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Anatomy of a Tantrum

A mom shares her daughter's tantrum meltdown

Birdy is a week away from turning 2. She's tired, I'm tired, and our evening is going badly in a series of trifling but cumulatively consequential moments, each toppling into the next like the dominoes of sanity. Who invented giving up your nap when you're not even 2? And who invented this frightful time of day? If I were the mom from Bewitched, I'd wiggle my nose and — poof! — one minute we'd be watching the sun just start to dip behind the trees and the next the kids would be snoring. Instead I'm just mortal me with bodies to feed, teeth to brush, a pair of children to shepherd through day's end like sweet-faced, overwrought little lambs.

First there's dinner. Birdy gobbles roast chicken while her 5-year-old brother, Ben, and I chew our food and discuss the "real pretend snake" a classmate brought to show-and-tell. There are smiles all around, the festive clinking of spoons and sippy cups, guitar music filtering in through the window. "This is great," I think to myself. Like a fool.

Because the very next minute is when Birdy decides she wants to hold both the bowl of steamed broccoli and the bowl of French dressing we're dipping it into. "I hold," she says. "I do it." This would be fine — if Birdy had a third arm. She puts down first one bowl and then the other, then picks both back up and wedges one under an arm, trying to figure out how to grasp a broccoli floret and plunge it into the orange goop without letting go of the bowls.

I am willing to let Birdy struggle for a while — I really do understand how important this is for growth — but finally I'm compelled to offer: "What if I hold the bowl of broccoli while you dip?" I'm just guessing here, but I think her screeching response means something like "No, thank you." I've offended her dignity, and there is, well, heck to pay: some obligatory stomping around, the accusatory groaning of the word "Mama," and a few tears — but this is only, maybe, a 3 on the 1-to-10 scale of toddler tantrums, as in "Loudly dissatisfied, but distracted by sticking fist into pudding cup."

When we go upstairs after dinner, Birdy wants to do the toothpaste "by self" (it bloops out onto the floor). She wants to eat the toothpaste from the floor (this is verboten). She wants to suck on the washcloth I've used to wipe her grubby face (I let her). She wants to fish a dropped sticker out of the toilet with her hand (I don't let her). And, by the time we're done with the evening's hygiene, it's all been too much for Birdy — too much "No," too much "Stop" — and we approach something like a 6 on the tantrum scale.

If my evening were a Jaws movie, we might refer to this as "foreshadowing" and there would be strains of ominous music. But this still is just baby stuff. I end up with a little snot on my shirt and in my hair, but Birdy pulls herself together. No, the real tantrum — the one you see slicing through the waves in the pointed shape of a fin — doesn't come until a few minutes later when Birdy, Ben, and I are pajama-clad and snuggled under the covers for a bedtime story. Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, to be precise. That's when Birdy finds herself unable to pull off her own fingers. "Aagh!" she cries, tugging on them. "Want to take dese fingahs off." She tugs some more, then holds her hand out to me and says, reasonably, "Mama, help me bease."

When I tell her that I'd like to help but can't — I trace her palm and fingers with my finger to show her how seamlessly put together she is — Birdy throws herself on the mattress and screams. The technical term for what's happening to her at this moment is "the last straw." She stands up, still screaming, and, tears rivuleting down her sweet face and her mouth opened into that red cave of yelling, she looks a little like a Beatles fan. You know, in footie pajamas. "Fingahs oooffff!" She's shrieking and tugging on her hands, trying to remove her fingers like they're gloves. (This scene feels oddly familiar. Was it in that 10th-grade film they showed us about LSD?) She bites into the comforter, tears at a sleeve with her teeth. I say, irrelevantly, "Would you like to look at A Fairy Went A-Marketing?" and Birdy stomps away. Such a bald-faced distraction will not be dignified with a response.

The thing about tantrums is that sometimes there is not only no way to help but also — and this is the kicker — no point. This is to be distinguished from the kind of tantrum that results from a disciplinary or safety intervention. If Birdy is about to plunge her hand into a Crock-Pot full of lentils, or if she's jabbing a thermometer into her ear or darting out into the road or hitting Ben over the head with a xylophone, and I stop her and/or speak sharply to her, well, the episode that follows always feels worthwhile in some way. Sure, the kicking and screaming are inconvenient, and you may have to stand in the middle of the sidewalk shrugging and smiling at the flinty passersby while your child flails a hole into the pavement with her snow boots. But righteousness is a raft you can cling to: An Important Lesson has been taught and learned.

In a case like the Dreaded Attached Fingers, however, there is no glint of a silver lining. Tiredness has simply forgone its usual peaceful route (close eyes, fall asleep) and has instead taken a terrible, winding detour through paroxysms of fury and frustration (kick feet, bang head against crib bars). And the lesson "fingers stay on" just isn't that satisfying a destination.

Meanwhile, back in bed, things have escalated. I'm still trying to read Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ben. I'm reading loudly, of course, so Ben can hear me over the handwringing din of his sister. And it's all a little surreal. Because here, on the one hand, are Laura and Carrie in a different century, struggling through a homicidal blizzard to get home to their worried parents — these courageous, uncomplaining little girls in their woolen tights and petticoats — and there, over on the edge of the bed, is this gigantic baby flinging herself around and pulling her own hair because her fingers are attached to her hand. Birdy's struggle is a real one, of course, and her dear face is tragic and red and drenched. But when Ben makes eye contact with me, I raise my eyebrows and he giggles. Then Birdy staggers over with a pillow like some murderous yeti, presses it down over our heads, and under the pillow Ben and I are laughing and laughing: Things are so out of hand. When we come up for air, Birdy looks so sad and lost that I say, "Oh, sweetheart," and, against her will, take her into my arms.

I rock this person — this half baby, half child — and sing to her. Birdy is struggling still and crying hard, but I try to remember that sometimes, if I'm sad or despairing, my husband might rub my back and speak soothing words to me, and even though he might not see any change on the outside — I might appear to be wholly and despairingly unaffected by his care — inside I am comforted. And even as I'm thinking this, Birdy's body softens in my arms and her screaming morphs into gasping, raggedy breaths with only a little bit of intermittent crying when she remembers her Great Woe and Sadness.

After the song ends, she sits up and asks, "Could I have tissue bease?" so politely that tears spring to my eyes. And when I hand it to her, she blots at her eyes and blows her nose, smiles at me, and says, "Sink you, Mama."

The thought that comes into my head is a cliché: It's like a storm passing. Birdy smiles, and even though the moon is peeking in through the tops of the trees, the bedroom is flooded with sunlight. And Birdy herself has the age-old impulse, the same thing I'm doing here, to make sense of her experience by turning it into a story. "I was," she tells us, her shoulders still heaving a little bit, "so, so sad." And Ben and I say, at the exact same time, "We know."

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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