It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Experiencing tantrums

This post isn’t about what to do when experiencing a tantrum. I’ve discussed tantrums in some detail in a three-part series, which you can find here (part 1), here (part 2) and here (part 3). If you check under the “tantrum” category down there in the sidebar on the right, you’ll find lots more anecdotal stuff, too.

92296_the_stress_No, this post is for you, the parent who has a thrashing, screaming child on the floor in front of you. Or, if you’ve taken my advice and left them in a safe place and walked away, a thrashing, screamin child in the next room. Because lord only knows you’ll still be able to hear them! How are YOU feeling?

When people comment, and even more when I correspond with commenters, it is clear to me that many of you imagine that I float serenely above the chaos, the very picture of calm, cool, collected confidence.

Well, I am confident. Mentally, I’m calm. And externally, I’m cool — or, more accurately, controlled, because I will let the child see that Mary Is NOT Pleased With This Nonsense. (When necessary: with some children I use a soothing voice. NOT a coaxing one. Never, ever coax a tantrumming child. But I will use a soothing voice. Unless a stern one proves more efficient. This is what I mean by controlled: I consciously do what works, matching my response to the character of the child.)

Okay. So I am confident, and I look calm and controlled.

But inside?

After twenty years of dealing with toddlers and tantrums,
after twenty years of creating tantrum-free two-to-three years olds,
after twenty years of knowing that very soon this will all be in our past,
after twenty years of honing a practiced and effective response…

Tantrums still leave me shaky.

They really do. It’s not because I don’t know what to do next. It’s not because they alarm me. It’s not because I feel such compassion for their feelings. I’m not that I’m feeling fearful or anxious or helpless or even angry. (Though that last one comes closest to any emotional response I might be having. After all these years, exasperated is more like it.)

And yet, tantrums leave me shaky.

It’s because those wee ones are so PASSIONATE. They are FURIOUS. They are ENRAGED. The are positively FEROCIOUS. They are just radiating negativity, in extreme voltage. You cannot help — well, I can’t, at any rate — but be affected by that sort of emotional intensity.

After all these years, I am not affected emotionally so much as physically. The heart rate goes up, I’m sure of it. My response is clear, consistent, controlled, and practiced. I do not (externally, visibly) evidence the shakiness. But it’s there.

Thing is, I know, after all these years, that it’s not a sign of uncertainty. I am not second-guessing myself. It’s not a sign that I can’t handle this. I can, I am, and I will. It’s just, I believe, a normal human reaction of someone in the presence of a super-charged intensity of emotional/physical outburst.

So… you’ve walked away from the screaming, and your hands are trembling? You can feel your heart pounding? You’re maybe even sweating a bit?

Normal. Every bit of it. It’s an adrenaline rush, nothing more, nothing less. You’re not a Bad Mother (or Bad Father!). You’re not a wimp. It’s just a physiological response to intense stress. And it will pass.

Take a deep breath. Swing your arms. Put on some music and dance like a dervish. Run on the spot. Wrap your trembling hands around a hot cup of soothing mint tea. Take another deep breath and another, let them out long and slow. Drop your shoulders down from your ears.

You’re doing fiiiiiine.



January 9, 2009 - Posted by | parents, power struggle, tantrums | , ,


  1. got almost the same advice on how to manage an extremely irate employee ( Im in HR.)


    I’d say there’s a pretty close parallel between an unreasonable, angry adult (as opposed to a reasonable one, which it’s entirely possible to be) and a frothing toddler. But we won’t tell the unreasonable angry person we’re treating him/her like a tantrumming toddler.

    Comment by Suzi | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Great post. Working as a nanny for 2 and 3 year olds I have certainly had experiences with children having these wildly passionate, and mostly innappropriate outburst. I feel like I’ve handled them well- however…I wonder how you deal with children once they’ve managed to calm themselves down.

    Do you reinterate the issue that caused the tantrum?
    Do you praise them for managing to calm themselves down?
    Do you try to talk about how a the offending situation made them feel and then talk about a better way to show those feelings?
    Do you try to coax an apology?

    These are all things I’ve read in books. I’m sure it depending widely on the peronality of the child (at least that’s what I’ve found.) But I wonder if you have an order you go by?

    Good question, and one which, because of the variables involved, is too much to respond to fully in the comment section. In very brief answer: I will do any and/or all of those, depending on the circumstances. (Except for the apology. In the case of tantrums, I am unlikely to try for an apology, not because I disagree with expecting apologies when appropriate, but that a tantrum seems to require a de-brief more than an apology.) Another response, of course, is simply to move on and make no further reference to the tantrum. Sometimes I do that, too.

    Comment by Coley Moley!!! | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. I think this might be my most favorite post here ever. I am SO relieved to hear that you are affected by tantrums. I can manage to not show that I am affected, most of the time. But I was beginning to think you had some super-human skills or something! It’s much more fun if you’re human too.

    Super-human? Hardly! I once overheard a caregiver in a coffee shop explaining how she was able to deal with her raft of children so calmly: “I’ve been through this so many times that there are very few surprises, so I’m rarely taken off-guard.” I thought it was a great summation. If you’re scrambling for a response to a brand-new situation, it’s much more emotionally and intellectually demanding. If you’re seeing a familiar behaviour, and choosing from your repertoire how you will respond, it’s still intellectually interesting, but you’re not going to feel the edginess of uncertainty/anxiety/fear of failure/will this be effective. Which makes it waaaay easier to be calm!

    Comment by Sarah | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  4. oh tantrums! You should meet my niece! I’ve had so many kids for so many years it doesnt even raise my heart rate, trouble is with some kids that annoys them even more, that they dont get a reaction out of me, many kids use tantrums to scare their parents and carers into what they want. I make it a rule to never reward a tantrum, Jude made me laugh when he came out the other side of the tantrum years, we were horse riding and a four year old had to share a horse with his sister, when it came time for him to get off, he went ballistic, kicking and screaming, he even tried to bite the pony (?) Jude sat on his pony, raised his eyebrows and quietly commented

    “Thats not going to get him back on the horse”

    my dad and I fell around laughing, he knew my rule that tantrums dont get you what you want!

    Isn’t it great when they really, really get it — and make you look good in the process?? Hurrah, Jude!

    Comment by jenny | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  5. Have you ever done a post about parents throwing tantrums?

    Ha! No, I haven’t. Should I? 🙂

    Comment by Bethany | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  6. Thanks!

    You’re welcome!

    Comment by MJH | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  7. Funnily enough for a softie, I disengage. If a child is upset and has deep feelings, it gets to me. But when it turns into a tantrum, my mind switches off and I become kind but dispassionate, or occasionally – if the occasion warrants it – stern.

    “Kind but dispassionate” is the perfect response. When I was a mother of toddlers, I called it being “a benign robot”. We’re describing the same thing. I wish I could disengage. My behaviour is generally “kind but dispassionate”, my cognitive response always is (with a side of exasperation in some instances) but physically/internally? Shaky. Odd, that, that the intellect/psyche can have one response, and the body another.

    Comment by Z | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  8. “Put on some music and dance like a dervish.”

    Oh, I love this idea. Prepping music selection now for upcoming tanties. Limbering flabby mummy limbs.

    If nothing else, the tanty may dissolve into gales of laughter when said mummy flailing is observed 🙂

    It’s therapeutic, and, you’re quite right, can provide just the distraction a fraught child might need. But do it for your own sake, not for the child’s! For the wildest of wild dancing, we’re partial here to either thoroughly down-and-dirty blues… or Beethoven.

    Comment by Merrilee Faber | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  9. Now that my twins are getting closer to the tantrum age (17 months), I went back to reread your older posts on the matter. I thought I’d point out that the “handling physical aggression”, and “expecting respect” links aren’t functional… and I would love to reread them if they are still available!

    There. Fixed. I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress a year or more ago, but I didn’t go back through all the old posts and set the links to the wordpress posts. Ugh. What a job THAT’s going to be… But at least the links in those three posts are now good!

    Comment by Ann | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  10. Tantrums are one of those things that test a caregivers ability to deal with the irrational. No, they don’t appear randomly, there is usually a confluence of reasons — rather, it’s the inability to reason your way out of them that I’m referring to. To me, they remind me that time heals, one should not sacrifice the short term for the long term, and that you still need to unconditionally love.

    The irrational. Quite right. Just because a behaviour has a clear cause doesn’t make it rational!

    Comment by kv | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  11. All I have to say is, “You can cry up in your room,” and they calm down now. Persistence has paid off. There are still times they just can’t help themselves, so I help them up to their room to finish the deed. Having that distance helps muffle the sound, but still I can hear the screams and can’t help but have a response. Thanks for the reassurance, Mary!

    “Persistance has paid off.” Oh, good for you! Isn’t it gratifying when you can see the results of your efforts?

    Comment by mamacitatina | January 10, 2009 | Reply

  12. Thanks for fixing the links! Good ones to review!!

    You’re welcome!

    Comment by Ann | January 10, 2009 | Reply

  13. These days it’s not the tantrums of the wee, but the big, wailing, dramatic tears of the 4.5 y.o. that leave me rolling my eyes because those tears are unfailingly unecessary, and totally different than real, unbidden crying. I am so unsympathetic to those drama tears, because they are quite the opposite of the emotional intensity you speak of. Gah. Not looking forward to going back there…

    Oh, the drama! Have you tried “You may cry, but you must cry quietly”? It sucks a whole lot of the enjoyment out of the activity if 1. it’s allowed and 2. they have to do it quietly. (Where’s the drama in that??)

    Comment by kittenpie | January 11, 2009 | Reply

  14. Do you have any posts on biting and how to best deal with it? My son is a biter. He went through a bad phase of it at about 15 months. We got it under control (it disappeared actually) with a little positive reinforcement, but it is back with a vengeance.

    The first round I solved easily. He likes a drink when I pick him up, so I made sure to have a sippy cup with water ready every day when I picked him up from daycare. I would put it in his carseat cup holder. When we came out of daycare I’d put him in the seat and praise him and tell him he was getting his cup because he did not bite anyone. If he had bit I would take the cup from him before he could get it and tell him no cup today because he bit someone.

    This round I don’t know what to do. He is now 21 months old and the biting is back. He bit three separate children in one day. I’ve spoken with daycare and they are moving him up to the early two’s room (non potty trained 2 year olds)to see if that will help. The day of the three bites we did punish him from tv for the evening on top of the sippy cup thing and he did not bite the next day, but bit the day after.

    Is he biting at home or only at daycare? If it’s just happening at daycare, there’s nothing you can do about it from your end, and the daycare staff know that. No one will be blaming you for behaviour that only happens there.

    If he’s biting you, my response is a very stern “You don’t bite me!” and an immediate removal to some sort of time-out — his room, the other side of a baby gate, a specially set-up playpen, strapped into a high chair. Doesn’t matter what, so long as every time he bites, he is set aside and VERY obviously ignored for 2 – 3 minutes. When I go back to the child, I am my normal warm self. You don’t need to mention the biting again (I generally don’t), though if you want to (in ONE sentence) recap why he had the timeout, you may.

    You do this every time. Minimal words, immediate action, attitude stern, warm reunion 2 – 3 minutes later. I find it works within about 3 weeks.

    Comment by MomofBitingBoy | January 12, 2009 | Reply

  15. […] Experiencing tantrums […]

    Pingback by More Coffee Please » Random neat stuff from RSS feeds - Wed Jan 14, 2009 | January 14, 2009 | Reply

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