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Weathering the Storms of Toddlerhood: Tantrum Talk

Three:  thoughtful, thoroughly amusing, and… throwing tantrums.  Yes, we seem to have skipped the Terrible Twos and jumped right in to the Thrashing Threes. In fact, when I think back on it, it’s not that we entirely skipped the Terrible Twos.  There certainly were many moments during the year of C being two that had me at my wit’s end, my outer limits, grasping for some reasonable recourse, a comforting point of reference.  But the human psyche has an uncanny ability to block out the bad stuff—as does the mom psyche.  Yes, I’ll admit, there were times during two when my angel became l’infant terrible, and I felt a glacial shift in our dual identity: he was no longer the angel, the model child, and I was no longer the competent model mother, the two of us receiving smiles of adulation from young and old alike as we sailed through life. The thing about three—tantrums ratchet up a notch. They are taken to the level of performance art.  Each tantrum is an event, a happening, attracting every ounce of attention they intend to attract.  

Last week my child threw his first all out public tantrum.  It happened in a familiar place. The only other patron in The Green at the time was a friend. The girl at the counter was a young woman I had known while teaching at the high school.  I was grateful this was the situation, and that it wasn’t in front of a social worker or a cop or some embittered vigilante who has the number to social services on their speed dial.

And now I read it right here, from the lips of my parenting God, Dr. Sears.

Sears discusses the reasons toddlers tantrum. Usually children tantrum when they don’t have the words to express themselves—they tantrum out of frustration. My child doesn’t tantrum due to lack of words. So it must be the other reason. My child must tantrum because I have a volatile personality.  I knew it was my fault!  My mother has been trying to tell me this for years. And now that I see the drama of actions and reactions playing out in my child, I am finally admitting it.  But you know, the apple doesn’t fall far from that tree.  And there is this long line of fallen, worm-ridden apples.  C knows just how to light my short fuse: spilling his milk (No use crying over spilled  milk? Ha! When C spills milk I throw up my arms, fall down on my knees, swirl into a fit of cursing as I attempt to wipe up the spill. And I am the one who calls my son’s performances Oscar worthy? ) or pushing his pirate ship off the table are two biggies. I need to turn off these reactions. Stay cool. Not satisfy the objective he’s seeking. 

Last week at The Green I think my son’s tantrum encompassed both types of tantrums Sears delineates—both a manipulative one, and one that eventually became one of frustration. When I think back on it, I think I handled it pretty well.  First, I tried to deflect his rage for a lo-ly-pop with a blueberry muffin.  I knew he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and he hadn’t eaten much of his dinner the night before. The deflection almost worked.  But the blueberry muffin had coconut in it. “It tastes strange, Mommy.” Upon which the b-line to the loly-pops, my emphatic “No,” followed by his emphatic fit. 

I took him out of the situation. Got him into the car.  I explained that I thought he was hungry and he needed to eat, and would he like some of my bagel? He didn’t want my bagel. He was now crying in earnest- I could tell by the rhythm of it or something, or maybe the tears, that it was no longer an act.  He asked for na-ni, his word for nursing.  “When we get home,” I said. “Na-ni in the car,” he said.
I pulled into the parking lot next door, which was a little more private. I took him out of his car seat and we got into the front passenger seat, and I nursed him for a couple of minutes.  When he was finished, he was like a different person. He was gentle and sweet, with his voice full of music. And he sang his happy voice the whole way home.  So I think my empathetic response was appropriate and effective. 

I also found this useful site on all things parenting, with this page devoted to tantrum management:


Yesterday morning saw marked success in the tantrum management department, I am happy to report.  I was making oatmeal for breakfast. C declared that he wanted pancakes. I have in the  past been more than obliging in the pancake department, but I have become aware that we have a pancake problem. Now that it’s winter, I want us to resume with the yummy fruity oatmeal. He loves oatmeal. It’s just that it’s been so long, he seems to have forgotten. I held the line with my oatmeal plan, and Cayce belted out a few award worthy screams. I didn’t respond. I stated calmly that oatmeal was also yummy and good for us. He hurled his body onto the floor. I said, “I’m not going to respond to that” (as if to remind myself!).  He quickly gave up his efforts, realizing they would be fruitless.

But guess who ate his porridge all up, apples, raisins, and all?

While I haven’t yet read it, another toddler mom has recommend the book 1-2-3 Magic.  

I love it already for the comment on the cover.  It can save my marriage and my sanity?  There I was, thinking I was all alone. Thank god there is help! Ways to navigate this often joyous and sometimes somewhat wild and savage terrain called parenthood.

And if you happen to live in Nantucket, check out the real live resources at the Early Childhood Center.  They have people on hand to help. They do not bite. They are parents who have been there.  We all have, haven’t we?


Rachel Dowling's picture

Just as a disclaimer, I exaggerate my reactions to spilled milk for effect.  But there is no doubt that I have at times overreacted to Dennis the Menace milk spilling antics.  Bob Marley to the rescue: For every action, there is a reaction.