—By Little + Free's creator, Tori Rotter
If you’ve purchased from Little + Free in the past, you may have seen one of our many funny tags that reads, “Tantrums can happen at any time when you have a toddler, and I’m told my child will start having them soon as well.” I came up with this particular musing one day when I was complaining about my daughter’s tantrums, and my husband commented that he felt like I threw more tantrums than her.
While humorous in retrospect, the fact is that the tantrum stage of childhood is one of the hardest. It can be emotionally and mentally draining trying to navigate the best way to defuse the situation, especially without losing your cool. It can also be embarrassing when these things happen in a public place, and it suddenly feels as though your child’s goal is to make as much noise as humanly possible (while the world watches on). I will not speak for everyone, but when I’ve dealt with these scenarios in the past, I am not my best self. I find it especially hard to stay calm and even harder not to exacerbate the issue by arguing with my daughter as though her thought processes are rational at the time.
Experts often say that the best way to deal with a tantrum is to offer comfort, remain calm, and reassure your child that everything will be ok. And I’m sure that is amazing advice. But sometimes it’s hard to do those things when the tantrum starts because you cut your child’s sandwich exactly how they specified…and then they are mad because it’s in two pieces. And the dogs are barking. And your boss is calling. And your other child is screaming. And something in the oven is burning. And the doorbell just rang. These are the situations where it’s highly likely that an “adult tantrum” is bound to occur. I feel confident that there are people out there who stay calm under these circumstances, and I would happily give them a trophy or small parade if I could (because, wow, do they deserve it). But me, I’m not that person. Instead, I get stressed, yell, and make ridiculous statements (i.e. “ok, then you can make it yourself!”). And then, about ten minutes later, I feel guilty. I feel like I’ve failed as a parent and that my daughter will remember my reaction forever. Neither of these things is true, but that knowledge does not make you feel better in the moment.
Recently, after dealing with a tantrum and thinking about what I should have done, I realized something. Almost all advice for dealing with tantrums centers on the child. I’ve never seen advice that centers on how to bring yourself (the parent) through it. And so, I quickly switched my thinking. In a tantrum situation, the adult is the only one capable of rational thought. And the child is counting on the adult to model calm behavior, so they may become calmer themselves. This comes back to the age-old request that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Because if you don’t have enough oxygen, you certainly can’t ensure that others will.
So, I’ve applied this theory to tantrums as of late. And while I am not a psychologist or medical professional, I am happy to share my process if it might help another parent through the tantrum years. And it looks a little something like this…
I PREPARE MYSELF
Tantrums are something you can often see coming. If you know your child is tired, hungry, or just grumpy, a tantrum is likely on the horizon. When I observe these behaviors, I make a point to say out loud, “she is probably going to have a tantrum.” Something about saying it out loud makes it more real and also makes me feel like I’ve made myself really hear it. The simple recognition that a tantrum is possible often softens the blow when it comes. Instead of “why is this happening,” you can think, “I knew this would happen.”
I TALK MYSELF THROUGH IT
Before you greet your little one with calm and comforting words, say them to yourself. Mentally is fine, but I prefer to say out loud, “she is not thinking clearly. She’s just a toddler working through her emotions, you are ok, and this will be over in a few minutes.” This may seem silly, but sometimes you need a pep talk—especially when the environment is stressful and a lot is expected of you at the moment.
I PRIORITIZE MY ATTENTION
If it’s just you and the kid, these issues are a lot easier to work through. But that is often not the case. As mentioned in my previous scenario, the tantrum usually happens on top of many other things. Depending on the severity of the tantrum, it is natural for it to take the spotlight and make you feel like you must address it immediately. But that’s not usually necessary. As we know, tantrums are generally caused by strong emotions and irrational behaviors, not because of imminent danger or distress. So, as hard as it might seem, you actually CAN leave a tantruming child for a few minutes while you tend to other things. Using my previous scenario as an example: 1) Why is the other child screaming? Are they ok? Yes, move on. 2) check the oven 2) silence call from the boss; you can call them back 3) quiet/distract the dogs 4) answer the door. After you’ve addressed the other stresses and calmed the environment, it’s going to be 10X easier to tend to the tantrum calmly and comfortably.
I REWARD MYSELF
They say positive reinforcement is often much more effective than punishment, so I decided to apply it here as well. Rather than punishing myself with guilt when I lose my temper (because, yes, it still happens, even with the plan in place), I reward myself when I handle it well. This could mean literally anything and will look different for everyone, but there is always a way to give yourself a little something. Tantrum at the grocery? Pick up a treat or coffee. Tantrum at home? Have a glass of wine, piece of chocolate, salty snack, etc. Tantrum at the mall? Splurge on a small something for yourself. It’s possible anywhere and is always based on preference, but I’ve found that rewarding myself makes me feel like I’m winning the parenting game and puts me in a much better headspace. And if I lose my cool? No reward…but that’s the only repercussion. So I try to avoid the guilt and just do better next time.
As I mentioned, this process is not foolproof, and I still have days when I can’t keep it together. But I will say that since changing my way of thinking, I have sincerely changed my attitude towards tantrums. They aren’t nearly as big of a deal as they once were, and I feel more equipped to tackle them as they arise. Of course, as parents, we almost always put our kids first. But we cannot forget that we also need (and deserve) to prioritize ourselves sometimes so that our children get the best version of us.