I was really hoping I’d never be become the kind of parent who is qualified to give people advice about dealing with tantruming kids, but here we are. They say you become good at anything with enough practice. Sigh.
There are no magical solutions, but these strategies definitely help. They don’t stop a tantrum, mind you — I still have no idea what to do for those — but I’ve found some things that help me handle tantrums more peacefully. It turns out, that’s more than half the battle.
I keep these slogans (garnered from Al-Anon) in mind, and although I didn’t intend it this way, they basically work really well for the same reason other Al-Anon slogans work so well — when you’re about to say or do something you’ll regret, a simple phrase can keep you on track, precisely because it’s simple enough to remember in the heat of the moment.
These are the ones that work for me:
“He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.”
This one’s my favorite, because when I can change the focus from how the tantrum affects me (and nothing is more inconvenient than a well-timed tantrum) to how he must be feeling in the grips of it, the frustration turns into empathy. And I’m a much better person when I’m feeling connected instead of angry.
“I’m so grateful for this little boy.”
Gratitude is remarkably disarming. Even when my son is acting distinctly unloveable, my mother’s heart still knows that his presence in my life is one of the best gifts God ever gave me. I may not be grateful for the behavior, but I’m always grateful for him. That quick sentence helps me remember to choose to love him when I’d rather not.
“It’s not about me, it’s about him.”
This one’s especially for when my son’s chosen a very public place to have a tantrum, and everyone around me is — or so I assume — judging the heck out of my parenting skills. My embarrassment makes it harder to stay calm, but he needs me to be calm. Instead of seeing his problems as a reflection of my choices, I can concentrate on his needs first.
The emotion must be so big for it to be coming out like this.
This one helps me not to minimize my son’s feelings. Experts call temper tantrums “externalizing behavior,” because the child is expressing a painful internal feeling in an outward way. Objectively, the agony of leaving Target with no new toys isn’t something that the whole parking lot needs to hear about. But emotions are subjective, and even when his emotional response is way overblown, it’s still what he’s feeling. A tantruming child may be overreacting to the situation, but he’s not usually overreacting to the emotion — it’s just that painful for him. Throwing a tantrum isn’t any fun. When I remember that, it helps me approach him with compassion, even as I try to teach him that the how he reacted to the emotion was not okay.
More than any of these, there’s prayer:
Specifically, the Beatitudes. Can you even imagine a better reminder for a parent who’s a hair’s breadth away from flipping out?
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
It’s hard to be a parent. It’s hard to be a kid, too. The Beatitudes help me remember that winning a power struggle with my child isn’t always as much of a win as I think it is.