Is there anything more mortifying than your child having a meltdown in public?
I challenge any horror writer to come up with a scene more soaked in dread than this: a supermarket checkout, three minutes before closing time, with an angry mob queuing politely behind a mother and her child – the latter spread-eagled width-ways across the conveyor belt, howling like a rabid wolf because he’s been told he’s not allowed to smuggle 20 Creme Eggs home in his trousers.
Just typing this is giving me palpitations.
Tantrums are horror-shows: your own very worst impulses played out in front of you, in full technicolor – and seemingly always when you need to be somewhere fast, or are on the phone to the bank.
In our family, they are a relatively new phenomenon. After years of mild behaviour, my older son on turning four has now developed a passion for tantrums. Sometimes, if it’s not sunny enough, or “too Tuesday-y”, he will roll his eyes back in his head as though he’s possessed by Pazuzu, make a sort of gargling-pterodactyl-squawk, and fling himself around the room in a disruptive but not uncreative display of aggressive contemporary dance.
And my younger son – once a sunny, happy baby – is now the sort of toddler who flies into a fury because he’s not wearing socks, even though he just took them off himself.
When this happens in public I go fully into fight-or-flight mode; worrying about what everyone thinks of me, and hustling the kids away from strangers’ judgemental gazes as quickly as possible. (All the while mentally calculating the logistics of starting again in French Canada under an assumed name.)
More recently, I’ve managed to clamber out of my own head and realise – hey! – it’s not about me. As much as it might feel like it, my kids don’t tantrum because they’re trying to ruin my day. They do it because sometimes life is too overstimulating, and they can’t handle the big emotions they’re feeling. Borrowing strategies from How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, I now do this:
1. I try to predict when a tantrum will happen.
I’ve learned that the most likely ‘danger zones’ are during transitions – like leaving shops, or coming to the table for dinner – so now I issue five-minute warnings, and start chatting gently about what’s going to happen next. They also occur when I’m in a hurry, so I try to plan extra time into activities. If we’re all together I make sure we do something ‘new’ every half hour or so to avoid boredom and/or sibling fatigue, and ensure I give each one at least a little attention. Meltdowns also occur at the end of the day when everyone’s tired. I can’t really do anything about this, so I just make sure we have wine in, for later.
2. I try not to take it personally.
In the moment, I try to give them what they need. With my older son, it’s space. I take him away from the situation – not to punish him, but to let the big emotions settle. With my younger son, it’s comfort and warmth, and distraction. I stop anyone throwing or shoving, but otherwise don’t try to fix anything.
Trying to reasonably explain to a child how unreasonable they’re being – then expecting that child to respond, reasonably – while they’re sobbing hot, furious tears and, for instance, trying to beat up a sofa, is the very definition of madness.
3. I talk about the feelings, not the tantrum.
Once the emotional storm has passed we don’t need to get into the specifics of how his brother can’t have been “looking at him funny” because he was actually asleep in another room. Instead, I try to approach it collaboratively from the angle of “Ooh, that was a big thing, what happened there?”, as something we can solve together.
By asking lots of questions I can get us, sometimes, to a point where we’re thinking about other ways to deal with big emotions, and what it can be like for other people if there’s hitting or shouting involved – but we get there together, rather than me lecturing him about it. My older son and I now have a system where, if he feels a tantrum coming on, he warns me that “a big feeling” or, more problematically, “a naughty feeling” is coming, and we try and find a way around it – like him playing on his own in his room for a bit, or in the garden.
It’s not perfect. Tempers are still frayed; tantrums still happen. But recently, when my husband worked abroad for a week and the disruption caused multiple meltdowns, I calmly suggested my older son go into another room for a bit. He went willingly – and 10 minutes later came back of his own volition, gave everyone a hug, and apologised for being “so grumpy and mean and scary”.
Of course, several years from now I may well find myself pleading with a judge to let one of my sons off a criminal charge because “honestly, he just needs a nap”, but I still think there’s hope for us yet.
• Robyn Wilder is a guest columnist for HuffPost UK parents. Read more of her columns here.