A Li’l Rant About Tantrums

E is a pretty cool kid. He is also quite challenging at the moment.

So far, we have not had any negative reports from his teachers in terms of his behaviour. Aside from that time in the fall when he didn’t want to participate in gym (it was understandably overwhelming, with 30 kids bouncing and echoing around), he seems to be adjusting well to school. We’ve been assured that he’s not a whiny kid at school, and he plays well with others.

I think sometimes it’s hard for him to be around so many kids at once, for such a long time, every weekday. Both his parents walk the line between introversion and extroversion – needing social time but also alone time, enjoying friends but not being overly fond of crowds or mingling.

I’m wondering if this is why he often… loses his cool, shall we say, when he’s at home. Perhaps he just reaches his limit. I know I do sometimes.

Honestly, he freaks out over very small things. Like his sock is crooked, or a Cheerio falls on the floor, or (this is a classic for him) the cheese doesn’t want to stay in his sandwich. And any injury, no matter how small, is cause for screaming.

He’s been like this since before school started; but his reactions are becoming more annoying and entrenched. Typical responses to minor problems these days include:

  • horrible shrieking
  • clamping hands over ears (especially if one of us speaks sternly to him)
  • delivering a hefty poke or tiny-fisted punch to whatever part of whatever parent is nearest
  • using a super-attitude-y nasty voice (“But, MUMMY, that’s NOT what I MEANT!”)
  • saying, with the drama of a teenager, “I hate you!!” (Lately, he’s taken to adding “right now” to this, because he knows we will call him on it later.)

He knows that none of these things get him what he wants. He knows that we don’t approve of any of them (except maybe the first, but only if it’s warranted, i.e. once out of 1.27 jillion times).

I wish I could say we had consistent ways of dealing with the behaviours, but we don’t. Sometimes we hold forth with angelic patience. Sometimes we try to reason things out (ha). Sometimes we snap at him. Sometimes we scoop him up and stick him in his room (I do this when my ears are full – which they often are after a teaching day). Sometimes we use a really scary voice. Sometimes we use a hug.

Most of the time, I feel pretty certain that it’s just a phase and totally normal. Once in a while, I wonder if something is really wrong with him – if his anxiety is actually much higher than it should be. Or if we did something to cause this. And I always wonder what is the parental reaction that we should be striving for – the one that would defuse the situation before it gets all intense. The one that would work.

Baby AB is also pretty dramatic, but at least she usually takes E’s episodes in stride. She’ll hear him freaking out, and gesture one hand in his direction and say, “Cry… cry.” All in a day’s work.

I would love to hear your insight on this one: if you have (or have had) kids who melt down, have you found a technique works for you/them to de-escalate matters? Do you use tough love or sympathy or both? What have you learned about tantrums? Thank you for your wisdom…

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11 thoughts on “A Li’l Rant About Tantrums

  1. Beth says:

    I wished I had figured out earlier but eventually I realized that in a battle of wills, I would lose. Also, calm explanation never worked. First, check if the reason for shrieking is serious. If not, ignore. The pay off is the attention.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Beth, I am definitely finding the same. Well, a battle of wills usually ends up in a stalemate. And yes, the calm explanations one is careful to give just don’t sink in the way one would hope.

  2. Erin T says:

    I LOVE the “Cry…cry” response of Baby A. Like: “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

    M has not been particularly prone to tantrums. She had a handful of spectacular ones when she was 2.5 or 3 that made me want to spontaneously combust, usually when I was dragging her home late from daycare and she was exhausted, but since then she has made a specialty of withdrawing when she is upset (which is relatively infrequent) and I admit that while that is sometimes concerning, it is better on the nerves. S is a little less shy about the wailing dramatics, but he is generally even-keeled and seems to have trouble remembering what he is supposed to be distraught about for long enough to get a real tantrum going. The few real terrors he’s launched, we’ve had the most success with just sticking him in his bed and waiting for him to calm himself down (or forget.)

    I am intimately familiar, however, with the feeling that your child is a “perfect angel” at school or at other people’s houses and then saves all the silent tears or bossing or incredible will or refusal to share for you at home. This is, of course, as my mother always points out, exactly the way you want it – you don’t want an angel at home who bites kids at school – but it does kind of feel like they have it in for you personally.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Yes, I agree I’d much rather have the behaviours happen here than at school – or the day care provider’s. He was always perfect for her too – the first time she saw him melt down, she was shocked. I remember E used to melt down on the way home from day care too – sometimes (shortly after he’d turned two), he’d spend the whole car ride whining “No… no… no…” about nothing in particular.

      Sounds like you know your children well and are keeping very careful tabs on their moods and reactions. I really want to meet them one of these times!

  3. Andy M says:

    Hang in there and the problem will go away in ten or twenty years! Seriously, I think tantrums call for a kind but firm time-out. Something like “we love you dearly but you’ll just have to stay in your room until you’ve finished crying” is best, but I remember times when I had to take screaming kids out of restaurants or grocery just to get them to a place where they can melt down safely. Reasoning during the tantrum isn’t likely to get very far; perhaps talking about it after the sun comes out might be the right thing to do. You can’t let them get their way through a tantrum, but I believe love and empathy can never do harm.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Andy, that’s good to hear – because often, it seems like things we do to try to help when a child is crying end up backfiring. So far (knock wood) both my kids are usually very good in public places like grocery stores, but I am prepared for the idea that I might need to bail in the middle of my shopping list someday, just to stick to my principles!

  4. Catherine says:

    I have three boys – 5 (nearing 6), 3, and 4 months. All have meltdowns but they are definitely unique from one another – both I am sure for developmental reasons as well as just individuality of character.

    The way you describe your sons meltdowns remind me most of my second son J. J will definitely get extremely upset about things not being the way he would like them to be and sometimes there is absolutely no alternative to be offered (regardless of whether or not it is warranted) to appease him. A comical example is he once had an over hour long rage fit because he wanted his stuffed penguin NOWHERE and we could not do that for him. We tried the usual “did you mean THIS, did you mean THAT, how about here? How about there? Would you take them on a bus, would you take them on a train…. you get the idea. He just had to wear himself out.

    Honestly seeing some patterns in developmental stages at this point I think your initial gut to not worry is probably the right one. Sometimes these qualities that are so challenging to deal with in young childhood can be surprising gifts in adolescence in adulthood – leading to higher expectations of themselves, better productivity, higher creativity, attention to detail, an ability to advocate on behalf of themselves and others. No doubt that these behaviours are exacerbated by exhaustion, long days at school, overstimulation, and an inability to not quite be able to articulate feelings with just language.

    But beneath all the doubts and wondering if there is anything you can do is valuable learning here. Through these trials and tribulations kids are learning how to cope, how to problem solve, how to manage and supercede challenges and I think it’s so important to let this messy process occur even if it’s unpleasant.

    I also think it’s important for parents to forgive themselves for not being consistent. We are not computers, neither are our children, and our surrounding circumstances are far from predictable or reliable either. When other factors are different we are called to react differently too. Having said that, what I find helpful (and only when I have the emotional energy which is rare in these days when I am wearing the masters student, full time case manager, and mother to 3 hats) is to try and validate their feelings before interjecting with redirections or suggestions. It’s amazing how quickly both my kids stop the hysterics (even briefly) if I hunker down, put my hands on their shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “I hear you. You really want that penguin nowhere and it’s really frustrating”. There is a flash where they start to calm and SOMETIMES that flash is just enough to insert a positive (avoiding the words “no” or “you can’t” if at all possible) alternative with some limited choice to give back control like “maybe I could look after your penguin and you can choose another stuffy for bed. Would you like your giraffe or your monkey?” or the like.

    I don’t want to sound like a textbook though. Nothing is a guarantee. Tantrums are definitely some of the stuff that make early childhood parenting insanity-provoking and I think the take home message I want to leave you with is don’t be too hard on yourself or worry too much about your kids. You sound like you are doing a great job, a lot of this is developmental and unavoidable, and may actually be early signs of traits that will serve them very well and make you an extremely proud mommy in the future.

    Blessings!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Oh my, that story about J makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Rationality just doesn’t enter into it.

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right that exhaustion and overstimulation definitely play into this. And I very much hope you’re right that learning to problem-solve (or at least problem-deal) now will help us in ten to fifteen years. Because countless times I have been told by parents with teenagers, “Just wait! It gets worse!” (I’ll bet you’ve been told this too, as a parent of little ones.) I’m wishing for the opposite. I know I tended to be a shrieker as a small child, but I was a very mellow teen… my kids could turn out like that too, right?

      Whenever I lose my temper with one of my kids, I feel bad afterward, but hope that there is a reality sinking in for them – namely, that parents are humans and have feelings and frustrations too.

      I am absolutely going to try your suggestion – to get down to their level and validate them. I know I’ve read such advice, but it’s hard to remember at the time, in the midst of aggravation… But really, isn’t that what all of us need sometimes? For someone to say, “I’m listening, and I get it.” (Or, in the case of some of the more bizarre situations, I don’t get it, but I’m trying to.)

      Thank you so much for your compassionate and insightful comment, Catherine. Blessings to your family too.

  5. Lisa says:

    This was very appropriate for my week! A has been spending 2days a week with her grandparents and one half day at a daycare. I get great reports from the in laws but all week she has been prone to tantrums, picky and whiny at home. I’m telling myself it’s because she doesn’t feel comfortable enough to assert her will there yet;)
    Good luck!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Oh dear… I guess it’s a huge adjustment, being taken care of by people other than your parents. But I think you’re right, kids let it all out for their parents because they know they can, and they feel comfortable doing so. We are hard-wired to love them the most, so I guess it all works out for the best. I hope that in spite of the behaviours you’re seeing, you are enjoying having some time to be Lisa!

  6. One of your big clues: ” – saying, with the drama of a teenager, “I hate you!!” (Lately, he’s taken to adding “right now” to this, because he knows we will call him on it later.)” – this is one smaaaaart kid, as you know. it may be difficult to be that smart and only a few years old, and sensitive as well. what they used to call “high-strung”.
    i do know you and i know E and his daddy a bit, too, and i love you all and so i will dive in with my pittance of wisdom garnered the hard way: by making a lot of mistakes. i was blessed that neither of my children were particularly prone to tantrums, but one of them occasionally had meltdowns or other over-the-top behaviour.
    in your situation, in which trying to anticipate the drama is useless, since it can occur in a nanosecond over nothing, you need for the parents’ sake as well as the child’s, to develop a way to have some of it predictable. that would be you. you say sometimes you scoop him up and put him in his room, and sometimes you give a hug. how about offering those two choices – and no others – every time, right away. you could perhaps set this up with explaining before you install this, that, though he may indeed feel this strongly about things, it is not really acceptable in a family or other social situation, so there will be two alternatives that are possible, and he will have the right to choose each time, but that one of them will happen, and if he doesn’t choose, you will. then do it.

    i found that when i blew my stack over something that was really appalling (read: “deserving,” or so it seemed at the time), and the result was two people demonstrating bad behaviour, we would, after calming down (the storm blowing itself out?), do what we called Making Up. this generally entailed the child in question on my lap in a sincere warm hug, both of us apologizing to the other for our mess-up (specifically – naming the behaviour), and then Starting Over. that meant no holding grudges or staying angry or even referring to this again, just leaving it behind and starting over. AND trying to do better.

    dunno if any of this is helpful in your circumstances, but AB’s brilliant composure is admirable. maybe you should just imitate her!

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