I can count on less than one hand the number of times Dahlia has thrown a tantrum in her short 26+ months.
Tantrums are rare. She was an early talker, able to communicate her needs and preferences clearly, so frustration is uncommon. She is also always connected to either me or her Papa, through our presence or just our attention, and we keep constant tabs on her emotional states and energy levels.
We’re aware of when she’s hungry, tired, or stressed and we take daily, if not hourly, steps to minimize the chances of a tantrum.
In short, her love cup is closely monitored and filled freely and often.
But after 4 days of a mild cough that just wouldn’t let her sleep, 2 days of teething pains (molars!), and an afternoon of exuberant play in the hot sun she was ready for a huge, HUGE, emotional release.
Did I mention huge?
When parents are attacked by their screaming, flailing, kicking, hitting, biting toddler (all of which is new and developmentally appropriate for Dahlia), it’s natural to fall back on a response that is equal parts frustration and fury and fear.
Hell, anytime ANYONE feels attacked by anyone else it’s straight to the reptilian brain, right? Fight, flight, or freeze!
But here’s the thing…when it comes to toddlers, it’s not an attack. It just looks like one.
This is hard for adults to understand. I know.
But what adults forget is that they’ve spent a lifetime fighting back and stomping down (and hopefully processing) their emotions.
Toddlers do not have these skills.
Asking them to control their emotions is like asking them to drive an SUV. They can’t even reach the pedals, let alone comprehend what you’re asking.
Think about the last time you were hangry (hungry+angry). Think about the last time you were cranky because you didn’t sleep well for days. Remember how hard it was to not snap at everyone around you? It was hard, right?
And you’ve had DECADES of practice dealing with this – biting your tongue when you’re cranky, rationalizing your emotions when you’re tired. But it’s still hard. And if it’s hard as an adult, how hard do you think it is for a two-year-old?
It is, in fact, IMPOSSIBLE.
So what’s a peaceful parent to do when faced with a young child on the rampage?
Bring your calm to their storm.
You’re the adult, remember?
You have that magical skill – that skill you almost want to expect your toddler to have except you know better than that – to control and manage your emotions.
So bring your calm to their storm.
Remind yourself that they’re not attacking you personally. You did nothing wrong.
In fact, you did something so right that they feel safe enough with you to let loose in this scary way.
Also remind yourself that this is scary for them, too.
These impulses they’re having are uncontrollable. Their body and emotions have been taken over by lack of sleep, low blood sugar, overwhelm, stress, illness, or a combination of any and all of these things. This moment is harder for them than it is for you. They need your patience and support. They need your maturity and your willpower.
Then, just be there. Let them release all the pent up anger, frustration, and fear. Your loving presence and your accepting silence tells them you love them even when they’re angry and in a fit of fury.
Because you do, right? You love them when they’re angry and full of fury? Of course you do!
The fact that you can handle what they’re hurling at you without diving into the emotional storm with them makes them feel safe and secure. It tells them they don’t have to be afraid of themselves because, well, you’re not afraid of them (or angry at them).
So when Dahlia threw her tantrum today I stayed close enough to keep her from hurting herself (by kicking the table or banging her head on the floor) and I gently but firmly blocked her arms and hands when she tried to hit and scratch me.
All I kept saying was, “I won’t let you hurt me. I see you’re upset. I won’t let you hurt me.”
Now read those words again, but read them as if I was responding to Dahlia screaming, “I love you, Mama! I love you but I’m so angry I can’t stop! I can’t stop hitting! I can’t stop scratching! I don’t know what’s happening! I can’t stop!”
Do you see where my words were coming from now?
Not from a confrontational stance of, “You keep trying and I’ll keep stopping you because I’m bigger and stronger and you’re doing something bad so I will forcibly stop you!”
What I was really saying was, “I see you, Baby Girl. I see you through all this emotion and I know you love me and I know you don’t want to hurt me, so I’m here to help. You can’t control yourself right now and I understand. I got this. You’re safe. Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t worry about me. I’ll keep myself safe, too.”
What I was also saying is, “These emotions are okay. Anger is okay. Frustration is okay. Everything you feel in your heart and in your body is okay. I’m not scared of your feelings. You don’t have to be scared either. Just let them out. You’re safe.”
Someday she will learn how to process emotion differently. Someday she will learn to stop herself before she hits someone out of anger (which, frankly, I did not learn until college).
And someday, when a friend or boss or boyfriend tells her she’s overly emotional or overly sensitive, she will ignore them, secure in the knowledge that all her emotions are good and safe.
Was this all a leisurely walk in the park? Absolutely not. I gave my all to her in that 20-30 minutes. I gave her every ounce of my attention, my awareness, my willpower, my calm, my patience, my understanding, my empathy, and my boundless love.
I drew from reserves I didn’t think I had.
I took deep, slow breaths as she slapped my face and scratched my lip and clawed at my glasses.
I hung in there for as long as she did, and then I hung in even longer until every last tear, every last sob, every last hiccup was spent.
She nursed, stopped crying, and asked me to tell her the story of how she was crying and crying. It’s how she processes big events.
So I told her the story of how she was so upset she cried and cried but Mama held her and stayed with her until she didn’t cry anymore.
And then she was happy again! Like, 100% back to normal. Back to the playful, joyous kid she was before her little cough started.
She was free and light and mellow and when bedtime came she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. Now THAT’S what processing emotion looks like!
It certainly isn’t the easiest part of parenting, but for me, it’s one of the most important. This world spends plenty of time telling people (women, especially) how to look, how to act, and how to feel.
My goal is for Dahlia to someday be able to say, “Don’t tell me how I feel. I KNOW how I feel, and I’m okay with all of it. They’re my feelings, and I accept every single one of them even if you can’t.”
How’s that for self-love?