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The Rite of Passage Known as the Tantrum


A friend told me last week that she thought the rite of passage must be having your little one have a temper tantrum while walking down Oxford Street and having everyone stare at you in disdain.

Another friend said that the rite of passage is the inaugural supermarket tantrum.  Did you see The Exorcist, she asks me.  She goes on to describe a scene where her little cherub starts throwing apples, oranges and lemons at passers-by while screaming at the top of her lungs.  Said cherub then runs away to what my friend describes as “a section of glass things” and gives her a look that says if her mum comes anywhere near her, she’ll pick up a piece of glass and throw it.  She then runs to another aisle, throws herself on the floor and starts flailing her arms as if she’s doing some sort of 360-degree snow angels interpretive dance.  My friend said it wasn’t the cherub’s head that was spinning around in the manner of one Linda Blair, but rather her own.

To my friends, I say the rite of passage has to be having your two-year-old have a tantrum at the Frieze Art Fair in the middle of an exhibitor’s space which is full of sculptures which you know are going to topple over because you are all too familiar with the aforementioned two-year-old’s determination to let the world know he is upset about something.

In this economic climate, who has the extra funds to pay for three £75,000 sculptures that her son “accidentally” knocked over?  I prefer last year at this same time when my son and I were standing in the White Cube space, and while I looked at one of Damien Hirst’s ‘Butterfly Paintings’, my precious, calm, angelic son picked up something off the floor and handed it to me – a pair of butterfly wings that had fallen off the painting.

Following the Frieze tantrum, in an effort to obtain sage advice from someone who’s survived these close encounters of the not-so-nice kind, I tell my dad about the outburst.  My dad says, “This is only the beginning of him testing you.  If he’s anything like you, he’ll be testing you for the rest of his days.”  Oh, how comforting.  I feel so much better now.

Knowing the peak age for tantrums is two to three, I decided to equip myself with the tantrum experiencer’s toolkit.  Calm demeanour?  Check.  Empathy?  Check.  Diversion?  Check.  Invisible blinders?  Check.  Sense of humour?  Check.  Perspective?  Check.

The main advice is to remain calm.  Okay, got it.  Om.  Om.  I will say to myself that there’s a new sheriff in town and her name is mama.  I am here to maintain civil peace.  I will not crack under pressure, but will keep my composure and take command of the situation.  I will speak in a soft, soothing voice.

While remaining calm, I will empathise.  I will understand that the reason my tiny tot is having a tantrum is likely because he wants something he can’t have, wants to do something he can’t or doesn’t want to do something he has to.  Or, he may think I am trying to thwart his independence.  Or, maybe he is just being a toddler who is looking to be the centre of attention, even if for a negative reason.  I will take into account that he may be tired, hungry, bored or overstimulated.  Overstimulated!  I almost forgot about that one.  It’s making more sense now.  My son probably saw about 500 pieces of art in the space of 45 minutes at Frieze.

One mum said she voices her empathy, offers her children control and then gives them hugs.  At first I thought, with an ounce of sarcasm (no, make it a gallon of sarcasm), “Oh, how sweet, solving the world’s tantrums one hug at a time.”  But after further research, I think this mum is onto something.  Apparently hugs reduce stress, and huggers have decreased blood pressure and heart rates.  Since she is aware that it’s frustrating for her children to feel as if they don’t have a say, she says she offers them control by giving them choices whenever she is able.  This same mum said she gives an abundance of praise.  She encourages her children’s good behaviour by praising it.  Is there a process one undertakes to nominate someone for the Nobel Peace Prize in the Motherhood category?

Another mum said she ignores the hissy fit and failing that, makes a quick dash for the exit.  She says pretending to tend to “more important things” and ignoring the bad behaviour usually works a charm for her.  When it doesn’t, like a sprinter running to the finish line, she leaves the scene of the paroxysm (with child in tow of course).

Because diversion has always worked wonders for me personally, I favour this tactic.  Initially, as soon as I knew Hurricane Fit was approaching, I went cross-eyed, made babbling noises, and did my own rendition of Riverdance to distract my son.  After about five times, he cottoned to my technique and grew more upset.  I have now chosen to try to distract him with something in eyesight – unfamiliar veggies, a colourful bag on a woman’s shoulder, a tall building or my unravelling socks.  This seems to work about 70% of the time for me.  With market tantrums, I start asking whether we should buy cheddar or mozzarella, pesto or tomato sauce, strawberries or apples, and my little guy then has the opportunity to feel more in control by helping me make decisions.

And during those times when he could care less about whether we get melons or blueberries, and is even less interested when I point out the man’s yellow shoes in front of us, I pull out my handy invisible blinders.  When your seraph has moved to the dark side with accompanying wriggles and screams, you owe it to yourself to realise that at this moment, the only two humans that exist are you and your little one.  As animals, we are inclined to turn in the direction of a loud noise, so it is inevitable that every Tom, Dick and Harry will look in the direction of you and your child as your child shouts to make sure his or her larynx is working.  But, it is in these precise seconds or minutes that you cannot let your own assumption of what others think of you – or what they in fact think of you – interfere with how you handle the tantrum.  Sadly, some of them will offer a most unwelcome tsk-tsk or look at you and say they’re two seconds away from calling Child Protection Services.  Others will give you a knowing look, a been there, done that glance letting you know this too will end.

One friend says she has no use for invisible blinders, but chooses to confront all looky-loos.  “I ask them if they have children,” she says, “and if they respond ‘yes’, I say, ‘Oh, good, then you completely understand what I’m going through right now.’”  And if they say no?  “Well, I say, ‘Oh, so you’ve never experienced this sort of thing.  Now I understand the staring.’”

Tanya Byron, of Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways fame says, “Nowadays, when a child is having a tantrum they are labeled as being this awful, horrendous monster who’s going to grow up and be this nightmare adult.”  She adds, “Yes, they [tantrums] can be embarrassing and hard to deal with but they’re a very normal part of a child’s behaviour. I love kids who have tantrums as often these big dramatic scenes are hilarious, it’s just how you frame a situation.”

I believe she’s referring to a sense of humour, as well as perspective.  ‘Tis true tantrums can be emotionally exhausting for all parties involved.  But, they are what they are:  little ones’ blowoff valves that release hissing, hot air because they don’t yet know how else to communicate the emotions they are experiencing.  These episodes will end though, both in number and intensity.  And, although some munchkins may have intermittent tantrums until they reach four or five, there are splendid things called reason and articulation that make life easier.

Inspired by my friend’s story of the Curious Incident of the Toddler on Oxford Street, I wish to inform you all that I am offering a line of t-shirts for a limited time only: I Survived The Tantrums and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt, I ♥ Tantrums, and Mind The Tantrum.  Any takers?

Category: General, This Parenting Stuff


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