Tantrums Revisited


I’ve written a bit about tantrums before but I return to you now, if not a man rid of tantrums, a man more in control of them.

Let me asterisk this by telling you up front that I don’t think it’s too likely that you’ll be able to follow this advice right away. I think eventually you’ll find it’s true, but you will have arrived at this point more or less organically all on your own. I think fighting your way through tantrums is a bit of a rite of parenthood. Everything I’m going to say here are things that I understood academically long before Joshua was walking and talking and some before he was even born. Did me just about no good.

I’ve battled tantrums with yelling. With threats of taking away toys and fun activities. With actual taking away toys and fun activities. With threatening time-outs. With attempts to forcibly hold Joshua in a time-out spot he didn’t want to be in. With attempts to physically restrain him from flailing about. And all that got me was more crying. More flailing. Punches in the face. And a meltdown where I just sat on the floor and cried for a few minutes because I couldn’t figure out how I had managed to fail so thoroughly as a father.

Of course I have not failed as a father. By all accounts I’m doing pretty well and I have for you over here this whole bag of dicks if you happen to disagree. I have not failed, it was simply that I just didn’t know because I hadn’t experienced it yet.

This is why I am sure that you will read all this and may say “I already knew all that Mike” or “I’ll keep that in mind, Scarpelli” but that it won’t make any difference because you’ll be plugging along, happily doing your parenting thing and then WHAMMO your child pulls a Crazy Ivan and all of a sudden they’re coming right for you. You’ll be confused and probably a little shocked and your child will do things that I guarantee you will irritate the shit out of everyone but the most impressively patient. So you’ll go over the edge a bit, too.

The thing to try and remember about toddlers, though, is that they just completely do not understand emotions. And why should they? Emotions are weird as shit. You feel certain ways and you don’t know why. Your brain is pumping chemicals in weird places and the thing about developing minds is that it might not be doing it in the proper doses yet. Now, imagine that you don’t know what to call those ways you feel. Mommy and Daddy are holding your little brother all the time and you feel sad and angry and jealous and you don’t actually know what any of those things are or what comprises a proper level of response so, to steal a phrase from Hyperbole and a Half, your child ends up FEELING ALL OF THE FEELS. Which emotion should they use? Which one will allow them to tell us what they think? How can they tell us what they think if they don’t know what all of the feels are in the first place? How can they STOP FEELING ALL OF THE FEELS? And then they Hulk out.

They also don’t understand certain nuances. Let’s say your child wants to watch TV. You have decided they have watched enough TV for the day and offer instead that you can color or do puzzles togehter if they want, or maybe even have a snack. This, to you, seems a reasonable exchange and a productive one, as you have made a graceful refusal and coupled it with the offer to engage in other enjoyable activities. Your toddler, though? Well, their half of this “What Humans Say/What Animals Hear” Gary Larson comic reads like this:

Toddler – Can I watch TV?

Parent – No, because I don’t love you and nothing will ever be okay again.

Because for realsies, if you loved your toddler why would you NOT let them watch TV? You like them. They like you. They like TV. Ipso ergo de facto you should let them watch TV. And because you said no that means you don’t love them any more because they are a bad child and all the light will be sucked from this universe to fuel the dark forge of the cruel gods of the nameless deep. So, I mean, screaming and flailing seems like a pretty logical response now, right?

I’ve already covered what doesn’t work (or at least what didn’t work for us), but what DOES work (or at least works for us)?

Essentially, treat it like the tantrum is something that your child is doing that you are more or less unaware of. We don’t outright ignore Joshua, but experience has taught us to, in essence, go limp so the impact doesn’t shock our systems too much. When he cries and flails, I start out asking him if he wants to come sit with me and give me a hug. Inevitably, he will say no. Then I tell him that it’s okay to be sad or to be angry and that if he wants to talk about it, he can. He will say, 100% of the time, that he doesn’t want to tell me why he is sad. Then I’ll either offer the hug again or request that while it’s fine to be sad or be mad that it’s not okay to scream and yell so if he could please not do that, I would appreciate it. That’s when he will tell me, again this is every single time, that he doesn’t want me to talk to him. At this point, I inform him that this is not a nice thing to say, and that if he still doesn’t want to hug me, talk to me, or have me talk to him that I am going to go and do something else and he can let me know when he’s ready.

Most of this is said into a maelstrom, because he’s yelling and crying the whole time and is more saying what he feels is the routine than really listening to me at this point. But I say it just the same. After I get up to leave the room to do whatever—sometimes clean, sometimes read a book, sometimes just stand out of sight and wait—he tends to lose it even more because he doesn’t want Daddy to go. I actually wait until this rises to a certain crescendo. The reason being that I don’t want to just be giving in to his little terrorism demand right away. If I leave the room and come back the moment he asks for me, what’s the point of getting up in the first place? But, if I wait until he’s reaching some transition/boiling point, I may get lucky. At that point I come back in and will ask if he wants to give me a hug. Most of the time even though he’s just been pining away for me, as soon as I return to my previous spot he immediately begins all over by telling me he doesn’t want me to talk to him. So, I leave again. I rinse and repeat until he switches from anger to sadness and decides that what he really wants is to sit with Daddy and give him a hug. Then there are hugs and usually whispers that he should find Mommy and give her a kiss because he tends to be mean to Mommy like he is to Daddy and it affects Mommy a little more to see her eldest so miserable.

And then that’s that. Like nothing ever happened. It feels a little strange to effectively be wearing him down into sadness, but it’s important to remember that he was sad the whole time, but his sadness is bundled with a bunch of other emotions and freaking out is basically the manifestation of that. Eventually, he’ll learn to short circuit the freaking out and hone in on the sad and be a bit more manageable in these scenarios.

This arrangement works pretty well because I don’t feel guilty about it like I would in scenarios where I ended up having to try and restrain him and I don’t have to maintain prolonged threats and punishments which he will have totally forgotten the reason for in two hours anyway. He gets a calm response to his panic and has everything resolved by some hugs and cuddles and discussion about what might have been the problem.

It’s probably also an important caveat that if we were on the fence about whatever his tantrum was about—let’s say watching TV—then we are cemented in our stance that it will not happen as soon as the tantrum begins. That option is blasted right the hell out of the airlock and while I don’t like to speak in absolutes too much when it comes to advice about kids since they are so very variable I will say that if you cave about the subject of a tantrum you are probably going to create a bit of an asshole. Would you honor the requests of an adult who behaved like that? No? Your end game is to raise your kid to adulthood, right? And you’re teaching them tantrums are effective? Sooooooooooooooo…

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