Picture the scene:
My daughter A stands in the hallway, stomping her feet, fists clenched, tears rolling down her blood-red cheeks. Her screams go from let’s-remind-our-neighbors-we-have-a-three-year-old loud to should-someone-be-calling-child-services? loud. She’s dialed to 11 in full tantrum mode, as Baby J and I look on.
* * *
The day started nicely enough.
I had spent the morning dangling a carrot over A’s head: the new trampoline park. We had been once before, and she’d been talking about it ever since like it was the promised land. I told her that if we were able to get out of the house without a lot of fuss that morning, we could go back to her new favorite place.
As we pulled up to the trampoline park, I reminded her that we could only go inside if she was sure that when it was time to go, she wouldn’t make a scene, like we’ve all seen kids do at the end of some monumentally fun activity. She promised me she would comply.
So I paid the $10 for her to have an hour of uninterrupted fun. She jumped, she bounced, she climbed. And when one of the attendants announced that our jump time was up, A maturely returned to find her shoes. We gathered our things and returned to the car. Mission accomplished, right?
I could tell things were going south when I heard A start to cry about a scrape on her ankle during the short drive home. That’s out of character, I thought to myself. She’s not usually this temperamental, but there’s been a lot of this lately: whining and fussing about things that aren’t really a big deal.
And of course, I wonder if this fussiness has anything to do with all the changes in her life right now. Things that wouldn’t ordinarily be upsetting are now, just because.
I try to be patient. I insist it’s just a small injury that we can easily tend to with a Hello Kitty bandaid when we get inside our house, but things snowball from there.
She doesn’t want to put her shoes on to get out of the car. She doesn’t want me to carry her from the car. She doesn’t want to go upstairs to clean off her scrape, and she insists I’m not supposed to go up either.
I try to offer a diversion: lunch.
Aren’t you hungry? It’s lunchtime. Your sister is going to eat now. Look at these yummy strawberries!
Nope. She’s not having it. In that moment, everything is just wrong to her, and she’s having no trouble expressing her disgust with the world.
I try my normal tactic: ignore the tantrum. That’s what’s been working for us for about a year now. Are you upset about something? Is there a reasonable solution? If not, go ahead and be angry, and let me know when you’re done. She usually comes around really quickly once I stop paying attention to all the drama.
But not lately. In recent weeks, ignoring A’s tantrum tactics just makes her more irate. What now?
Well, a few weeks ago, in the middle of one of her rages, I could just sense how powerless A felt. Defeated. Unheard. And it got to me.
Instead of feeling aggravated with her, as I’m ashamed to say I usually do, I got down on my knees and asked her,
Would you like a hug?
She looked at me, a little shocked, and paused for just a moment before accepting my offer. And the whole tantrum unraveled from there.
Had I just disarmed her with kindness and understanding? Did this actually work?? Yup.
After that incident, we had a little talk about expressing ourselves constructively: requesting affection before getting to the point of having one of these explosions. Since then, there have been a whole bunch of times when A has been on the brink of a tantrum and requested a hug. And then things just…stopped—the fussing, the screaming, all of it—and instead, she’s been able to tell me what’s really bothering her.
Because it’s never the poor positioning of her sock seam across her toes or the fact that I’ve selected the wrong children’s vitamin flavor for her. Lately, the real issue usually has something to do with not feeling heard. And haven’t we all been there?
It’s got to be tough to be three and learn that you’re leaving your life, your friends, your school, your home. You have no choice in the matter. It’s just happening.
The more I think about things from A’s perspective, the more I realize she has good reason to feel frustrated. So right now, I pray for patience, and I offer up lots of hugs.