Surviving the Tantrum Hangover

When it comes to tantrums, parents are like seismologists: we’re intimately familiar with what may trigger an outburst in our kids, and we can often predict down to the second when our little darlings are about to erupt in rage. For my youngest daughter, meltdown-worthy offenses have included such grave injustices as getting a drop of bath water in her ears, making eye contact with her while she puts her shoes on, or giving her the wrong fork at breakfast.

In the interest of preserving my sanity, I’ve gotten pretty good at heading off tantrums in these everyday situations.

But, of course, there are those other times you just never see it coming.

One such time not so long ago, I was picking up my daughter at preschool. It was a gorgeous fall morning, one of those rare days when you forget that a bone-chilling, dreary winter isn’t far away.

Toddler Tantrum

My child was waiting for me in the school lobby. As her eyes met mine, her expression snapped into an ugly frown. “NOOO!! Go back home, Mama!”

Oh, no. I could feel my stomach tense up as my heart rate accelerated. I was pretty sure this was going to be an epic performance on the Tantrum Richter Scale, but maybe I could salvage the situation with some shameless bribery. “I have yummy snacks and a new DVD in the car,” I offered hopefully, as if trying to placate a cranky hippopotamus.  

My daughter responded by wedging herself under a train table, where she began to kick her legs furiously, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Go away, Mama!!” Her outburst alarmed her classmates, who were sitting quietly as they waited for lunch, looking at us with wide eyes. The teacher gave me a kind look and mouthed, “I am so sorry!” In that moment, I felt the sensation of drowning, as if all the air in the room had been swallowed up by my shrieking child.

As I struggled to extract my daughter, I debated crawling under the table with her. My cheeks were burning and my legs were shaking. I could feel everyone’s eyes on us as my child yelled, “I have the worst mom in the world!”

It certainly felt that way.

After a long car ride, some hugs and quiet conversation, my daughter was smiling again, all traces of her sour mood completely gone. But I felt thrashed. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was climb into bed and sleep it off.

Whenever my child has a serious—and especially public—meltdown, the emotional hangover can be hard to shake. Not only do I feel mortified, thinking I must have looked like a complete idiot to the other adults in the room, I’m plain shell-shocked from absorbing the emotional explosion that just occurred. Doubts and negative assumptions start to creep in, slowly at first, then fast and furious like baseballs spitting out of a pitching machine. Each one makes my head hurt. Did I fail to teach my child how to deal appropriately with strong feelings? Bam. Have I been too soft in my parenting style? Bam. And then the kicker: Clearly, I must have caused this by modeling hysterical behavior in my own life. Bam, bam, bam.

Thankfully, even the worst hangovers don’t last forever. And when that soul-crushing fog clears, lately I’ve been starting to see things in a different way. Is it normal to feel upset and frustrated if my child has an extreme meltdown? Absolutely. But my children are not simply extensions of me. They are unique and complicated, and while I currently control a great deal of their world, they are ultimately responsible for their own behavior. If my daughter throws an ear-splitting tantrum, it does not mean I should brand myself with the scarlet “F” of parental failure. It does mean my kids are human, and wired in their own beautifully quirky, often confounding ways—just like the rest of us.

I’m still struggling with how to best handle these emotional eruptions, which I imagine will change and become even more intense as we approach the tween years. I’ve tried many of the popular strategies: reward charts, compassionate listening, revoking privileges.

Ultimately, the only thing that really seems to help is showing my daughter that I love and accept her where she’s at, without condoning her behavior or morphing into an enraged monster myself.

If I can do this for my daughter, then I can extend the same compassion to myself as a mother—yes, even in those awful moments when I’m convinced that I’ve screwed up my child irrevocably. Perhaps a dose of understanding can help take the sting out of the next tantrum hangover.

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