You: Not in control

This column was going to be about tantrums — why they happen, how to avoid them and what to do when they inevitably occur. I read a bunch of articles and consulted my favorite parenting books. 

I Googled “Paula Bomer and tantrums” to see if Bomer (one of my favorite writers) had any enlightening thoughts on the subject. I couldn’t find anything pithy and quotable, but she has so much parenting- and life-related wisdom to offer in the form of her fiction. (Please read Baby and Other Stories, Nine Months and Inside Madeleine — if you dare.) 

Anyway, tantrums. 

One hard parenting truth that’s driven home every time your toddler hurls himself onto the floor in some crowded public venue, screaming and flailing around for reasons unknown, is this: You are not in control. You are not in control now, you never were and you never will be. 

This can be a tough pill to swallow when, not so very long ago, you seemed to have all the control in the relationship. That is, when your child was still a baby. Babies are helpless; they depend on us for their survival. We define their world.

Then your baby starts to talk and walk and exercise his own free will. He transforms into a toddler — a frustrated toddler with “big feelings” that he’s happy to unleash on the other diners at George and the Dragon. (Thoughts: Don’t we all continue to have “big feelings” for the rest of our lives? We just learn to repress them or hopefully “process” them in a healthy way — or maybe we don’t do either and turn into Donald Trump.) 

If we’re truly honest with ourselves, one of the big lessons we can take away from tantrums is this: This is not about you. 

It’s tempting to engage in masochistic narcissism when you have a young child. (Seriously, what else is there to do?) As your child melts down spectacularly in the Hy-Vee bread aisle, you might ask yourself: What did I do to cause this tantrum? What can I do to stop it? What is wrong with my child? 

The short answer? Nothing. 

When searching for ways to “handle” tantrums (or other troubling childhood behaviors) what we’re often really searching for is a way to control the narrative. Maybe if we do everything “right” it will all be OK. Our children will be happy and well adjusted, our marriages will thrive, our futures will include sunny beach vacations and graduations from good colleges and peaceful old-age deaths surrounded by family and friends. 

And maybe, for the lucky few, it will be this way. But for anyone who has lost a child or a spouse or dealt with other unforeseen tragedies, life is clearly, terribly out of our control. And no amount of “positive parenting” or mindfulness training or non-GMO cereal is going to change that. 

So as far as I can tell, considering the sword of Damocles that hangs above us all, the only thing we can really do for our kids is love them. (You can also read the sidebar, at right.)

Of course, figuring out what that means in your day-to-day life — for example, during a glass-shattering tantrum — is one of the defining struggles of parenthood.


Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to [email protected].