Why You Should Embrace Your Kid’s Tantrums
When I became a parent, I worried about plenty of things, but tantrums were not one of them. I spent most of my teen years babysitting, taking on the tantrums of more than 20 different children. I was confident I could negotiate my way out of a hostage situation with the ease of a trained professional.
That is, until I met my daughter. This kid has BIG feelings. Huge. Most often they’re great feelings, but when they’re not ... RUN!
For months, I dreaded those explosive meltdowns, but she gradually outgrew them. Now that tantrums are few and far between, I’ve actually come to miss them. What kind of maniac would WANT tantrums, you ask? You’re lookin’ at her.
Whether you’re terrified of the terrible twos or have a deviant threenager on your hands, take a deep breath. The tears, the flying legs, the sadistic demands, the dirty looks from passersby in the cereal aisle — they’re all worth it. Here’s why I embraced tantrums, and why you should, too.
Consider the Age
As ugly as they are, tantrums are developmentally normal. Science can explain the common causes of these challenging meltdowns, but a little empathy gives just as clear an answer. Imagine being two. It wasn’t so long ago that you were in a dark, warm place, literally connected to another person. Now, you’re figuring out what it means to be you. You’re trying to express yourself, trying to get your needs and wants met, and realizing you don’t have the words or independence to do it on your own.
Pair that with feeling hungry, tired or cold, and you have a combo that would frustrate most adults. Toddlers are trying to figure this life thing out just like the rest of us … except they’re doing it with only two years of experience and the inability to use a toilet. Cut 'em a little slack!
See Them as a Valuable Learning Opportunity
Throughout life, our kids will have to deal with a lot of tough shit. Doing so without mental breakdowns requires the ability to identify our own emotions, analyze them and share them.
It requires us to problem solve and learn to cope with the dilemmas we can’t find answers for. All of those skills require practice and a whole lot of courage, starting with the lowly tantrum.
Emotional Outbursts Can Build Trust...
The connection between parents and their children is sacred. Babies come into this world utterly helpless. When their needs are met consistently, they develop a secure attachment to their primary caregiver that sets the stage for all future relationships.
It’s a big psychological deal, and even after that attachment is established, meeting our children’s emotional needs remains essential.
...Because Hurt Feelings Are Real
Think back on a time when you couldn’t hold it together. You were vulnerable, and you bravely turned to someone close to reassure you. Except they didn’t. They rolled their eyes. Remember that sinking feeling, that alone feeling? Remember that feeling of invalidation? Hurt feelings are real, and two-year-old’s aren’t exempt.
By offering that reassurance, we create a safe space for our kids. They learn they can trust us with their emotions, even when they can’t make sense of them themselves, and the safer kids feel, the more likely they are to come to us when their problems have graduated from bruises to breakups.
Grownups Can’t Scream in Target...
Adult life is not always fun. Unless we get a kick out of destroying our credit, running out of gas, or rooms filled with takeout boxes and the scent of shame, doing things we don’t like doing is required. We can’t say a damn thing about it, either. It doesn’t matter if you are on hour four of your wait at the DMV and spilled hot coffee everywhere.
Once you finally get to that counter, you are expected to be polite. Even if you brought the wrong documents. Even if you drive to Target in your coffee-stained pants and soggy shoes with your now-expired license and the ONE ITEM you came to get is out of stock. No matter how miserable you are, adults are not allowed to scream in Target.
...But Kids Can!
We are required to find other ways to manage our emotions, and despite our best efforts they aren’t always healthy. Screaming in Target, on the other hand, does not clog your arteries or damage your liver. It’s out of control, but it’s cathartic.
When was the last time you threw yourself onto the cold tile floor and screamed? Probably not since you were three. (Though if it was last week, I won’t judge.) Having the freedom to let it all out without worrying what anyone will think is a privilege held by the very young and the very old. All of us in the middle are stuck with meditation, therapy and too much fast food. While tantrums don’t resolve problems directly, they do serve a purpose from a developmental standpoint.
Tantrums can be important indicators that children are getting more tired, hungry or frustrated than they can handle. Learning to express and control emotions is also a process, and tantrums are a natural part of it. Do your best to remain calm and help your child work out their feelings as gently as possible. If all else fails, remember this stage is short-lived; let your kids scream on the floor while they still can!
Embrace Every Stage...
You know those irritating relatives who can’t stop reminding you to “cherish this age, because they grow up so fast?” Those irritating relatives are also irritatingly right. Parenting goes by fast. LIFE goes by fast. That said, in the midst of an ugly, snotty, red-faced tantrum, elementary school starts to look pretty hot.
Until you get there, that is. It looks pretty great until your eight-year-old doesn’t want to go back to third grade because she’s teased every day or math is too hard. It looks pretty great until your 10-year-old wakes up with an attitude that’s reminds you frighteningly of yourself. Every stage looks great until you’re in it, so embrace the ugly.
...Because Puberty Is Just Around the Corner
No matter how far away it seems, puberty is coming for all of us. One day, that three-year-old throwing Legos at the wall will share his problems with anyone but you. He’ll sit in his room, emerging occasionally for nourishment and then retreat back into his cave — a cave you are definitely not invited to.
But today, he is three. He will scream until his anger melts into something softer and simpler. He will reach for you, crawl into your lap and heave a last, exhausted sigh as his damp cheek comes to rest on your shoulder. Today, he can scream in Target. Today, you can be his peace. Don’t wait for tomorrow’s ugly to see the beauty in today’s.
They Give You a Long Hard Look in the Mirror...
I know I said I love tantrums, and I meant it. There is so much good stuff to find under all the tears and chaos. It’s beautiful, but a lot of the time it also straight up sucks. My daughter went through a phase, you see. She hated long sleeves. She hated pants. She hated socks. Her shoes were “a little too loose and tight.” She had enough clothes to stock a goodwill, and I allowed her to choose any of them. I did not give a rat’s ass what she looked like. Child services, however, would have given many rats’ asses had I dropped her off at school in the nude.
“JUST GET IN THE F?!*ING CAR!”
This is how I found myself in my garage yelling my head off at a bare-ass naked three-year-old. My daughter’s school is on a private nature reserve, so the gate to get inside is only open for 15 minutes. If you miss it, you’re not going to school. Being late is not an option. Three and I discussed this. She nodded and smiled. She understood, she said. She would cooperate, she said.
Cooperate she did not. She tried on six pairs of shoes. No dice. Her shoes were broken, and we were out of time. In desperation, I carried her, shoeless, to the garage. Did three like that? She did not. She decided that her shirt wasn’t feeling so great either. Or her shorts. In fact, she was allergic to all of her clothes. I lost it.
...Even When It Isn’t Pretty
“JUST GET IN THE CAR. I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE NAKED. JUST GET IN OR I WILL HAVE TO MAKE YOU,” I shouted.
She did not. She became a human two-by-four. “OH MY GOD JUST BEND. I DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU,” I yelled, trying to fit a rectangular human through a car door and flatten her into a car seat.
As I leaned my weight into this small, furious, flailing being, thinking of how late we were and wondering if a shoe allergy was a real thing, I caught sight of my reflection in the rearview mirror. A vein was popping out of my neck. My jaw was clenched, my eyes stormy. Oh dear. If someone looked at me that way, I’d be mad, too. Scared, even. That tantrum was a wake up call. After all, how can I expect three to manage her emotions if I can’t manage my own?
Tantrums Remind Us What Matters
That day, I lost control, and I wasn’t proud of it. I stopped pushing. I picked her up and held her close and asked how she felt. She told me I was being mean, and she wasn’t wrong. Yet, a few minutes later her little arms were wrapped around my neck. “I love you, Mama”, she whispered.
Forgiveness. A three-year-old loved me even after I showed her my worst. That’s what family is all about, isn’t it? A commitment to loving each other when we are the least lovable without question. As parents, we should be the ones to set that example.
Every Kick Is a Chance to Choose Love
As trying as they are, there is beauty in each and every tantrum. Every kick is a chance to return it with patience, calm and empathy — with love. The ear-splitting screams hold priceless lessons, so the next time your kid is taking out half of Aisle Seven, take a deep breath. Choose your next move carefully.
After all, I said I love tantrums, but I never said they were easy!