t a battle of you vs. them.  It’s you and the kid together, versus bedlam.  You’re helping them through their tantrum, teaching them to deal with emotions they’re not quite equipped to process and showing them where the boundaries are.

Tantrums aren’t competitions, they’re (ugh, overused phrase alert) teachable moments.

Like I said, I know nothing about tantrums, but I have to believe my kids are learning something from them, that each episode brings them closer to an understanding of the world and why I set the limits that I do.  Over time, they’ll learn that there are good reasons why Daddy says no, and they’ll discover more productive ways to petition for the things they want.  If I do my best to help them through this phase, then eventually, they’ll outgrow it and become the mature, rational, productive little citizens I want them to be.

Right?  Right????

Just Your Typical Morning Meltdowns

I. Breakfast

Bennett: “No, Daddy, that’s not enough cereal!”

Me: “Well, eat that, and then I’ll give you more.”

Bennett: “No!  I want more NOW!”

Me: “You need to eat that first.”

Bennett: “No!  I’m not eating it!  It’s not enough!”

Me: “That’s more than you usually eat.  If you finish it, I’ll give you more, but I’m not putting more in the bowl until you eat what’s there.”



II. Getting Dressed

Sutton: “Daddy, I want to wear my blue dress today.”

Me: “You can wear it this afternoon, but this morning I thought we’d go to the Burger King with the play area.  Does that sound like fun?”

Sutton: “Yay!”

Me: “Great, so let’s wear your Little Mermaid shirt.”

Sutton: “No!  I want to wear my blue dress!”

Me: “You always have problems climbing in your dress, so just for the morning, let’s wear your Little Mermaid shirt and shorts.  C’mon, that’s your favorite shirt.”


She grabs the Little Mermaid shirt out of my hand and runs away.  A minute later, she comes back.


Me: “You did what?  That’s it.  You’re getting a time out!”


III. Lunch

Bennett: “Daddy, I want to go to the Burger King in Mount Kisco!”

Me: “No, that one’s half an hour away.  I looked online, and there’s one in Port Chester fifteen minutes closer.”


Me: “Don’t worry.  It said this one had a play area, too.  I wouldn’t take you to a Burger King without a play area.”


Me: “Just because we’ve been there before, it doesn’t make it the best one.  Maybe this new one is even better.  It’s good to try new things.”


Me: “Too bad.  We’re going to Port Chester.”

Fifteen minutes later…

Me: “Here we are, guys!  Woohoo!  Burger King!”

Bennett and Sutton: “YAY!!!!”

Sutton: “Daddy, I don’t see a play place.  Daddy…?”


Half an hour later…

At Mount Kisco. Notice what she’s wearing.


Bennett: “Daddy, can I please hold Sutton’s Rapunzel on the ride home?”

Me: “You need to ask Sutton.”

Bennett: “Sutton, can I please hold your Rapunzel on the ride home?”

Sutton: “Nope!”

Drew: “Sutton, that’s not very nice.  Why don’t you let Bennett hold Rapunzel for the first half of the ride?”

Sutton: “OK, Daddy.  Here you go, boy!”

Bennett (taking the doll): “Thank you!”

Me: “Very nice, you guys!”

Drew: “Bennett, you can hold Rapunzel until we get to the bridge.”

Bennett: “Until we get OFF the bridge!”

Sutton: “Until we get ON the bridge!”

Bennett: “Until we get OFF the bridge!”

Sutton: “ON the bridge!”

Bennett: “OFF the bridge!”