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Anatomy of a Tantrum

It starts with a want coupled with a refusal. I could easily avoid or negate the tantrum by simply giving in, but I don’t negotiate with toddler terrorists and I am not swayed by the screams, kicks, and wails of a denied want.

Yesterday, Hazel threw a massive tantrum at the grocery store while I was picking up Maggie’s medicine. Maggie was with us and I was so pleased that Maggie compliantly held my hand and allowed herself to be picked up. Hazel, on the other hand, wanted to explore. She wanted to eat foods she recognized, of course not understanding the legal requirement of paying for food before eating, and she wanted to reorganize end-caps and other store displays. She climbed on the chairs of the pharmacy waiting area while I picked up Maggie’s prescriptions, Maggie hugging my thigh and Hazel trying to see how far she could go before I say “excuse me” to the pharmacy tech and line of customers to scoop up my toddler sneaking into the cereal aisle. When we finished, Hazel wiggled her way free from my arms and threw herself on the ground in the middle of an aisle, red-faced because she wanted to shake vitamin bottles like a rattle. I literally dragged her screaming while other customers shook their heads with disgust. That must be a terrible mother, I imagined them thinking.

Which got me thinking. Damn it, I’m an excellent mother! Let her scream.

You see, she’s screaming because she wants to shake open and eat adult vitamins like candy. She’s screaming because she wants to eat potato chips for dinner. She’s screaming because she wants to bang on Daddy’s laptop or play with my cell phone. She’s screaming because she wants to climb the side of the banister or slide down the stairs in a laundry basket. She’s screaming because she wants to do or have something that is not in her best interest.

To her (in my mind), I’ve become Sergeant Killjoy. I’ve become the denier of her wants rather than the supplier of her needs. I’m learning to embrace this new role, because I love my daughters and I want the best for them. Because I love them, I say no.

As a former teacher, I’ve learned and seen the long term effects on kids whose parents gave in to toddler wants. These are the kids that often fail to take responsibility for their learning and their actions. These are the kids that will sooner complain that a teacher is unfair rather than admitting that they don’t deserve a decent grade for subpar (or nonexistent) work. At its worst, these are the kids who will cuss out teachers and other adults, then cuss out their parents at the conference.

No, not my kid. I will sooner embrace the looks of reproach from strangers for my toddler’s meltdown at Target because she wants a new toy than give in and buy that new toy. I will sooner embrace her throwing food down to the dog and letting her not eat again until the next meal. I will sooner embrace her anger because I stopped her from doing something catastrophically unsafe, like recreating the Home Alone scene of sledding down the stairs, to which I wonder how she got the idea in the first place without ever seeing that movie.

Giving in to toddler meltdowns only teaches her that she can get whatever it is that she wants through crying and screaming. My response at home to such behavior follows the Love and Logic approach. If she starts the full fledged meltdown, I pluck her up, stick her in her bed, and close the door. She can scream all she wants by herself. When she’s done, she’s welcome to join the family. Maggie in particular cannot stand the screaming. I think it’s over-stimulating for her, because then Maggie tries to leave the room or sticks her fingers in her ears. Frankly, Andy and I don’t want to hear her screaming either.

Toddlers are motivated to create a scene through tantrums because they revel in the attention. Toddlers are natural divas who crave the stares of an audience, whether it’s from strangers or family. In fact, I’ve caught Hazel crying in front of a mirror and she stopped and smiled so broadly when I caught her doing this. I suspect she will be a natural on the stage.

In the meanwhile, I will continue to set limits for my daughters. The world does not cave to the tantrum screams of an adult. I’m showing my daughters at this age that the world does not cave to tantrums, starting with Sergeant Mommy Killjoy.



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