Nov 11, 2010

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Being Present With a Tantrum

Being Present With a Tantrum

When I imagined what parenting would be like, I never thought about tantrums. I didn’t contemplate what I would do if I had a child screaming and hitting walls and running away when I tried to talk to her.

And yet, real parenting eventually requires that one come face to face with a tantrum. And if you want to be a “conscious parent,” you have to rise above the emotions that immediately surface when faced with a child full of anger at not getting what s/he wants and/or unable to communicate what s/he wants.

A lot of unfamiliar emotions have surfaced for me over the past week as I have dealt with a four year old who has resorted to tantrums when frustrated. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with her. It seems that sleepiness, a lingering cold, and some age-appropriate frustration have resulted in a bunch of behaviors appropriate only for a tasmanian devil.

While I’ve tried to figure out how to deal with these behaviors, I have felt frustration, confusion, anger, and even threads of rage oozing through my body when seemingly rational attempts at talking my daughter through her tantrum have not worked. I’ve felt like a miserable failure of a parent and have felt passing desperation at the difficulty I’ve faced without apparent solutions.

Eventually, each time my daughter has calmed down, after faced with time-outs, calm discussion, and similar methods. But during the last tantrum I faced, something was different. I was able to be fully present through it– though it lasted for a seeming eternity. I brought my daughter away from the site of the tantrum to her room where I explained that when she was able to talk about what she wanted (rather than screaming at the top of her lungs, running away from me, or banging walls), I would be there to listen. When I walked away to give her time to calm down, more screaming ensued.

I repeatedly came back to try to help my daughter through the tantrum when the crying had subsided. And repeatedly she showed me through her actions that she wasn’t ready to talk. Continually I walked away and calmly explained that I’d be happy to listen when she was ready.

I’d go back into my room and marvel, full of frustration, as my daughter continued to scream. I’d feel waves of annoyance, confusion, anger, and frustration. . . and just wait.

Somehow I was able to repeat this process a number of times until my daughter was finally ready to talk. I was able to explain that we need to use words instead of crying; able to tell her that she is loved, but some things are just not acceptable.

At the end, when she had calmed down, I marveled at my ability to just ride the wave through the tantrum. It wasn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination. I pray not to have to use this skill too many more times. And I understand why my naive pre-parent self never stopped to imagine such a moment. But I lived through it in a way that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. Without resorting to screaming or pulling my hair out or praying to be somewhere else.

We all lived through it. Hopefully my daughter learned something from it. I know that I did. Just being fully present through a difficult situation left me feeling more empowered and strong. Being fully in the moment, attentive to my inner feelings and my daughter’s outward expressions, felt different than the out of control feeling I’ve felt before when a tantrum ensued. This time, I didn’t react to the tantrum or get taken away in its wave of emotion. I stayed outside it, watched it happen, and calmly tried to work through the situation with my daughter. It was a powerful reminder to me of our ability to act with presence through any difficult situation. The situation itself may or may not change because of our reaction to it. But the power of our presence can leave us feeling differently about the situation because we don’t let it take us over. We can remain calm and grounded while dealing with our difficult situation, secure in knowing that we will survive, all will eventually be okay, and though we wouldn’t choose the situation, we can remain steadfast until it changes.

I never wanted to come face to face with a tantrum. But I now know that, in my better moments, I am able to face them with fortitude and calm. I can be present with a tantrum. And that feels much better than the alternative.

  1. Hey Ali,
    Great article. Wow, have I been there. Sometimes in those moments I have a tiny voice waaaaay in the back of my head asking me if I just am trying to make it all better too quickly to make myself feel better, and shouldn’t I let her have the emotion first? Powerful stuff. Particularly as we march our children into a society that is all about tidying up the world’s problems within a 1/2 hour television show or a 2 hour movie.

    Here’s to the messy, loud and nerve wracking side of life!

  2. Mikko-
    This is such a good point. I definitely feel an urge to get a tantrum over ASAP, especially when we’re in public. Sometimes when we’re in public, it makes sense to do the most expedient thing, but it’s a great lesson (for our children and ourselves) when we’re able to sit with a tough emotion (and let them do the same).

    Hear hear!! Life can be messy, and learning to deal with it is helpful for all of us.
    Thanks for your comment!

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