Tantrums Aren't Personal, But They Sure Do Feel Like It

by Sara Farrell Baker
OksanaAlex / Shutterstock

It was another rough morning. I should have expected it since I was still recovering from driving several hours away for a weekend trip with my husband and our two kids. If I was tired, they certainly were too. My 2-year-old threw her plate at breakfast. My son moved at a glacial pace as I tried to get him ready for preschool. Every small instruction or request was met with whining or stomping, and I was relieved to drop my oldest off at school. My hope was to get my daughter down for a nap as soon as we got home, so that I could take a short break. I hadn’t even digested my toast, and it was the kind of morning that already had me counting down the hours until bedtime.

These are the days when you make the universe aware of what you need to make it through, and the universe puts in its earbuds and turns the other way. My daughter did not nap. She whined and cried, and I spent my morning practically throwing things in our house at her in the hopes that I might guess what she didn’t have the words to tell me she needed. I got no break, and the hour hand’s progress toward bedtime was painfully slow.

When I picked my son up from preschool, his teacher informed me of the particularly hard day he had. There were lots of tears and yelling, and I could see on his face that he was feeling upset. As we drove home, I tried to think of ways to cheer him up. Maybe a movie or a special snack? I could order pizza for dinner. That might be nice for all of us, as I was in no mood to do any cooking.

As soon as we walked in the door, I started getting a taste of what his teacher dealt with that morning. Everything I tried to do or suggested was met with whining and opposition. Not long after, the stomping and screaming started. I abandoned any thought of trying to make my son feel better at that point. He knew I was trying to help. I know he liked some of the things I offered. But he was intent on making the afternoon just as, if not more, miserable than the morning had been. He melted into a full-blown tantrum, complete with screeching and crying.

He knew I was tired. I had tried being nice. I told him I needed him to cooperate. Why was he doing this to me today?

Experienced parents with grown children often remind us that the years are short, but they don’t usually mention how long the days can be.

I lost it.

I yelled. I screamed. I was unkind. I immediately regretted it, but the knowledge that he had no such regrets about what he had done or said kept me from going right into a cooldown. What had I done to deserve all of that attitude? All I tried to give him were the things I thought he needed or things I thought might make him happy. How could he treat me like this?

How could he treat me like I had just treated him?

The realization hit me hard. I was tired. I was irritable. I was trying to adjust back into my own schedule after a few days out of my element. My body and mind were both craving rest and quiet. Of course, I was in a terrible mood.

And he was feeling all the same things.

Tantrums often feel personal. As parents, we are on the receiving end of our children’s tantrums more than anyone else is. We take it personally because they make us feel like we are getting everything wrong and they deliver that message in an earsplitting fashion.

Emotions can feel too big at times. I know that I have a hard time managing my own on certain days. And when I can’t handle them, I often lash out, snapping at the people around me for minor offenses. Once I calm down, I’m embarrassed by my behavior and aware that the person I got upset with was not what actually made me upset in the first place.

And that is basically what tantrums are like. Emotions have grown too large for a young child to contain and so they come spewing out. It’s a loss of control that all adults experience, so why shouldn’t kids?

When I take a moment to put my children’s actions in perspective — as the actions of someone who doesn’t always have the ability to deal with those big feelings in an appropriate or kind manner — I can manage my response. I can show compassion and kindness instead of going on defense. Instead of sending my son into time-out out of anger, I can send him to his room to cool down and do it with love and kindness.

Not taking tantrums personally is a constant practice. But it’s a practice that keeps me from absorbing my son’s emotions and having a meltdown of my own. Instead of cooling down enough to apologize for my reaction after the fact, I can stay calm and help my son better manage his.

And no matter how long the day ends up feeling, bedtime is coming.