Tan-trum [tan-truh m] noun. A demonstration of rage or frustration; a sudden burst of ill temper. Synonymous with: the toddler years.
Toddlers are cute, cuddly, and hilarious—a barrel of fun and wonder and butterfly kisses. They are also miniature versions of the Incredible Hulk—easily provoked and instantly transformed from a total sweetheart into some sort of supernatural being with glowing eyes, a hint of insanity, and the strength of four grizzly bears.
Upon witnessing this abrupt transformation, the parent becomes paralyzed—shocked that any creature, let alone their child, is capable of producing such a disorienting high-pitched screech. Self-preservation kicks in. A puppy for the bowl of oatmeal you are thinking of throwing at my head. Yes, I know it’s very lumpy and sort of cold, but that’s only because you took 20 minutes to get into the high chair.
Deep inside, this poor soul—this well-meaning parent—knows that you can’t negotiate with terrorists, or the terrible twos. We have all read the research: rewarding tempestuous demands by giving in will only encourage the behavior. And also—BEWARE—a parent who lets the three-year-old call the shots is in for it during the teenage years. Not fair to the loving parent who only wants reprieve from the storm.
I’m reminded of a family I worked with after the birth of their second child. As a postpartum doula, one of my responsibilities was caring for their three-year-old so that the mom and baby could rest and recover.
One day, Big Sis wanted a juice box. The stash was located in the basement. Upon Dad’s approval, I went to fetch her drink. Just minutes before this, the girl and I were happily playing and singing songs, but when I handed her that juice box: Instant Hulk.
She had wanted her father to get the juice and managed to express—between howls, kicks, and fat, projectile tears—that she needed me to walk the box down the stairs so that Daddy could bring it back up.
I gave Dad a stern look. Your call, Buddy…but you know what I think. He looked at me with big, pleading eyes—I am sleep-deprived and on my last nerve. Cut me some slack.
He went downstairs and got a new juice. While I could have felt smug, certain that as a teenager this girl would end up in juvenile detention, I completely understood the decision to cave. In my time as a toddler parent, I periodically ate bananas that were not peeled “monkey style” (three—no more, no less—flaps hung around the sides at the half way point) while nervously peeling a new one for my daughter. I was jumping through a tiny, seemingly harmless hoop in an effort to avoid a tantrum.
I have also experienced those “special circumstances” including but not limited to: Christmas morning, the new sibling, and the State Fair—extraordinary events ripe for a major meltdown.
How we handle these brief deviations from reality matters much less if in our normal daily routine we attempt consistency rooted in understanding. As with all things parenting, if we’re getting it right even 80 percent of the time, we’re doing a good job.
I spoke with Sarah Sundberg-Perry, an Early Childhood Specialist and Parent Educator who has worked with the Minneapolis ECFE program for 20 years. She explains, “The toddler years are unique because all of a sudden your once compliant and very attached baby is becoming an independent person. There is a huge developmental shift, for both parent and child. This budding independence, along with limited skill to accomplish tasks is the perfect breeding ground for tantrums.“
She also advises that while you can’t completely avoid toddler meltdowns, you can limit the frequency. She says, “One of the best ways to minimize tantrums is to get used to them…ironically. The more in control you are of your own emotions during a tantrum, the sooner your toddler will learn to control theirs.” Sometimes this means nonchalantly stepping right over your writhing Hulk and continuing to cook dinner; sometimes it means offering a calm explanation and a hug.
Of course, it’s not easy to control your emotions after a long day of not just one, but five or six full-blown fits and four bananas carefully peeled “monkey style.”
There are many battles to pick and many mistakes to make. You will be too strict, you will be too soft, and you will eventually find balance. You will sometimes cave and jump through the hoops, eventually learning to assert that you’re not in the mood for a banana today, suggesting that your darling tot give the audaciously unpeeled “MOMMY style” a try.
Be patient with your little Hulk as he or she moves through this turbulent time, but above all be patient with your beautifully imperfect self.
Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She’s helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula.
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