How I figured out what my child's tantrum was *really* about
It started in the kitchen on a Tuesday night. I was frantically running around trying to get my son ready as I prepared a quick dinner for the family. We had approximately 45 minutes from the time I got home from work to when we had to leave again for our next activity.
Things were looking good for an on-time departure.
Even though my son could clearly see me in the kitchen making dinner, he wanted to know if he could have a granola bar, because he said he was simply starving. I told him no, that is snack food, and we would be eating dinner in 10 minutes.
“Well what are we having for dinner?” he asked.
“Chicken nuggets and corn,” I replied.
“Okay, Mom, that sounds nice, thank you for making me dinner, I love you,” he said.
Oh, wait, that didn’t happen.
What he actually said was, “Whaaaat? No, I hate chicken nuggets! I am not eating that!”
This was news to me, especially since he asked me in the car 30 minutes before if he could have them.
While I tried to think of the best way to respond to him, he proceeded to throw himself on the floor and show me how upset he was about this dinner fiasco.
Then the tears came.
He was crying real tears.
Over chicken nuggets.
This is where I struggle as a parent. How do I possibly respond in this situation? I can’t give in and make him something else because that shows him that all you have to do is act irrationally to get what you want. But I also can’t totally get mad at him because, truthfully, he has chicken nuggets far more than he should and I would be sick of them, too.
After much contemplation, while tuning out the wailing that was still in full force, I realized that this was where my moment came in: An opportunity to practice all of the positive parenting skills I had read up on and preach about to my husband.
See, as much as I wanted to respond by yelling back or telling him to quit crying or he’ll have no dinner, I knew that the tears were simply a reflection of emotions he doesn’t know how to handle.
While it seemed like the most ridiculous thing in the world that my son was thrashing himself around over something so trivial, I realized what was really going on.
It wasn’t about the chicken nuggets.
Maybe he had a bad day at school and that granola bar was the one thing he had been looking forward to.
Maybe he didn’t want to go to the church activity that night, so he threw a fit to avoid it.
It is possible that he had been told “no” all day and this last “no” is what threw him into meltdown mode.
Or he could be exhausted—he went to bed late the night before and had trouble getting up in the morning.
Whatever the reason, I suddenly felt a deep sense of empathy for him and my initial feeling of wanting to punish him for such “tyrant” behavior subsided.
I can recall some very specific times in my life that I have wanted to drop to the floor and cry, often for the smallest of things.
In fact, just the other day I felt real feelings of anger and frustration because my husband finished off the creamer and didn’t bother to tell me. When I went to grab it, I learned it was gone and I was ready to throw a fit right then and there.
And just last week I had a meltdown in my car because I couldn’t get my seatbelt locked in and I was hangry and couldn’t control the tears that came flooding in.
Oh, and earlier this month I attempted to make paleo pancakes that crumbled during the flipping stage so I gave up, chucked the pan in the sink and pouted like a child.
I know this feeling of overwhelming emotions all too well. Thankfully, I have learned how to appropriately handle myself in most situations. It’s only taken me about 30 years to get to this point, but I still have my moments.
And I think most of us that have had those days when we are pushed over the edge because of something that seems really small. But we know deep down that isn’t the case at all.
In those moments, our children need us more than ever.
They need us to teach them that it’s okay to feel emotion, no matter what it is and no matter what it is about.
They need us to teach them that there are more effective ways to express themselves that feel better and make the people around us feel safe.
They need us to recognize that they are sad or mad over chicken nuggets or something else and ask why and what we can do to help them in that moment.
They need us to put our own expectations of how we think they should act aside and face the reality that there is a child in front of us that is still developing and learning and that it is our job to teach them how to handle those big scary feelings.
They need us to embrace the tantrum. The messy part, the ugly part, the beautiful part, the part that makes us want to get down on the floor and cry with them.
Because if we don’t, who will?
This is our opportunity to pause and love them when we are triggered ourselves and feeling reactive.
In my case: I knelt down on the floor and wrapped my arms around my son. I told him I love him and that I knew how he felt. I told him that if he wants to talk I would be there and I would listen. Or, if he needed more time, I would give him space.
I pulled the chicken nuggets out of the oven and placed them on a plate along with the corn. I set them down next to him on the kitchen floor, walked into the other room and watched from the couch as he wiped away the tears and ate every last one of those chicken nuggets.
And, you know what? We still had five minutes to spare.