Today, my son had the wildest, most epic tantrum of his young life.
He’s just turned two, which means that tantrums aren’t unexpected. And it probably means that I haven’t seen the worst of it yet, either.
It all happened at lunchtime.
He decided to eat lunch out of his bunny bowl, rather than his usual flowered bowl. I served some food, and we sat down to eat. He quickly decided that he wanted “the other bowl” … and it went downhill from there.
Food was thrown. Spoons were hurled to the ground. There was much crying and wailing.
If you’ve ever been around kids, then you know exactly what a tantrum looks like.
Tantrums are a normal part of childhood.
Kids, especially toddlers, are old enough to know what they want, but they’re not always able to communicate it effectively. And, they’re certainly not able to self-regulate the disappointment, anger, and frustration of daily life.
Today’s tantrum was not about the bunny bowl.
On reflection, this tantrum did not happen of the blue.
It was the result of cumulative stressors that my toddler experienced during the morning.
Like having to sit still while I clipped his fingernails. Skinning his knee while playing outside. Of course, there were protests and tears at the time of these events, but the bunny bowl is what pushed him over the edge.
It wasn’t about the bunny bowl.
The easy solution was to give him his usual flowered bowl and fend off the tantrum.
But that would have been a bandaid solution. The pent up frustrations of the morning would have lingered, waiting to be unleashed.
I told him that lunch was in the bunny bowl, and I steeled myself.
The storm hit.
Somewhere amongst the throwing and hitting and crying, I briefly wondered if I was doing the right thing.
I considered “giving in”. But what would that teach him?
It would be one thing if I had forced the bowl upon him, without asking his opinion or considering his feelings. I’m not too proud to admit my mistakes.
In this instance, though, my acquiescence would simply be to placate him, to “shut him up”. Which implies that I can’t handle his feelings.
And in the moment, what he needed was a leader who could handle his feelings.
Someone who could keep him safe from the scary sensations of anger and rage.
His heart was pounding, his breathing choppy, and he felt out of control.
If I were two years old, I’d be pretty scared of my feelings too.
So, I sat with him and his scary feelings.
We moved to the floor while he screamed.
He didn’t want to be cuddled, so I held his hand.
He yanked at my arms, trying to bring me towards the kitchen and the bowl that he wanted.
When he tried to hit me, I firmly held his hands away from me, and simply said “that hurts”.
He cried. He screamed. He raged.
I stayed quiet. I remained vigilant to him and his actions.
And most of all, I remained as strong as I could – for both of us.
He needed to feel safe, and in order for me to provide that safety, I needed to keep my cool.
It wasn’t about the bunny bowl.
As the storm clouds started to subside, the negotiations began.
He wanted to feed himself on the rug (he can do that at the table).
He wanted yet another type of bowl (I reiterated that his lunch was in the bunny bowl).
We eventually worked out a solution.
He sat in “my” chair at the table, and held a measuring tape in his lap (today’s toy of choice).
He ate lunch from the bunny bowl and miraculously requested second helpings.
We chatted. He told me about his weekend. He even provided an unsolicited “thank you mummy”.
It was never about the bunny bowl.
Today, he got to see that his mum isn’t afraid of his big feelings.
He learned that it’s ok to get out of control, and mum will still be there for him. Mum will keep him safe, and won’t let him hurt himself or anyone else.
Most of all, I got to see what I’m capable of.
I’m stronger now, because I know I can handle his feelings with compassion and dignity.
The next time he has a tantrum, I will remember this moment, and allow it to strengthen me even more.
Tantrums are never about the bunny bowl.
They’re not even about us. They’re about a young mind, unsure of how to cope with the turbulent sea of powerful feelings.
Our job is not to punish or placate. It’s to be the anchor in the storm.
For more articles on tantrums:
To find out how I overcame my parental stress and mental chaos, check out Chaos to Calm: A new mum’s guide to overcoming stress to become a happier, more confident parent.