How many times have you been in the grocery store aisle when you hear a loud cry? You look over and there is a kid barely hanging off a cart, reaching for a candy bar. The poor, sweating parent tries to play defense with a masterful interception and proceeds to negotiate with their very loud mini linebacker. The screams get louder, the kid starts changing colors, and the parent struggles even more to attempt a quiet, controlled, and scripted tactic... to no avail. Finally, the parent, pretending that no one is watching, stealthily picks up their screaming football and slithers out of the supermarket, horrified. As they start vanishing into the parking lot and the screeching dissipates, you can see from afar a whole new chunk of gray hair magically growing out of the parent’s throbbing scalp!
When most of us hear the word ‘tantrum’ we immediately want to: close our eyes, put our fingers in our ears, and strap in tight for a bumpy ride. We try to reason with our thoughts and can’t because, let’s face it, the word ‘tantrum’ alone is enough to make anyone disassociate.
For the next few minutes, I want to help us face the word. I want us to understand the reasons behind Tantrums, and reframe to take away its negative power and turn it into a super parenting tool. I want you to walk away seeing a new perspective so that the next time that you are faced with the “screaming football,” you are able to zone into a fantastic opportunity for growth, understanding, and connection.
Here are a few things that I think of when I think of tantrums. I love a good tantrum! I want to have tantrums. Tantrums are liberating and they are helpful in that they teach us tons about where our kids are at. They are also a great way to exercise awareness and regulation. I also know that tantrums are annoying, they can be embarrassing, and tantrums make my blood flow hot! And did I already say that I want to have tantrums? (And I mean on a regular basis)
When toddlers tantrum, they are basically:
Expressing a message really loudly in order to ensure that they are being heard,
Looking for a way to regulate their internal system or
All three possibilities can be seen as a window into our children’s inner world and I for one welcome any chance to get to know my kid better, for them to know themselves better, and I triple welcome any chance to connect with them. This all being said, I say it with the knowledge that it is simpler said than done.
As parents have a physical biological connection to our kids, when they are in distress, our system is wired to react: heat rises inside (feels like our blood is boiling), tunnel vision occurs, sweat, hyperawareness....we are wired to react and this is a good thing! And it comes from way back when the Sabertooth would chase us and we, the parent, would have to activate our superpowers and react accordingly. It is in our DNA and our survival depends on these signs to fuel us to react quickly and effectively. However, we have so many more distractions and layers in our modern lives that we no longer need to save our children from a Sabertooth, but we may need to save them from that candy bar in the supermarket aisle.
Before we even talk about tantrums, we have to recognize that our reactivity is normal and it is instrumental to our survival. As a person who practices meditation, I know that recognizing the chatter is instrumental. Ignoring the noise puts it in the driver's seat, while recognizing it with no judgement makes the chatter, fear, and reactivity take the backseat.
Once I have recognized my survival signs, or as the oxygen mask analogy says, I put on my oxygen mask before tending to my child, I can start doing the essentials list: “Is my child hungry, tired, or sick?” Most of the time when we take our kids to the supermarket, they are hungry and tired so plan accordingly or start by giving them something to eat before starting your shopping. But this is all good housekeeping tips and not really what I want to write about.
Now let’s get practical with all my mambo Jambo!
I have put together an example of scenarios where you can switch your mindset to see Tantrums as growth opportunities. To begin with let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that Toddlers are freaking brilliant- they have genius ways of taking care of business!
The GET ME THE FREAK OUT OF HERE Scenario
THE SCENE: the child wants candy in the grocery store.
WHAT’S UP:They are overstimulated in the supermarket and are screaming to calm their little bodies and sensory receptors; it is loud, bright, visually too much to see and figure out what it is what, too many opportunities for taste and smells! By zoning in on something...anything that can potentially make them feel better, they can shut down their sensory system and ground themselves. In other words, to calm down the other 10 systems that are hijacking their little bodies, they need to zone in on one thing.
GROWTH OPPORTUNITY: By giving in to the candy request or by walking out, you are communicating that uncomfortable is dangerous; quick gratification is an ideal way to evade discomfort. You are missing out on an opportunity for your child to practice grounding and to stretch the growth mindset.
THE DOING: Just by knowing what is going on you can do many things:
For example, because I know that my child tends to get overstimulated, I can narrate what is going on in the supermarket from the moment we walk in (not while they are tantruming but before they even start.) I can say, “I see the supermarket is filled with tons of yummy stuff, people, colorful aisles, bright lights, sounds” You can narrate the sensory experience to give your child the opportunity to control the narrative.
I can also add when we first walk-in, “Love, I want you to point out every red thing you see in the market,” therefore giving them something to focus on. An alternative to what would eventually be the candy bar. This way you are giving your child a handy tool that can be used other times that they need to ground, to calm down their senses and overwhelming sensations.
Furthermore, I can join in the game of finding things and make this an opportunity to connect and have fun with my kid.
BATTLE OF WILLS
THE SCENE: Child wants to play... one more minute, “just one more minute mami, please!” (15 minutes later…)
WHAT’S UP: The child might not deal well with transitions. (TBH, if I am doing something I like, I don’t want to give that up either.)
GROWTH OPPORTUNITY: By letting them play the extra minute the child is not learning to deal with transitions. By letting them play in order to evade the tantrum, we are giving them the same message: uncomfortable is dangerous, quick gratification is an ideal way to evade discomfort, so don’t deal with the transition at all. Since it is inevitable and you will eventually have to leave the park, you might as well use this as a learning opportunity. Transitions are inevitable: life is always changing, things are always ending- the sooner we learn this the better!
THE DOING: Here’s one I’m sure you already do: “The countdown.” Awesome! Clear expectations are key. But the real key is what happens after the countdown…
When you say we leave in one minute… JUST LEAVE!!!
It really is as simple as that- even if they leave kicking and screaming, it’s okay. Because the message we want to give is: it is ok to be upset. It is okay to not want things to end, but things end … and done!
This is a fantastic opportunity to help your child deal with transitions. It’s hard to deal with the tough stuff, but “hard” in controlled exposure is one way to practice dealing with transitions and endings. If we don’t practice “dealing with the hard stuff” we become increasingly anxious, scared of what that may feel like, and unable to manage the potential discomfort which translates to: anxiety.
Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their book “The Whole Brain Child” explain one of my favorite strategies for handling a dis-regulated child: CONNECT AND REDIRECT. While the child is having “Big Feelings” (i.e. in hysterics, screaming, crying ugly cries, or even uncontrollably silly) I can say something like: “I can see that you are having big feelings, you don’t want to leave and you are really SO VERY UPSET!” There is no judgement in my statement I am just stating the level of emotionality and connecting with it. Harvey Karp in the “Happiest Toddler on the Block” says a similar thing- connect at their level. “I see you are REALLY UPSET” you can even physically stomp and raise your voice to meet them - and that’s it- just by acknowledging their feelings a child feels heard. You do not need to evade it, pretend it’s not happening, or attempt to make it stop; just face it. Uncomfortable feelings are part of life, acknowledge them! “Name it to Tame it” (Also a Daniel Siegel’s phrase- Can you tell how much he and Tina connected with my brain?).
OMG I NEED AN EXORCIST
THE SCENE: Bedtime.
WHAT’S UP: The Child doesn’t want to go to sleep. AGHHHHH!!!! You are tired, too tired to deal, your child feels that. The child has had a full day of stimulation and has no idea how to unwind. You have wine while the child must whine!
GROWTH OPPORTUNITY: Here’s one you might already do: “The routine.” It is really important to set up a night time routine. For example: brush teeth, read a book, lullabies, and sleep. The more you do the same routine, the more stability you are establishing. In other words, give the child something to anchor with - something to hold on to when they get possessed by the overtired demons.
All is good and dandy until the routine does not work- that’s when you let the child, the genius, call onto the exorcist AKA the Tantrum! Crying, screaming, stomping, punching, big physical outbursts help exhaust the overactive system. All of that activity actually helps the child plop and fall asleep.
THE DOING: All you need to do is hold the space for your child. Let them exhaust themselves if they need to. You can give them the space to do so and check in every so often and tell them something like, “I’m here, just checking in, let me know when you are ready for our cuddles, I love you, peanut!” By doing something like this, you are sending the message that their big emotions are not scary. Sometimes we just need to ride the emotion wave and not judge it. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is.
What I have described is one of thousands of scenarios but a good example to see how by creating awareness (truly knowing myself, my child, and both of our reactivity triggers) I can switch a reactive scenario to one that gives me the opportunity to create a growth mindset. I can help my child feel heard, I can help them practice self-regulation tools, I can connect with my child, and I can feel more in control and have fun!
So next time you are in the supermarket aisle and see someone in the midst of a football field size tantrum, know that this should be a celebrated moment of great discovery and super important growth mindset. Because that kid that is screaming next to you is getting super strong and that parent growing the extra gray hair chunk is doing some important work in training a super life athlete -- and by using the right Playbook, together they achieve the ultimate touchdown!
Thank you for reading!
Con mucho amor 💕