Magic in tantrums? Are you kidding?
Any reasonable person would choose to avoid tantrums, prevent tantrums, stop tantrums as quickly as possible. Emotional meltdowns, whether they are colossal storms or slow-gathering floods, are deeply uncomfortable to a child and to any caring adult in range. They can also be monumentally annoying, trying the patience of usually those calm, caring grown-ups.
The topic came up in a Family Time Facebook post when we shared this meme: “Think of the mess like fairy dust. One day it will all go away, and take all the magic with it…”
I always choose to celebrate the messiness of “life with kids”. Kids are notorious mess-makers – physically and emotionally. In the See Me Hear Me Love Me podcast intro, we describe those messes as “from spilled milk to emotions spilling out of little volcanoes”. So, when a mom said she was applying this “fairy dust” to tantrums, I was all-in for an honest conversation about accepting, embracing, celebrating and deeply understanding tantrums as an undeniable part of life-with-kids.
Yes, tantrums are part of the magic of childhood, mostly because tantrums are real and transparent into the hearts-and-souls of children. Tantrums turn children’s emotional life inside-out for all to see so that we may protect, guide, teach, or just hold all the whacky chaos of growing into big emotions. Learning to feel safe with all feelings, learning to simultaneously think and feel, learning to wait, that self-control to constructively manage emotions with understanding, patience, and kindness takes experience, practice and time. We can think of tantrums as spewing fairy dust – all that glittery magic of a child becoming a person. Not sure about the magic? Read these “reasons for tantrums“: things like she just found out mummy has another name, I won’t let him eat the rest of the football, or I wouldn’t let her wipe my butt!
One day you will miss that irrational kid-logic of wanting the impossible and wanting it now. One day you will miss that determination to do more than small hands and beginning skills can do. And, you will miss that emotional safety net found in your arms when your completely spent, defiant toddler needs you again. But, what can you do today, at this crazy-making stage of development. The Tantrums and Fairy Dust Podcast has it all – from 16 months to 8 years old, and mommy tantrums too. Here are some of the inspiring takeaways from three truly inspiring moms.
Ignoring not Abandoning or Shaming: Usually, you cannot help or change a tantrum once it begins – the child is in an emotional storm and cannot hear, think, or change course. It’s also possible that attempting to intervene only causes the tantrum to escalate, like gasoline on a fire. Ignoring is not “punishment”. It is not abandoning the child to her own helplessness or shaming the child for what he feels – anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, impatience, confusion, etc. Instead, the parent acknowledges the struggle and tries to stays calm, ready with a lifeline should the child choose one.
Stay a safe distance, like a giant, steady rock when the child is ready to borrow from your strength and groundedness. If the child can hear the message, you might even say, “I’m here to help if you need me”. Your presence allows the child to feel safe even in the craziest, most unsettling emotions.
Allow for Big Emotions: Give your child the message either verbally or with your complete body language that big emotions are okay. You want to communicate, “I see you. I hear you. I love you.” I see you are really upset. I know this is really hard right now. Give your child permission to feel any and all emotions. Respect your child’s feelings and the right to feel, even if it seems irrational, over-the-top, and inconvenient. But, here’s the hardest part – you are walking a tantrum tightrope. Fearlessly, do you best to understand, support and help without over-managing the situation. This tantrum belongs to your child; it’s not really yours.
The Tantrum Tightrope: Your child is responsible, even as a young toddler, for what they feel. They own it! Yet, they do still need help. They need you to help them find the other side, to grow into these big emotions with emotional literacy, and to find emotional strategies that work for them. You also need to manage all of other family and grown-up obligations – getting out the door, getting to work and school, relatively sane mealtimes and bedtimes, etc.
Reflect and Review: A bedtime review of the day (or time on an evening walk or on a car ride) gives your child support and power over the confusing moments of the day. Take 10 minutes to reflect on what went well and what was really hard. Start with simple descriptions, “remember when you refused to get in the car or didn’t want to put your shoes on”. For a young child, give voice to the power of “no” – “No No No, what a BIG word!” while being clear about those times when your child can’t choose. It was hard but we still needed to get to the airport so I had to rush you.
For older children, “remember when you didn’t want to stop playing” or any of those dozens of situations where your child feels power and choice stripped away. Give voice to the frustration, validating the feeling. Be empathetic to your child’s struggle. Begin to encourage resilience and flexibility by connecting the dots to positive outcomes and win-win situations. You really aren’t torturing your child. You are making the best parent choices you can to create a happy, functioning, cooperative family. Sometimes short term frustration for your child makes other people happy by showing up on time or by meeting other people’s needs. Help your child see the big picture – when they cooperate, they are contributing to a happier family (no guilt needed).
Distract, Engage or Shift Focus: Yes, shift the immediate focus if you can. Sometimes, children are just stuck – stuck in the meltdown or stuck in a no-win situation. After a short emotional pause, you might be able to redirect your child to a way out. Give your child a more constructive action – help carry something, imagine something good that’s coming, or just get silly. Be respectful though. Children don’t like to be laughed at and they are too smart to be fooled by trickery.
Individualize to Each Child: What do you need when you are losing it? A hug, something funny, a pillow to punch or a long talk with a friend over a glass of whine? Your child may be just like you or he may be uniquely different in what kind of emotional support and encouragement works for him. Some children need time; some children need immediate intervention. Do not assume your emotional strategies work for your child. Take some time to learn your child’s needs, strengths and preferences. And allow yourself time to discover and understand this new person stretching her emotional wings. You will get it wrong sometimes – Bravo! That means you are learning to be in a genuine relationship with a person, regardless of how young or small that person may be.
Individualize to the Situation: Just to complicate things even more for anyone wants a perfect de-tantrum potion, some tantrums are very situational. Remember the H.A.L.T. principle: tantrum triage recommends addressing Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired first.
To genuinely “See-Hear-Love” a child, rote responses won’t work. We actually need to engage in that very personal, messy, inconvenient, inefficient relationship of heart-listening and being present. So, yes, give yourself permission to adapt your response to the situation – your child’s particular moment as well as yours. The “right” response to a tantrum changes based on everyone’s needs at the moment. And that may be why tantrums are so complicated because it can be really hard to figure out what everyone needs to learn and grow, and keep a family safe and sane.
For insight into teaching children to know what they need, listen to I’m Hungry, I need a Bandaid.
Guilt and Giving-In: Some of those situations will break all the rules and trash all the shoulds. Sometimes, sanity is giving-in. That is your prerogative. It’s empowering to know you don’t have to be perfect. You can’t always be consistent. I applaud the mom in the podcast who says, sometimes she just gives in. It’s the only way to get through the moment and keep it from escalating even farther. She then added that “people in public judging me for giving in”. Let’s flip the script in the face of self-righteous, condescending, don’t-you-know-better judgyness. Trying to be the perfect parent in the room does not serve your higher purpose here – to be in an authentic relationship, parent-person and child-person together.
Tantrums are about meeting a child exactly where she is in this moment and helping child and parent move forward in mostly constructive ways. Parents deserve the same compassion we trying to offer children. In the Tantrum and Fairy Dust podcast, one mom tells of a “dictator in her head”. You know the voice, the one that starts with a deep love for your child and wanting to be the best parent you can be and grows louder and more insistent “YOU NEED TO DO THIS RIGHT!”. Thank you…no.
You don’t need to do this right. You need to honor yourself and your child exactly where you are and then, do it again and again and again. Preferably, we’d like you to have some fun. All Joy and No Fun parenting really doesn’t cut it. And we’d like you stay relatively sane so you can stay connected for the entire marathon.
Most of all, we want you to remember the fairy dust. Your children are growing really fast and they know “you’ve got them”. And, you got this!