It usually starts small, the tantrum. A child’s desire – often seemingly ridiculous by adult standards: must wear two socks at once; must brush one’s teeth by oneself, completely; must screw off the lid of the toothpaste and apply (read: blob, smear, ooze, dribble) toothpaste to the toothbrush (and sink and hair) by oneself; must retrieve and put on (or not) pull-up and jammies in exactly the precise way – resisted or redirected, or ignored, because they seem silly to us, or time-wasting, or aggravating. And this resistance resistance/redirection is met with a pout, a kick, an unkind word. To which we adults respond with incredulity or insistence or more resistance. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why are they escalating? What happened?
We direct, they resist. We push, they push back. We are focusing on the destination. They are focused on the journey.
At its core, a tantrum is a need unmet: a child trying to express something right that isn’t quite right – maybe they are coming down with a cold, maybe a sibling took something from them earlier without asking, maybe they need your attention and you’ve been busy with your own tasks, maybe they are sensing the hectic nature of a very busy day and need to slow down, maybe they’re frustrated about not being able to reach/tighten/loosen/tie/fit something somewhere but they don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling, or maybe even if they did, they don’t really understand what they’re feeling because… they are new to this whole human thing. And then, just when they’re feeling the most vulnerable or confused or frustrated and trying to communicate these new feelings, the people they’re trying to communicate with – us adults – we’re shutting down the expression, because we’re exhausted, or have things to do, or we’re just trying to get to that end point (get to school, get grocery shopping finished, get to bed). Enter tantrum: an explosion of expression that’s been brewing, needs ignored, feelings contained or misunderstood. Boom.
You know, I think most parents, and kids, just want things to flow smoothly – I think it’s in our human nature. Because, ideally, working together feels good. Harmony feels right. Getting to where we’re going peacefully is awesome. But in reality, well, while my kids and I may move along in generally the same direction, but we’re not always on the same page in terms of smoothness of travel. The kid side of our parent-kid pair might be able to see the objective, might even recognize the importance of it (or my own perceived and conveyed importance of it), but it’s in their nature to resist it – because honestly, who wants to be told what to do or how to think, especially when it doesn’t seem very fun?
Take bedtime for example. I’m saying: Okay, let’s get your teeth brushed, let’s take a bath, let’s get your jammies on! But they’re hearing: stop having fun, and so… they resist. And we push. And they push back. Maybe bedtime isn’t what they want, or, maybe they just want something else at the moment, or maybe they feel something else in the moment (those unmet needs & unexpressed feelings, remember: jealousy or frustration or illness coming on), and to them, in the moment, that destination you’re pushing towards, it just doesn’t matter. If they don’t feel good NOW – that’s all that matters, and they respond to and express those feelings in the now. Loudly. Forcefully. Smooth travels be damned.
I know in some ways, they’re on to something – living in the now, appreciating the awesomeness of every moment, loving that smooth trip would be ideal, right? But wow, it’s hard sometimes. It’s hard to ease up on the things we think we should be doing (getting to bed on time, cleaning up after each activity), whilst encouraging the things that need to be done (getting up & dressed for school), and keeping cool, calm, and fun (all without losing ourselves along the way) in the process – particularly when we’re being yelled at or random toys are being thrown in our general direction. But, process, the now, the path, the way, the journey, the flow… they are right. That is the most important part; the end goal can be awesome too, but if you’re not enjoying yourself along the way...
Anyhow, back to tantrums. Last night was particularly challenging in terms of me trying to get smoothly to our desired destination (a reasonable bedtime) and my children resisting. Suffice it to say on tantrum number three of the evening, at I’m-not-admitting-to-how-late-it-was o’clock, when said children still were not drifting off into dreamland, I was just about ready to be done. The journey sucked, the destination seemed way out of reach, and I wanted to walk out of the room and go do my own thing. I so wanted to.
Instead, I decided that getting to sleep was less important than getting there smoothly and happily, and really, truly, getting to the core of the tantrums, the expression, the pushback. Somehow, I reached down into the depths of my patience (I was scraping the bottom folks, seriously), and I acknowledged the moment – and recognized the unmet needs that had been piling up all day.
So then what? What do you do when the tantrum that starts small becomes the tantrum that isn’t really ending? How do you stop the train in its tracks? How do you go with the flow, instead of resisting?
What did I do? I rebooted our bedtime. I took a deep breath. Then calmly (yet loudly, because, you know, I had to be heard over the yelling) stated that I didn’t like how things were going with the current bedtime, that I wasn’t feeling good, that I was sensing THEY weren’t feeling good, and that I was restarting bedtime.
The sudden silence was like, awesome.
Suddenly, the destination wasn’t the important part anymore, instead, it was enjoying the trip. On went the bedroom lights. Off went the pjs, and back into the tub the kids went. Seriously, we just started over. Just rebooted our mom-kid computer, basically. I stopped directing. They stopped resisting. We started having fun. Bubbles started bubbling, tub time shenanigans ensued. Teeth were happily re-brushed (well, sort of. In one case, initially brushed. See: tantrum number two), jammies were cheerfully put back on (which, truth be told, never quite made it all the way on in the first place. See: tantrum number three), stories were re-told, songs were re-sung, and everyone settled down, peacefully, holding my hands, calmly… they went to sleep. Sleep, blissful sleep. The journey and the destination achieved with bliss.