My body tenses. Teeth clench. Heart hardens.
I don’t hurt him. I don’t yell. Yet, my heart hardens with frustration.
My agenda to clothe my two-year-old collides with his interest in remaining naked. He wants to play with his trucks on the bedroom floor; I have a morning adventure planned. After several attempts to wrestle him into some clothes, he runs out of the room crying “No!”
My son says “Stop!” and “No!” frequently these days. He even asserts his will while mimicking favored construction trucks.
“Beep, beep, beep!” he says. Usually he does this while putting his hands on my legs and pushing me backward.
This morning I miss his “Beep, beep, beep!” which always makes me smile. I imagine it would translate to something like: “Back up Mom. Give me some space. Who needs clothes? Can’t you see I’m really enjoying this moment of being naked? I have no interest in your morning agenda. Let’s play trucks!”
This morning, instead of construction sounds, he shouts and cries. I feel my body tense. I feel my frustration. I remember to breathe. I remember my intention to soften into empathy.
I walk into the front room where my little naked boy cries in anger. My heart’s hardness melts as soon as I kneel down to connect at eye level. His face is blotchy, his eyes red, his nose runny. He is bawling. He is angry. Yet, I stay present. I sit on the floor.
“You are mad at mommy right now. That’s OK. I love you. I’ll be here when you want a hug.”
He yells again and runs into the kitchen.
“Take a deep breath,” I tell myself as tears filled my eyes.
Grief resides in the dark waters of the hardened heart. As I make room for my sadness, a gentle space of compassion opens. This space is wide enough to include all of the feelings swirling around, and through, both of us.
I sit on the floor and patiently remain present for him. I watch strong emotions move through his two-year-old self.
Yes, he will feel angry. He will feel sad. This is part of life’s flow. How do I respond to the energy of his anger and sadness? Will I try to make him laugh and distract him? Will I respond with my own anger? Do I take it personally? Can I breathe and gently hold space for his pain?
I can choose to soften around these hard edges. I can choose to breathe in gentleness. In this choice, I feel the freedom that comes from releasing the patterns of generations.
For certainly, the hard heart is passed on, inherited. Years before I decided to become a mother, I was committed to transform the negative aspects of my childhood. It took a great deal of therapy, meditation, dance, yoga, and travel to soften the scared and angry parts of my heart. Motherhood takes this process to entirely new levels. May I be grateful for this extraordinary opportunity to put into practice all that I’ve worked hard to uncover about the truth of love.
A minute or two pass. My son comes back to me. He reaches for me. I hold him. I feel the tension within -- and between -- both of us release. He looks at me and I wipe tears from his face.
“Outside?” He points to the door. Can we go outside?
I smile. “Yes, we can go outside. Let’s get dressed and go for a walk.” He nods and hugs me again.
I release my morning agenda as he welcomes my help in getting dressed. I take a deep breath. A few minutes later, we walk hand in hand into the sunlight.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, a tantrum occurs when a young child, usually between the ages of 1-1/2 to 4, experiences a mixture of anger and sadness to the point where he or she looses control. A child doesn’t consciously choose to have a tantrum. A tantrum is an overwhelming expression of feeling that is frightening for a child to experience. It’s also hard to watch as a parent.
In 2011, two researchers at the University of Minnesota collected a large amount of data on tantrums. "We have the most quantitative theory on tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind," remarked Professor Michael Potegal in a National Public Radio interview. By placing small microphones in the clothing of toddlers, hundreds of tantrums were recorded. The recordings were complied and the vocalizations characteristic of tantrums were charted according to angry and sad tones. While these tones overlapped, it was clear that after the angry tones peaked, the sad tones dominated.
So, a tantrum is an uncontrollable outburst of anger mixed with sadness and once the peaks of anger are over, sadness remains. How best to respond to this powerful expression of emotion?
My research on the subject is motivated by the fact that my two-year-old son occasionally passes out from holding his breath in a tantrum. Breath holding spells occur in about 5 percent of toddlers. While children outgrow them, they are jarring to witness. I love my little boy beyond words. I want to find positive ways to side-step tantrums and respond wisely when they do occur. I offer the following reflections as a helpful support to parents of toddlers everywhere.
So, how to respond?
Well, here's what not to do. Don't have your own tantrum. You don't want to respond with the same energy as your child. Your little one needs you to stay calm and hold space for the expression of feelings, not to loose yourself in them. Remember, you are the adult. The extent to which you have made peace with the normal, though difficult, emotions of anger and sadness determines how calm, empathetic, and clear you can remain when your child has a tantrum.
During your child’s tantrum, if you find yourself gritting your teeth, wanting to yell, hit, or engage in a power play with your little one -- just stop. Step back. Take five deep breaths and know for certain that it’s your past that is moving through you. You are being triggered. Someone who didn’t carry painful emotional baggage would meet your child’s outburst patiently. You don’t want to repeat any abusive or painful patterns from your past. Remember, if a parent can't stay calm and centered, how will the child learn to regulate difficult emotions?
You also don't want to try to reason with a small child who is out of control. During a tantrum, the developing neocortex shuts down. A child is functioning with pure emotion and survival energy. She doesn’t have access to her developing sense of reason. According to the research done on children and tantrums, trying to reason with a child during a tantrum actually makes them last longer. Relying on the power of human empathy is the key.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids,” most tantrums stem from a sense of powerlessness and most tantrums can be avoided. To avoid them, a parent needs to decrease the sense of both overwhelm and powerlessness. For instance, if your home has a lot of child un-friendly spaces, your little one will be frustrated. The need to explore is primal. If your child is always hitting into a "no,'" he will feel powerless. Make your home as child-friendly as you can in order to increase your child’s sense of power as he explores the world.
Certainly, any parent can attest that children often have desires that conflict with their own. Markham encourages parents to set “limits with empathy.” For example, before you set a limit, as long as it is not an issue of immediate safety, acknowledge the desire first. By acknowledging what your child wants before interrupting her concentrated quest with a "no," your child feels understood and less overwhelmed by your power. Also, it’s important to remember that your child is a human being who has the right to dislike things. Markham encourages parents to let children say "no" as long as the "no" isn't infringing on another's rights or relating to the basics of safety or health.
Many tantrums occur when children are tired or hungry. This relates to the sense of overwhelm. If your goal is like mine -- to avoid most tantrums -- then be sure to keep your child balanced physiologically. When sleep patterns are all over the map and meal times are unpredictable, your little one will have tantrums. Children need rhythm and ritual to mark the passing of days. In fact, we all do. Our job as parents is to maintain a healthy and balanced rhythm in the home.
When tantrums do occur, use very few words. During the peaks of anger, it’s best to use none at all. However, as you notice a child’s frustration build, empathetically present short sentences describing the feelings surfacing. This way a child comes to identify what he is feeling. “Janice feels mad.” “You are angry at mommy.” “Luke is sad right now.” Etc. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, author of “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” these short sentences should be said with some of the same emotional tone and energy being expressed by a frustrated child. Using his method, Karp argues a child will understand on a deeper level that her parent “gets” what she is feeling. By acknowledging the presence of emerging negative feelings, often a tantrum can be derailed. The child feels understood and slowly gains the capacity to express difficult feelings without losing control.
During a tantrum, make sure your child is safe. Often a child will throw her or his body around during peaks of anger. Be sure that sharp furniture edges are moved and reach out to catch your little one if needed. Outside of keeping your child safe, Potegal argues that it is best to “do nothing” during the angry peaks of a tantrum. Markham believes that parents should remain present and calmly witness the unfolding emotions. While you don’t want to try to reason or react irrationally yourself, staying present tells your child that you aren’t leaving him alone with overwhelming and scary feelings. As you consciously hold space for your child’s anger, you witness that difficult emotions are a part of life and you model that it’s possible to make room for them to come and go. Witnessing the expression of difficult feelings with compassion models how to maturely handle such feelings in the future.
In summarizing his research, Potegal stated: "The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible was to get past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness and sad children reach out for comfort." It’s vital to respond to a child reaching out in this manner. However, avoid comforting a child with objects, especially any forbidden object that might have sparked the tantrum. You don’t want to create a negative pattern where children learn that strong emotional outbursts lead to the possession of desired objects. Rather, offer your attention and love alone.
Markham affirms there is a strong need for reconnection or, what she calls “cozy time,” once a tantrum ends. A child wants to be held, cuddled, and soothed. Could a child unconsciously use tantrums to get a distracted or neglectful parent’s attention? Markham argues this is possible in situations where a child is missing essential moments of positive connection that should occur throughout the day. Therefore, give a lot of nurturing love, touch, and attention in response to positive emotions -- as well as responding as needed when a child reaches out for comfort.
The beauty of a child's heart is that it is yet not hardened by life. Many adults are no longer in touch with the unexpressed sadness that resides at the center of anger. According to Markham, "all anger is a defense against more uncomfortable feelings." For a young child, the deeper feelings of sadness naturally emerge after the peaks of anger subside. A parent can offer a safe space for such emotions to be slowly understood and integrated. By drawing upon best parenting practices in your response to tantrums, you help ensure that your child’s beautiful heart stays open.
Daily expressions of love, establishing predictable and healthy rhythms, and compassionately making space for the integration of difficult emotions are central to conscious parenting. Such activities nourish the souls of both parent and child. They diminish the frequency of tantrums and support parents in responding to anger and sadness, their own or their child’s, with wisdom and compassion.
I never learned to appreciate the delicacies of language until I became a mom. I knew from my education and experience that kids are like sponges; they soak up everything. Though of course, unlike sponges, you can’t remove what has been soaked up no matter how hard you try. My oldest son turned 3 this summer and as his vocabulary and cognitive abilities continue to grow at an exponential rate, I am frequently amused by what comes out of his mouth. Here his top ten (so far) little gems.
10. “I’m okay!”
The boys were being wild after their bath one night, playing with my husband and bouncing on the bed. All of a sudden my son goes flying off the bed in an ungraceful mess of arms and legs on to the pillows below and promptly bounces up with a smile on his face and yells this. I immediately started laughing picturing a scene from movie of a college frat party with a drunken person flopping over and trying to cover up for the faux-pas.
9. “Mommy, I have a problem.”
As I’m making dinner, I hear this from the living room in a very matter-of-fact tone. Absent any screaming or crying, I was both curious and terrified to reply (my first thought was something involving poop as I am sure is the thought of most mothers) My knee jerk response was “so what’s your problem?” It was the tone of my response that topped the entire conversation off because my response came out in a way that to any reasonable adult would have sounded quite snotty. I was struck by a mix of amusement and feeling bad about how I replied to him. Luckily he was simply out of juice.
8. “Piggy says ‘arf arf’”
The first time I heard this, I knew we’d have a problem when he goes to school. You see, I work with a dog rescue and one of our beloved pups’ nicknames is “Piggy” due to his frequent rooting for food and ability to impersonate a garbage disposal by consuming nearly anything remotely edible without chewing. We were reading a book about farm animals and when we got to page about the pig and what sound does a pig make, he pointed to the fat pink animal and said “That’s not a piggy, but Piggy says arf arf.”
7. “Poppy’s name is “Hey Babe.”
Yes, my son thought my husband’s actual name was “Hey Babe.” We discovered this last spring when I told my son to tell Poppy that it was dinner time. He promptly walked to the door, opened it up and yelled outside as loud as he can, “Hey Babe, time to eat!” Of course not only was it amusing to discover that he actually thought this was my husband’s name, but hearing this little 3 year old boy yell “Hey Babe” to his father was priceless. Luckily we’ve been able to explain to him that much as I call him by his nickname “Bear,” I call Poppy by a nickname as well, (though for a period of time if you asked him “what’s Poppy’s name” he would reply with this.
6. “Where is Grammy’s new Tom-Tom?”
No this statement isn’t innately funny. What’s funny about this is that he said it in front of Grammy on Christmas morning as we were getting the presents from Santa out from under the tree and passing them to the appropriate recipient. I guess I should have explained that whole “wrapping so it’s a surprise” thing to him while we were wrapping.
5. “You’re going to get such a chicken!”
Unfortunately, this didn’t mean that I was getting live chickens or prepared meat. This was his attempt at parroting a quote from “Phineas and Ferb”, albeit slightly incorrectly. The statement was supposed to be “You’re going to get such a chickening,” (as said by Dr. Doofenschmirtz to Perry the Platypus while describing how his Chickeninator will turn anything it hits into chickens, since chickens are inherently funny.) Needless to say, the silly look and giggling that came from him before, during, and after the statement was the icing on the cake.
4. “Brother FARTED! Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
I never understood why farts were funny…until I had boys. My husband’s family is full of gas, and the men have no shame when it comes to letting it go, at least in the confines of home. The first time my son heard and acknowledged a fart, he broke out in hysterical laughter and asked what that noise was. After a brief explanation he demanded to hear it again, and pointed and laughed. Take this as fair warning; anyone who breaks wind within earshot of him will be swiftly identified…loudly…with ensuing laughter from both he and his little brother (who laughs at anything his older brother laughs at.)
3. “Don’t forget my baby nuts!”
This priceless statement was unleashed on my mother when she had him at the park one day last spring. She realized he had pooped as she was getting him out of the car. She decided to lay him down in the back of the SUV so she could change him. Much to her shock and dismay, he announces this at the top of his lungs as she is wiping him up. I’m not sure what was more hilarious, the fact that he said this, or the fact that he said it to my mother….in public. (As a side note, we do use the proper terms for body parts, though my husband has occasionally used the term nuts when referring to his testicles after having them accidentally squashed or smashed by the kids…and it would be somewhat insensitive of me to correct his language in the midst of the excruciating pain. Obviously the amusement of the word and the situation has stuck in my son’s head more than the word “testicles” and for what it’s worth, at 3, that’s a pretty difficult word to pronounce.)
2. “Poppy, you are dickless!”
Again, this is one of those “is it context or the statement that’s more amusing?” It’s a tossup in my book. My husband was being silly while playing with the kids and had used the word “ridiculous.” Little did we know that it would be repeated as “dickless” by a 3 year old.
1. Using the “F-Word” correctly, complete with appropriate context and tone.
I’ll be honest, both my husband and I have mouths like sailors and initially, it was quite challenging to modify our language appropriately. We both work with the public and are often confined to being polite for the sake of “customer service” so home was a sort of sanctuary from the censorship that work required. Unfortunately, we were a little late on this and one day my son was mystified by some intricate toy that he couldn’t get to work properly and exclaimed “what the f***?!” The kicker was, it wasn’t in a mad tone, it was in an “I’m baffled” tone, so when we initially heard it, my husband and I looked at one another to see if we actually heard what we thought we heard. As he has gotten older we are better with our language, and have explained to him that sometimes adults say words that aren’t appropriate to say. Of course this lesson has gone to the extreme (as does nearly everything with a toddler) and anytime we slip up, he immediately scolds us.
What kinds of things have your kids said that made you laugh, cry, or wish you had a hole to hide in?
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