Public Displays of Affliction

tantrum.jpgToday, parent educator Hetti Wohlgemuth shares tips for coping with public tantrums:

“Small children tantrum; sometimes in a big way. And sometimes in a public place. We manage tantrums just fine at home, but less well on the playground, or at the public library, market, or mall. Why? Because it's embarrassing to watch Alex collapse to the floor and go completely out of control when everyone (or so it seems) is watching/judging how we deal with this tiny tornado. Here are some tips for coping with public displays of tempestuous behavior:
Keep in mind, you are not alone. You are not the first Boston mama to experience a child's melt down in Target and you're not going to be the last. And keep in mind that these patrons who are busy judging you most likely have the largest skeletons in their parenting closet. And keep in mind that schadenfreude (satisfaction or pleasure experienced at someone else's misfortune) is not just a 13 letter word in the dictionary. It's a real phenomenon. And all those parents and never-been parents and never-will-be parents experience a small high watching us at our lowest.

Tantrums may just be a toddler-style text message. Tantrums can signal that our ever growing children have feelings and opinions about the perhaps contradictory restrictions we constantly (necessarily) impose on our them: wake up, get ready, eat your greens, don't eat the dirt, slow down, hurry up, use your words, be quiet, watch this video, don't watch TV, etc. In other words, toddlers tire of their mamas and papas pushing and prodding them (or so it seems to them) and they rebel in the only way they developmentally are able. It's not implausible that they act out of control when they feel we are controlling their harnesses (metaphorically speaking) too tightly. If we are seeing too many tantrums - public or private - maybe we need to reappraise our restrictions and lighten up where we can.

Conversely, is your child begging for more limits? We used to belong to a babysitting co-op with a family made up of two laissez faire parents and their two sons. The boys painted on their formal dining table, fashioned weapons from sticks, and ran around the back yard terrorizing my two little girls. And they disrespected other adults to such an extreme that I still carry an image of another six foot six inch tall parent picking up one of the boys and speaking to him - albeit, gently but firmly - eyeball to eyeball. These boys were begging their mild mannered, but well meaning parents to impose some limits on them; limits that a small child is not developmentally able to impose on himself.

Try to read your toddler's mind and reflect those feelings back. Is your baby overtired, hungry, getting sick? Or is there a stress that's less obvious, more esoteric, and more emotional? Did they have a bad day at day care? A skirmish with their older sibling or best friend? Often when I returned home after a day away, Jessie might throw her stuffed animals and slam her bedroom door on me. It took me several of these outbursts to figure out that maybe Emmy, our older, was capturing the babysitter's attention too readily and Jessie was floundering. I tried these thoughts out on Jessie, after she had calmed down (the actual tantrum definitely is not a teachable moment), in words she understood. I'll never be certain whether my offerings were apt, but lo and behold the tantrums stopped. Maybe Jessie appreciated my attempt to understand her. Kids do.

Do remember that the less you have invested in this toddler scheme, the better. Feeling fury and yelling at your tantrumming two year old to "STOP, RIGHT NOW!" is not going to work well. If you must speak to your child during their outburst, talk in as objective a tone as possible, simply stating, "I know you're mad (sad, frustrated…) right now, but I need to keep you (and me) safe so I'm going too hold you (take you outside or over here…). Counting to three and taking a few cleansing breaths also helps. Honestly.

Bottom line. Nobody - children nor parents - behaves perfectly. Never. Nor should any of us aspire to that. We need to give our children some slack to be tired, hungry, and mad. We also shouldn't be too hard on ourselves or too invested or feel as if we're the only ones when a tantrum erupts. Remembering this can be calming.”

Image credit: Original illustration by Posh Peacock