My three-year old son curls himself into an anger ball and screams, “No like chili!” Tears fall on either side of his gaping mouth. He smashes his arm against the table, sending the spoon, chili-side first, into the white curtains. I feel sick. He wails for 30 minutes, a new record. His baby sister joins in the crying fest. And I contemplate dumping the entire bowl of chili, sour cream and all, on his head.
Instead, I swoop him up and place him on my lap with one arm and feed the baby with the other. I tell him that it will be OK while resting my head on his. Eventually, he calms down and even eats the entire bowl of cold chili. He goes on to have a wonderful evening. I, on the other hand, am ruined. I don’t want to feel this way, but anger still swirls around inside me.
I know that it is best to stay calm during these meltdowns. The experts say that tantrums are a normal part of a toddler’s development. Their brains are simply overloaded. Parents should model calming down techniques and blah blah blah.
What the experts fail to mention is what to do when your child’s tantrums make a monster emerge from the pit of your stomach—and what to do when that monster starts feeding off of your child’s anger.
This is what I hate about tantrums, not the thrashing limbs or the flying objects but my potential reaction to them. On a few rare occasions, I was overloaded and let the anger out. Like the time I yelled, “Fine just sit there and cry!” And my son repeated it for the rest of breakfast. I apologized, but I am still so ashamed of this and of a few other times where the monster hijacked my cool and I lost control.
Thankfully, 97 times out of 100, I stay calm. I hold my son in my arms, like a mommy bird with him under my protective wing. I absorb the I want another cookie or I can’t fit onto this three-inch swing inside the dollhouse meltdowns in stride. I hug, I wipe tears, and I wait. I talk about feelings and what to do next time. I never hold the tantrums against him. All the while holding my hungry monster at bay.
I must be doing something right because when my son’s emotional earthquakes are over, they are over. He goes back to being my vibrant, joyful little man who enjoys cooking imaginary chocolate pasta or arranging his toy cars by color. I have forgiven him and still love him, chili-stained curtains and all. His tantrums are even becoming fewer and fewer. This is a beautiful thing. It even shrinks the size of the monster a little, but I don’t want to have this monster inside of me at all.
I talk to my mom. Back in her day, the parenting advice was to ignore tantrums, which is impossible to do when chili is flying in front of your face. Plus, it creates a backlog of big emotions from you and your child that are never dealt with. The emotions are just left to balloon out of control.
It feels good to talk with my mother. Perhaps it releases some old, clung-to emotions for the both of us. I also realize I have focused my energy on processing my son’s emotions while ignoring my own. So I decide to put the monster on a diet.
I start to write about my son’s tantrums in my journal. I talk to my husband. I finally work up the courage to tell friends and family what’s really going on inside my head when my son rips off my glasses and throws his stuffed animal in the train. That the monster inside me tells me to have my son escorted off at the next stop in hand cuffs. But instead, I apologize profusely and take my son to calm down in the hallway next to the stinky onboard toilets. Most of the time, my friends and family tell me that they have been there, too.
I reduce caffeine and exercise more. I pray. I ask for forgiveness. Most importantly, I start to forgive myself. And little by little, the monster is deflating. When I sense a tantrum bubbling inside my son, I take deep breaths. I am in control, not the monster.
My son brings me two bowls of his imaginary chocolate pasta with delight in his eyes. I only take one bowl, letting my son have the other. I slowly exhale. The monster may still be here, but it’s not hungry anymore.
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