Monday, 28 January 2013

Dealing with Tantrums: Toddler and Pre-school

Over the past six weeks or so, I've been trying to curtail my activities in the online world, because it's a timesink and I get far too worked up about it--someone is wrong on the internet syndrome.  And since real life got pretty busy, it seemed like a good time for a break.  It's been very refreshing, but I must apologise to everybody whose blogs I read but did not comment on during this period.  I am reading... just needed to lurk for a bit.  I'm probably going to be commenting more going forward, now that life has calmed down.

Besides, while life is calmer, all the usual stresses remain and today was absolutely rubbish for a few reasons, but one of them was my four year old son having a meltdown.  I've said before on this blog that I felt I'd been very sheltered from public tantrums, because he was always very good about them as a toddler.  Between him and my daughter, I can say that this is no longer the case.

Exhibit A: The Toddler Tantrum

A few weeks back, my daughter's consistent crankiness drove me to take her to the doctor for the third time in six weeks.  It turned out that she had a double ear infection and bronchitis, so that explained a lot, including her behaviour on the way to the paediatrician.

I had to wake her up from her nap for starters, and though this normally isn't a big deal, she didn't cope well that day.  She did the boneless wailing thing, so I wrestled her into her car-seat (which caused further wailing--she hates her car-seat at the moment, and many adjustments to the straps have made no difference).  I assumed that after a few minutes in the car, she would calm down.  She didn't.

My husband had taken our son out to his gym lesson, so it was just the two of us for this.  For a variety of reasons, I hadn't been sleeping well, so I was pretty emotional as well.  We had agreed that I would take her, because she gets more comfort out of me, but in retrospect, I wonder if she would have behaved better for her father, just because she's less emotional with him.

At any rate, she screamed and writhed in her seat for the entire twenty minute drive, while I fought back tears and felt certain that I was about to get a diagnosis of special needs, because surely no normal child would behave like this.  (I'm somewhat embarrassed about that thought, but that's the kind of state I was in; full respect to all the mothers of actual special needs children, especially those who have to deal with this sort of behaviour on a regular basis).

Once we were parked, I was desperate to get her out of her seat and cuddle her and calm her down.  Getting her out of her seat happened; cuddling her was not really feasible owing to the kicking and screaming; calming her down was a lost cause.  I could barely carry her, but she certainly wasn't able to walk and with no time to wait it out in the car park, I clamped my arms around my struggling child and somehow got her up three storeys to the waiting room.

I put her down on the floor, signed us in, still fighting back my own tears, and then I focused very hard on getting off my coat and composing myself while my daughter had hysterics on the floor.  There were a few other children near us, and I had to pull her closer to me so that in her flailing she wouldn't kick them.

Once I was settled, I thought my trump card would be the iPad, which she doesn't get to play very often, as I prefer to keep it for waiting rooms and restaurants (before the food is served).  She considers it a much desired treat, but on that day she refused even that, which brought me close to utter despair.

And then, thank god, she spotted the fish on the reception desk.  She stopped crying and pointed. I lifted her up to look at them and everything was calm once more, though we were both still tearful.  Never underestimate the power of fish (though I would never risk getting an aquarium at home for this very reason--I don't need the children building up an immunity!)

Exhibit B: The Four Year Old Tantrum

Back to my son, the once placid toddler who was generally well-behaved in public.  And who still is generally well-behaved but who has been showing an increased tendency to melt down over things not going his way.   He does plenty of general sulkiness and moaning as well, but every now and then, he'll lose complete control.

Today, the trigger was at the supermarket when we went to pay.  He wanted us to go through the self-checkout, but last time we did that, I had a terrible time keeping control of my daughter (they were both using those mini shopping carts, which I love, but lack the option to dump my daughter in the seat so she can't get into mischief.

So I insisted we were going through the normal checkout where I had somebody to scan and bag the food for me.  He did not take that well.  I tried to get him to stand against the wall and wait for us to finish paying, but he wouldn't stay there.  Instead, he fought me over every item that I was trying to place on the conveyor belt--I must add that after a bad morning at school, I was severely lacking in patience and made the situation worse by telling him that he was not allowed to unload his shopping trolley, which led to me fighting him over the food as well.

The staff were very pleasant about it; I was mortified; my daughter was so distracted by what was going on that she behaved perfectly.  While the food was being bagged, I got down on my son's level and talked to him about why he could not behave that way and the effect of his actions on everybody else.  20/20 hindsight: I should have done that before proceeding to the checkout.

He was upset when the bagged groceries were put in his sister's trolley and I asked him to leave his inside the store, but he reacted within appropriate levels of grumpiness.  He walked through the car park, holding onto the trolley that his sister was pushing (I was on the other side making sure she did not plough us all into a car) and behaving perfectly.  I, on the other hand, fought against my temper and the urge to snipe at him until we were all safely back in the car.

Lessons Learned

Recently, a parent at school asked if I had any advice for dealing with tantrums.  I may have laughed hollowly in reply.  Since I never can think of what to say when asked like that, I told her that I just deal with it on an individual basis, and that my primary focus is on calming them down. 

  • This is perhaps the only thing I've really learned about tantrums: the issue is that the child has lost control of their emotions which is traumatic in and of itself (for them, not just you).  In my opinion, the key thing is to give them the ability to compose themselves, which is obviously easier said than done.  Focus on soothing--placation is OK within reason (avoid caving!) and distraction is effective in the young, though as they get older, techniques for them to calm themselves is important.  I remember once observing another classroom assistant counting a little girl through breathing, "one, two, three," to good effect.
  • The big Don't for me is to dwell on whatever triggered the tantrum.  I.e. if they're throwing a fit because they've been denied a cookie, explaining why they can't have a cookie will only remind them why they're upset.  On the flipside, validating their feelings--"You want a cookie, I know you want a cookie!"--can be helpful, particularly as they get older, but if that has no effect, don't bring the cookie up.  Similarly, if they're crying because you have punished them for some misbehaviour, don't keep explaining why you punished them or going back to what they did wrong.  Talk about it after the tantrum, when they're calm.
  • Avoiding triggers altogether is even better, of course.  Or, if you see it coming as I did with my son's meltdown today, try and forestall it by crouching down to the child's level, looking them in the eye and explaining that things are not going to go their way, why they aren't and sympathising with them over it.
  • There are some instances when you can't deal with the tantrum, e.g. when you're driving.  If that means you have to ignore the child and soothe them later, then that's what you have to do.  It's tough not to be distracted by a screaming child when you're driving, but your focus has to be on the road in that scenario--your only other option is to pull off.  Please never unbuckle your child's seatbelt/harness as a soothing measure unless you have parked the car.
  • For older children, Sense of Wonder has a wonderful post on What to do With a Melt Down featuring a script for you to follow.  I have this printed off with the intent on using it on my son, but I always forget about it in the heat of the moment.  The one time I remembered, it was reasonably effective.  I wish I could be consistent with it.
Of course, it's easy to type all that out.  Would that I actually remember my hard-learned wisdom when I'm under the stress of the screaming child!

One thing I did with my son today was to tell him that he was going to have to tell Daddy about it when he got home.  That's one of our little habits: I know I'm going to talk to my husband about it anyway, so it feels fairer to let my son tell him himself. 

For the first time, my son refused to do it out of embarrassment.  Everybody had calmed down by then, so my husband and I both encouraged him to talk about it.  We explained that he had already been told off, so Daddy wouldn't tell him off again.  I also explained that as Daddy and I both take care of him, it's important that we both know what makes him lose control of his temper. 

He still resisted, and eventually, I said that I would tell Daddy.  I did and my son listened and stared at the floor.  I felt this ended up being a useful way of revisiting the situation now that my son was calm and explaining what was wrong with his behaviour.  While I don't really like the idea of shaming him, I am heartened by the fact that he was ashamed, and I do want him to see and acknowledge the negative side of himself sometimes.  It can't all be positive reinforcement.

Oh, and the final tip for dealing with tantrums?  You have to stay calm.  Good luck with that.


  1. I couldn't believe it, but I met someone whose child had so very few tantrums, she was practically a mollusc. So obviously, when she saw George having a monumental meltdown over some chocolate, I believe, she told me I was irresponsible and that my child would grow up a criminal and a drug addict. I was speechless. And then I had the inspiration to tell her to fuck the fuck off. I needed the double fuck to express my indignation. The result? I was very calm with George and the meltdown was resolved soon (the chocolate could not be consumed, since it went to sleep and couldn't be woken up until the next day. Which was fine with George). I still cannot believe this woman, honestly...

  2. So now I say this in my mind when there is a tantrum brewing or happening, I picture that woman and the moment I calmly and very loudly told her what to do, and you know what? It still works. It calms me down and I am a better and more understanding mum. Who would have thought a tw*t would help me improve my parenting skills? :-) Sorry for the expletives I left on your blog though...

    1. Don't worry, I imagine the people who read my blog are in need of a good expletive or two!

      I am amused by your story and how it's become your calming mechanism. I should try it... it's no coincidence that the two tantrums bad enough to feature on my blog happened at a time when *I* was upset too.

      (And good for you!)

  3. ZOWIE! What I love about this post is both the solid wisdom and the acknowledgement of your real maternal feelings. HARD STUFF! I'm hoping this will soak in and I can remember it as things start to get harder around here.

    1. If you do remember this, please tell me how! That's always the part I struggle with... remembering what to do under pressure.

  4. Monkey is just 18 months and doesn't throw tantrums yet... But I can see it coming! I will bookmark this post for future reference. I particularly like your habit of having the child tell Daddy about what happened, and the reminder that they won't get in trouble all over again. It seems like a great way of teaching that its OK to make (and own) mistakes.

    He also does the opposite of the floppy boneless thing - instead he tries his utmost to climb back up my body when I'm trying to put him down. I'm undecided which is worse...

    1. I think that must be worse! My daughter does it occasionally, but not when she's tantrumming. The boneless thing is a pain, but it's only dead weight.

      Good luck with Monkey's future tantrums!