A Child's Tragedy Scale For When Their World Is Ending

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 

When my oldest daughter was 7, my friend and I took our two daughters to a concert. My friend’s daughter was also 7, but an entire head taller than my petite girl. My friend had recently removed the back from her daughter’s booster seat, but my daughter wasn’t tall enough to take the back off of hers. Little did I know that this one little thing was going to cause the apocalypse. Within five minutes, we went from “When will I get to take the back off of my booster seat?” to full-on tears and wailing and “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE THE SHORTEST PERSON IN THE CAR!!!”

Good times. It was the end of the world.

Kids’ worlds seem to end on a semi-regular basis, and I’m not talking about toddler tantrums here. I’m talking little-to-biggish kid drama—those ages where you swear they are way too old to be having this kind of an emotional outburst, but for some reason, they are. Maybe they can’t find their favorite toy. Maybe you ran out of their favorite cereal. Maybe the universe is conspiring to make you lose your marbles. Whatever it is, big kids throw fits too, and sometimes they look an awful lot like toddler tantrums.

Thankfully, by the time they’re past the toddler stage, they usually pitch those fits in private. The only problem with that is you don’t get to see that everyone else’s kids are just as emotionally unstable as yours are. It’s not exactly something you want to go around telling people about. But I have a lot of good friends with kids who are generally stellar, and they’ve told me their stellar kids sometimes lose their minds over little things—crying, wailing, bawling, what have you.

There are all kinds of ways a parent can handle the end times, and I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. Sometimes compassion helps, but rarely does it actually calm them down. With some kids, a logical approach might work, but considering the irrationality of most of these outbursts, logic usually falls flat. Punishment is an option, but I’ve never felt good about punishing a kid for being emotional.

The problem isn’t a kid expressing displeasure over dropping an ice cream cone. The issue is the degree to which they become an emotional wreck over it. So, we came up with a Tragedy Scale to help our kids gauge how fit-worthy a situation actually is. If something is a minor disappointment—something that might warrant a small “Darn,” or a “Hmph,” followed by an “Oh well”—we call it a 1. If something is a legitimate, life-changing tragedy—something that would truly warrant a full-on, crying, wailing, screaming, teeth-gnashing fit—we call it a 10. Everything else gets assigned a number in between 1 and 10 based on the severity of the disappointment or tragedy.

We consulted with the kids and came up with some examples for each number so they’d have a concrete idea of what each number might feel like. Here’s a sample:

1. Your dad breaks your bananas into pieces instead of slicing them like mom does.

2. We run out of your favorite macaroni noodles.

3. You can’t find your favorite shirt.

4. You can’t find your favorite toy.

5. Someone rips the blanket you’ve slept with since you were a baby.

6. You stub your toe really hard.

7. You crash your bicycle.

8. You crash your bicycle and break your leg.

9. Your pet dies.

10. An earthquake destroys your house, and your entire family perishes.

It’s not a perfect list, and those last two might be too tragic to use for some kids’ tragedy scale. Considering that my kids don’t seem to have a problem talking about me dying (“Mommy, if you died, I’d really miss you, but Uncle T and Aunt A would take care of us. Then we’d get to have a dog!”), I figured it was OK. It helps to have something truly world-endingly tragic to match their world-ending emotional outbursts.

I mean, seriously, even a tired, irrational kid can see that having a wailing, crying fit over running out of macaroni is a little out of proportion when you look at this scale. I’ll sometimes tell my kids, “You’re having a 9 reaction to something that’s maybe a 2 on the Tragedy Scale. Let’s take it down a few notches.” It doesn’t always stop them completely, but it usually helps them recognize the extreme nature of their reaction and gets them to take a breath or two.

Try it and see how it works for you. You may save your sanity, and you might just save the world.

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