Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rebel with a Cause (three-year-old version)

Tantrums, various experts assure parents, happen when a toddler's emotions run away from her. Your tot cannot deal with anger, fatigue and frustration, and this emotional incapability to process and deal results in the dreaded meltdown. He cannot express himself adequately, so he loses it.

I'm sure, that for the two-year-old set, this wisdom is mostly correct. (Google the word "tantrum" and you will see hundreds of links addressing emotional displays by, roughly, the twenty to twenty-eight month age group.)

The Grape is three and a half, the age where the experts say that tantrums should be a thing of the past. By and large, we're past the classic, out of control crying, flailing jags. What we have now is worse.

The Grape, in his old age, uses the tantrum as a terror tactic.

How do I know this? Because he only throws them in public

Of course the Grape misbehaves at home, but the no holds barred, full-on freak out displays, the ones I fear strangers recording and posting on YouTube, only occur when two conditions are present.

One, the Grape knows he has an audience of adults, and two, he has already expressed some request in acceptable, indeed often polite terms, and received a response not to his liking.

Basically, when he gets denied, and thinks he can sway public opinion to get his way through terror tactics.

His tantrums are epic. I mean day ruining (for me, not him).

Not because he loses his cool, but because he does so in such a calculating way.

I've worked with lawyers. I spent many years in sales. I'm confident that my radar for manipulation is acute. And this kid is a master manipulator.

Yesterday, the Grape complained that he didn't want to go to music. I told him we were going, that it would be fun, that we'd see lots of friends there. He went along with the plan until we got situated in the music room.

Then, the minute the teacher launched into the first song and dance activity, The Grape staged an epic freak out.

The Grape went berserk. Hollered, flailed, thrashed, protested he was too tired (untrue), demanded to go home, screamed in my face.

All the conventional wisdom decrees, thou shalt not give in to tantrums; instead thou shalt remove the child to a quiet place and let the meltdown run its course.

Right. But what if the demand I'm not supposed to give into is a request for relocation? How the heck does removing him not reward a tantrum thrown out of desire to be removed?

I sat in a corner of the music room with the Grape held snug on my lap. Meltdown accelerated. He kicked and whacked at me, and screamed louder.

"Stop pushing me!" and "Stop hurting me!" he hollered, though I was doing neither. Equal measures of frustration and embarrassment eventually drove me to the hall because he was starting to ruin the class for other kids.

Since we're being honest: I felt like screaming back in his face, in the hopes that I'd snap him out of it. Shock him back to his senses, if you will. R. and I have collected anecdotal evidence that this strategy works.

But the Grape knows I won't yell at him in public. I try ignoring, reasoning, and finally a low growl, but none of it works.

I'm sure the other moms could see me seething. We all know that look, the one that says, "Thank God that's not my kid." I got lots of those yesterday afternoon.

Over the next ten minutes, I explained to the Grape that he wasn't going to get to leave because he threw a tantrum, and that if he couldn't behave at music, he would get no dessert and no show. I looked him in his teary eyes and asked repeatedly, if he understood. He regrouped enough to re-join the class for the last fifteen minutes.

He sat quietly and sulked while I did the hokey-pokey with his friends and their moms.

One the way home, he realized he had overplayed his hand. He didn't object when we stopped at the store and I told him no treats. He turned on the charm, amped up the cute. Said he wanted to snuggle and read and play with Lila the Dog and sing her the songs from music class.

I tried to turn the epic fail into a teaching moment. I reminded him that there were no treats and no shows because of his behavior at music. I extracted what Mary Poppins would call a "pie crust promise" to participate and behave during music next week.

I'm cautiously optimistic. I repeat the mantra of frustrated parents everywhere: Tomorrow is another day. Next time will be better.


  1. I want to empathize. My son's terrible twos stated at 15 months (full on body and head banging into the floor) and by 3 1/2 he had decided that kicking things (his bedroom door, the wall, my leg etc) or punching things (the wall) was the way to both release his frustration and get his way. It was BAD bad. I worried, of course as to how I would manage him because there would come a day in the not too distant future where he would be bigger than me and could really hurt me.

    Enter the Fabulous Fours and a sort of equilibrium set in. Now, my son is six and is still prone to outbursts of frustration, but at just around 4 things improved markedly. He was much more able to self regulate and de-escalate and I had more experience parenting him and learned that removing him from the place of his tantrum, giving him a 1-2-3 count, and taking away the object of his frustration (that he would have to earn back by exhibiting proper behavior) all converged to diminish full-out tantrums.

    I also realized that so much of his tantruming was tied to how I responded. If we went head to head, things got worse, but if I could find a way to be playful BEFORE he hit his red zone, we could often avoid a tantrum all together.

    Work in progress, still, sometimes. Be optimistic. If not, then what, you know?

    1. Sounds not so fun. I'm sorry, but glad you are on an upswing. My kid isn't all that violent, the flailing is way secondary to the wailing. He is all about the scene and demonstration. My big issue is how to take away the object of the tantrum when the tantrum is about leaving/not participating... And making him stay, ie not giving in, disrupts other people's enjoyment of the event.