Tantrums can lead to learning opportunities

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It started with a life jacket.

In a moment of inspiration, I decided to pack the boys up and head to the recreation centre for a swim. Here’s why a simple task like going to the pool can seem monumental these days: first of all, we are expecting a baby in October.  Keeping up with my two little rocket ships is getting more challenging as the weeks pass. Secondly, the boys are getting more comfortable in the pool (great) but are not independent swimmers yet (ugh).  They require a lot of adult supervision, and some form of personal floatation device (PFD). Lastly, my youngest boy, my sweet little blond angel, has a temper suitable for a future career in the World Wrestling Federation.

Back to the life jacket. After a smooth transition from house to car, car to change room, and then to the pool deck, Number Two decided he was swimming on his own with no life jacket. Number One, my conscientious rule follower, had dutifully dawned his PFD with no hesitation and was happily playing in the water already. The littlest was having none of it. As the minutes passed by I could feel the eyes of an entire class of aquacize participants watching us, and I noticed the lifeguard nervously shifting back and forth as my oldest played in the water by himself. So, I went for it. I grabbed the little tyrant and forced the life jacket on him. The ensuing tantrum was epic. There was howling, flailing, and shrieking culminating in a dangerous game of chase on the pool deck. Turns out catching and holding a wet flailing toddler while 25 weeks pregnant is as hard as you might imagine. We returned to the change room, my cheeks burning, and the blood thumping in my ears.

Every parent can relate to these moments. You can’t have a toddler/preschooler without tantrums, they are a normal part of development. They are a natural response to frustration in young children who have limited inhibition and self-control. On an intellectual level, I know this, but emotionally as a parent tantrums are so draining. They occur without warning and often without logical reason, for example, buttering bread on the wrong side.

Every family needs to find their own path with managing tantrums, and what works for one child, or one family may not work for another. What is likely universal is that fatigue, hunger, and overstimulation (for both kids and parents) is almost always lurking in the background of a tantrum. Having an audience, (friends, relatives, or the public at large) often make things worse, particularly because the only thing that parents can control in these situations is their own reaction. Embarrassment can make it difficult to keep your cool, and can affect the way you react in the hopes of making the agony end.

In the tantrum aftermath what I find our boys need most is reassurance, love, and a hug. Respecting children as individuals, with their own thoughts and feelings, you can imagine how frustrating it might be, to feel hungry, hot, or tired, and then be told to do something you don’t want to do. We don’t react well to this as adults, so why should our children? What’s a parent to do? Remaining warm but authoritative goes a long way. Reacting with anger is rarely helpful and often escalates conflict. I try to remind myself that tantrums are the starting point for teaching my boys how to manage anger, frustration or disappointment. 

Many experts suggest naming the child’s emotion out loud “You’re really mad/sad/frustrated” and identifying the reason “because Mommy made you wear your life jacket.” This can be helpful because children learn about the emotions they are experiencing and also feel they have been heard. Once you have their attention revisit the offending issue - “you need to wear your life jacket to be safe.” Keep it simple, and honestly assess the situation. Does your child need to take a break, have a snack, or maybe a nap? Has there been a major change in your life that could be causing stress?

I won’t tell you how this tantrum ended, but we did eventually get back in the pool, and both children did eventually wear life jackets, and we even had a good time. Some days are like that, and other days I need a time out to calm down after all is said and done.  It’s helpful to remember that no one is perfect. Find confidence in what feels appropriate for your child and family during these challenging moments. If it comes from a place of love and respect, you’re on the right track.


TAG: Jan Sommers is a local physician. She lives with her two young sons and husband Ryan Sommers in Truro.

Organizations: World Wrestling Federation

Geographic location: Truro

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