When my daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she’s been known to collapse to the floor, pounding her fists and wailing as though grieving the death of a life partner of 50 years. And with something like houseguests she loves saying goodbye and driving away, the loss is that monumental – at least to her.
I view tantrums the way I view those subtropical rainstorms that happen every afternoon in Florida. It’s a warm and sunny day, without a cloud in sight. Then all at once, the sky opens up and there’s storm-force winds, lightning, and a torrential downpour so violent that everyone runs for cover. It’s more than a little terrifying.
But even when – especially when – A is furious with me, she needs me to be the grownup in charge. That means keeping calm and staying safe.
I get down at her eyesight level so as not to appear intimidating. I keep my face very calm and sympathetic-looking. If we’re somewhere crowded with a lot of moving objects and people, I move us towards shelter. A quiet spot where she can throw a fit safely. If she’s flailing around and in danger of hitting her head, I’ll restrain her. But as lightly as possible – just enough to reassure her that I won’t allow her to hurt herself. I hold my arms stiffly around the her, but away from her body – as though my arms are the bars of a cage. She never likes it, of course. But it sends a nonverbal message that I’m still in charge.
The trick is to stop myself from doing anything to shorten the tantrum. It’s counter-intuitive, as tantrums are horrible. They’re stressful for everyone within earshot. But the logical, reasonable side of her brain has completely shut down at this point. It’s off line. There’s no point in trying to:
- Hold her accountable for anything she says while she’s having a tantrum
- Tell her why she shouldn’t be having a tantrum
- Try to distract her or bargain with her so she’ll stop the tantrum
- Soothe and comfort her in an effort to shorten the tantrum
Instead, I say, “I know you’re very sad. It’s hard to say goodbye to people we love.” I keep her safe, I keep calm, and I reflect what’s happening.
If it’s because I’ve taken away a toy she refused to clean up, “You’re really angry with me for taking away the toy. It’s upsetting to see your toy taken out to the garage.”
In short order, she runs out of steam. I can feel her soften. When she lets me know that she’s ready for comfort, my arms are in a position to easily segue to a hug.
And just when it looked like none of us may survive this thing, it’s over. The heavy rain stops, the clouds dissipate, and the sun comes out again.