I’ve always been adept at concealing — or at least containing — my strongest feelings, keeping everything inside for the sake of avoiding conflict or awkwardness. No matter what emotional turbulence I encountered in my life, I would digest it silently, perhaps seething inside but showing no outward anger.
Then my baby became a toddler and the tantrums began. My shell cracked. Everything came out.
My daughter’s tantrums are nothing extreme on the toddler tantrum spectrum, but anyone who has experienced a little one’s meltdown knows that even mild tantrums are, well, extreme. Tantrums usually begin around age two and begin to taper off by four, so it’s a short-lived period, but boy is it intense. Researchers have found that tantrums occur an average of once per day with a median duration of three minutes, which, they failed to mention in the study, scientifically feels like five to six hours.
It’s all a natural part of development. Toddlers haven’t yet begun developing their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s charged with impulse control and emotional regulation. “As a result, toddlers are all feelings. They can’t help but fully feel and express their emotions,” explains Sarah Harmon, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of The School of Mom.
So when a toddler finds themselves frustrated, tired, hungry, or misunderstood, emotions escalate quickly. Just the other day, my daughter ended up on the floor in a crying rage because we thought she said she saw a “cookie” out the window. Turns out she was saying “turkey.” Idiots.
The toddler, of course, often isn’t the only one upset during a tantrum. Tantrums can be incredibly triggering to parents for a litany of reasons: they’re irrational, they’re embarrassing, they’re never at a convenient time, they’re exhausting. On a deeper level, they can make you feel like a failure as a parent. I know I struggle not to take tantrums both seriously and personally — and this can have consequences.
As Harmon explains, tantrums set off a chain reaction in parents, one in which their child’s behavior triggers certain thoughts, which lead to strong emotions, which then lead to outward actions. All of this is automatic, she says, so parents are often unaware of what’s driving their own behavior. The most common emotion that leads to a dysregulated reaction in parents? Anger. “So many adults were raised with the message that anger is bad and unacceptable,” Harmon says. “This programmed line of thinking is what ultimately leads to the parent being triggered in a negative way.”
I feel this in my bones. Turns out, all those years that I kept my anger contained, I wasn’t “digesting” anything; I was just pushing it down. And, well, when a toddler is throwing her xylophone mallets at your leg because you tried to fix her backwards shirt, it takes much, much greater downward pressure to keep that anger under wraps.
Which is to say that, in the throes of my three-year-old’s worst tantrums, I’ve flown off the handle. I’ve watched myself act in ways that are completely out of character: yelling, threatening, snapping. The other night, my daughter woke me from a dead sleep at 2 A.M., screaming in frustration because she couldn’t arrange her blankets perfectly flat in her bed. Exhausted, disoriented, and frustrated myself — we’ve been dealing with this blanket perfectionism for weeks — I lost my cool, too. “Get BACK in your bed right now,” I hissed. “The blanket being straight DOES. NOT. MATTER.”
This, of course, is the worst possible reaction. Kyle Pruett, a child psychiatrist and professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains that the single most critical component of the parent-child tantrum interaction is the parent’s tendency to match their kid’s emotional intensity. “This isn’t helpful,” he says. “Your child is almost completely unaware of the storm they’re making, so when you leap in emotionally and physically charged, your child reacts to your intensity and escalation is the name of the game.” Indeed, research has found that negative parental reactions to tantrums are associated with low social competence and more negative emotions in kids.
There’s an abundance of advice on what you are supposed to do when your child throws a tantrum. You should remain calm, validate their feelings, give them a tight hug; you should practice mindfulness techniques, keep your face neutral; you should crouch down to their level, distract them; you should ignore and ride out the meltdown.
But here’s the thing: those strategies don’t always work. Sometimes, I muster all my strength to stay calm, to validate, to do everything the experts say, and still, the tantrum intensifies. In these moments, my cortisol spikes and my brain is filled with a cacophony of thoughts — ashamed, indicting, overwhelmed — which crowd out the advice that I’ve internalized time and time again.
According to experts, that’s normal. But you’ve gotta stay calm anyway.
“So often, parents focus on the perfect strategy in heated moments like a tantrum,” says Harmon. “And while strategies and tools are helpful, regulating ourselves and learning how to soothe and calm our own minds and bodies is at the foundation of being a more calm and grounded parent, over a reactive, triggered one.”
I don’t want to be a reactive, triggered parent. Nor do I want to simply squash my feelings inside the way I have for much of my life. I’m the adult here, so it’s my responsibility to — finally — develop coping mechanisms to process that most maligned of emotions, anger.
I have a ways to go, but I’m trying. When my arsenal of tantrum-taming strategies don’t work, I’m turning to a different set of strategies: those I used when I brought my baby into the world. Because tantrums, in many ways, are like contractions. You can’t reason with them; you can’t will them to be any shorter or less intense. They’re natural occurrences, and no matter how many fancy strategies you learn, often the best — indeed the only — thing you can do is just to breathe through it, and remember that their intensity is not a reflection of who you are.
Kate Willsky is a freelance writer based in California by way of Brooklyn. She covers a range of topics, including health, culture, food, and parenting. Her bylines include The Washington Post, VICE, SELF, Glamour, and Eater, and you can find more on her website.