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????

39 comments on “I Know Nothing About… Tantrums

  1. I want to like this post fifty times! I hate it when people give me dirty looks at the store because my child is upset and screaming. I want to yell, “Guess what? There’s no ‘off” button.” But most of these rude people are teenagers, so I just remind myself that someday they’ll be in my shoes and I’ll be the old lady giving them dirty looks. Great post!

  2. Sounds to me like you’ve got tantrums figured out! I admit, I was once judgmental of parents when I saw their kids tantruming in stores, that is, until I had my own son. My judgments decreased even more when I started working with children. Job position: behavior therapist. Yep a big part of my job is reducing tantrums in children with behavior problems (generally kids on the autism spectrum, but let’s face it, all kids have tantrums. It’s part of development.)
    I remember being baffled at a situation with my own son, him screaming for me to turn the light off, when I did so, he screamed for it to be back on. I was giving him what he wanted, and he still screamed. Finally I came to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do; he just needed to cry.
    Of course, I know now that I should not have tried to figure out what he wanted, that just feeds the tantrum. Like you mentioned, giving in to a tantrum is not a good idea! However, if a parent is going to give in (let’s face it, we all do sometimes) the best time to give in is at the very start if a tantrum. When parents take a “wait and see how bad it gets” stance, the kid learns to outlast the parent. If the parent either gives in immediately or waits the child out, the kid will learn that anything over a very short period of time is a waist of effort. So best to make the decision as to whether or not to ride it out as soon as the tantrum starts.
    As far as judgments go, ugh. The people who are judging haven’t been in your shoes, and they aren’t raising your child. If they think you’re a bad parent because you aren’t coddling your child during a tantrum, well, maybe they (the judgmental adults) just need more hugs in their lives. If they want you to spank your child, they’ve probably lived too much if their lives being overly controlled. Of course those are just guesses, but everyone has a reason for their behavior, whether it’s a tantruming pre-schooler, a judgmental adult, or a parent gritting his teeth at yet another tantrum.
    Keep up with those teachable moments! I 100% agree. Every tantrum is a chance for your children to learn. They learn to manage their emotions. They learn that daddies’ love is not dependent on tantrums. At the same time, they learn that daddies’ rules don’t change with tantrums. They learn that if they really want something, they need to find a better way to argue for it.
    I always enjoy reading your blog. The world is lucky to have parents who truly care for their children. Someday, I’m sure your kids will appreciate your patience with their tantrums, and whatever other behaviors they have in store for you 🙂

  3. Very right!

    I am always taken by surprise how tiny things can set the little monster off. Like not crossing the road in the right spot. Or not helping him to pull his pants down for a wee. Or helping him to pull his pants down for a wee. Or… As you say, there is no rhyme or reason, he just needs to shout at someone.

    What works pretty well with us (well, I should say hubby’s got it all figured out) are timeouts on the stairs. As soon as he sits down for himself he usually stops the shouting and crying, and then a cuddle and a few soothing words bring him back to our side. Where we can actually manage something like reasoning as of late.

    So hang in there, Jerry, it will get better for sure. And in the meantime just ignore and pity the judgers for they will never experience your kids telling them that they love them.

    • Thanks – and I agree about the judgers never getting to see my kids at their best. I think that’s part of what hurts, in a way, that they might be judging my kid as some kind of terror based on 30 seconds of them at their most extreme, when they’re really fun and wonderful 90% of the time.

  4. I think sometimes tantrums are like a computer reboot. Too many windows opening, too much processing, and boom…the whole thing needs to shut down or blow up. As for judging, tutting, sheeshing jerks…they are everywhere. My daughter has Rett Syndrome and frequently screeches in the supermarket, drawing the tutters over like little Judge-y fruit flies…mentally mouthing a silent prayer that she will kick them…I usually say ‘Your critical energy will only make this worse, so if you really want to help, back off’.

    You are an amazing Dad, and I think you know more than a little about how to handle tantrums. AND, you are right, it does get easier.

    • Thank you – love the rebooting analogy. And you are clearly an amazing mom for braving the supermarket despite knowing your daughter might screech. Sometimes my kids are wiped out and cranky, but dammit, we need milk, so we go to the supermarket anyway.

  5. Things my girls have had screaming meltdowns over: who gets to carry an empty paper bag upstairs, who gets to put her hand on the label on the blackberry container, who gets to have the first of two identical forks I put on the table. You get the idea. While I don’t always manage to follow through, my strategy about tantrums is to ignore it, and then offer comfort and guidance once the storm passes. Hard to do in the supermarket though.

    • Love this, Tom. Someone should start a blog just for tantrum stories. They’re caused by the strangest things, but of course it seems totally logical to the kids. And I wonder if twins traditionally throw more tantrums, because they’re subject to this whole “who gets to do ____?” category.

  6. I adore reading your blog because it reminds me that people with 2 year old are all in the same boat. Kids are supposed to experiment with boundaries, it’s healthy, but it sure can make you bats**t crazy sometimes. Think of the flip side, if your kids never challenged authority and were basically tiny zombies you’d have a lot more to worry about. As for random “helpful” strangers, I’d have no issue of calmly telling them back away from my emotional toddler and exacerbating meltdown.

    • Yes, I have to admit, there are times my kids are fighting me for something that I’m kind of proud of them. We teach our kids to fight for what they believe in, right? It doesn’t mean I’m going to let them stay at the playground all day, but I can’t fault them for trying.

  7. I had a long post about my take on tantrums, and the page reloaded and lost it. So I’ll just say that my kids are 8-12 now, and I’m so very thankful. It really does get easier, and there is this amazing sweet-spot between toddlerhood and teenagers. I think teenagers are going to be pretty great too, but I’m just thinking ahead 🙂

    I’ll just say that I used the tactics described in the book “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be” and they worked really well for my kids. I also like how the book was accepting of pretty much all choices. Supportive of cosleeping, or not. Breastfeeding, or not. There is even mention of gay couples in a positive light. I believe they mentioned one of the authors is lesbian, but I can’t remember for sure this far out.

    That book, coupled with my own tendency to ignore certain behavior, especially at home, got us through those first 5 years with a surprisingly few tantrums, and with kids who are pretty emotionally pulled together and logical today.

    But tantrums are universal… your kids will be ok, and one day you’ll be watching other parents try and manage them and you’ll know to leave their kids alone and how to give them “you’re doing great” smile. 🙂

  8. Oh you are witty! I love this: “little mind isn’t capable of rationalizing any of that yet. All he knows is: “Pool fun. Daddy took me out of pool.” And the lady who thinks she knows how to cure a tantrum? I wonder who cures who own tantrums. There’s nothing worse than an adult tantrum. Believe me, I know because every now and again, I can’t help myself as I fly off into a screaming fit and threaten to throw my computer through the window!

  9. My son had a ridiculous tantrum once in a store and when I picked him up to take him out of the store, he kicked and screamed more. As I was 8 months pregnant, this was quite a scene! I put him under my arm like a football and he yelled bloody murder. I took him out to the car, put him in and stood outside while he went CRAZY. An older lady walked over, hugged me and said I was doing a fine job as a mom. It was the nicest thing ever. My son was a perfect example of a kid who seemed to need to tantrum once in a while. Today he is an amazing grown up who has a calm demeanor and a healthy outlook on how to blow off steam. It all worked out though there were days I wondered….

    YOU are doing an AWESOME job as a dad.

  10. My son used to have irrational tantrums and instead of trying to reason with him, I would just turn away, and say something like, “Wow, this ‘thing over here’ is so interesting.” Or, “I wonder if I should do this or that next”, which would reel him in because he wanted to choose (you might want to give your twins the choice of something they want to do and something they obviously wouldn’t want to do). A tough one was when my son would insist that his name started with a 3 instead of a C. He wouldn’t listen to the fact that it was a C. We just let him know that we disagreed, but that if he wanted his name to start with a 3 for now, that was ok.

  11. The other day I was parking at Target and I saw a little girl throwing a fit in the parking lot with her mom. She was the prettiest little thing holding a stuffed pony half her size, sitting on the ground refusing to move.

    I laughed to myself in the car because it looked exactly like something my niece would do! The mom coaxed her daughter off the ground and then the girl was dragging her pony behind her, so mom was trying to get her to carry it right. And this was the beginning of the shopping trip!

    I felt so bad for the mom but it was so funny to watch because it’s like “I’m so glad I’m not dealing with that today!”

    You’re doing fine. People get really self-righteous when it comes to their parenting styles.

  12. In any walk in life, you come across people who think they know best. Just ignore them and keep doing what you feel in your heart is right for your family. I have two boys ages 10 and 11. One has PDD and the other has ADHD. We have definitely had our moments out in public but I just put my ‘blinders’ on and keep the focus on my kids. Every child is different and needs their own unique upbringing. Don’t listen to anyone else outside the family. They don’t know your kids like you do.

  13. Right.

    They also have no “moderate” or “reasonable” setting. And that scares them. Once they learn that your limits have reasons AND how to just sneer and walk away, they’ll be teenagers.

  14. tantrums are a part of life…especially when you’re a toddler……It’s when I see the tantrum progress into adulthood that bothers me……..Just wait ’til your kids start sports…..and the meltdowns that occur with the parents…..

    You’re on the right track with your parenting……Ignore the stares & comments..as my father use to say: “This too shall pass”….and it usually does….

      • Get thee to a PC………start writing like you!
        If you really want to witness scary parents: watch an episode of Dance moms & toddlers & tiara’s…..
        Thank God my daughter enjoyed riding horses , but my son had so much energy to channel I had to put him in sports…
        Here’s your mantra for the day: I’m a Great Parent..

  15. I love your article! It’s all so true and what many parents deal with. I’d go more with a good parent lets the tantrum just play out and run it’s course because giving in to them (when it’s just an “I want what I want” situation), just it’s a good idea. Always makes for more tantrums because kids see that they “work”!

  16. Hey, I liked this post. If only because I never threw tantrums in my childhood and always thought to myself the shrieking kids must be spoiled. Thank you!

  17. Sooo with you on this; especially with the distraction technique. My boys are 2&1/2 and 1&1/2 and Noah (the oldest) is way passed that phase. Babu on the other hand will happily allow me to swap plug sockets for toy cars/melon (depending on whether he’s trying to lick the socket or stick his finger in it.)

  18. This is the first blog I’ve ever commented on – it’s that good. You made me laugh out loud and LORD can I relate. (8 yrs old, 2 yrs old and 5 months old over here)
    The two year old is fraying my nerves with these tantrums and you summed it up to PERFECTION.
    Great blog!

  19. You are correct, sir! This is a wonderful piece; I think any parent EVER can relate to this. My son is pushing three, and I currently have only one coping mechanism for tantrums–time out. Weird right? We tell him calmly that he can sit in time out until he is done screaming and then he is free to play when he has calmed his body. He usually calms himself down right away instead of sitting in time out. We are working on making good choices, and that is tough for someone so small!

      • Totally late to the party, but I second this. My girl is 3, and we make her calm down, then sometimes give in to what she wanted- the rule is that screaming and throwing a tantrum are not how you get what you want. You have to ask nicely. It doesn’t always work on the BIG ones, but we’re getting to where you can ask her, “Is this how you get what you want?” and she starts to calm down.

  20. Pingback: Mommy and Daddy Bloggers Shoot the Poop: Part One | The Daily Post

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