This article, in its original form, was written in November of 2011.
I spoke with the protagonist, “Mirel,” last week. Baruch Hashem, her daughter is now 13 and having the tantrums typical in form and to be expected of an adolescent. Mirel is coping well and her daughter is the beneficiary.
Here’s what I wrote, ten years and what seems a lifetime ago:
I did not have a tantrum yesterday but if I were younger I just might have.
It all began when I received an email from my friends at the Flatbush Jewish Journal with a list of deadlines by which my columns had to be submitted. When I read it more carefully, I realized it was a single deadline by which two articles were due. There was nothing intrinsically unreasonable about that request. The tantrum I managed to avert would not have been directed at them; they had no way of knowing that my wife and I would be away for the next five days on vacation. It would not have been directed at anyone. It would have simply been an expression of frustration over a situation I was finding very difficult.
Some toddlers have tantrums pretty often. We expect older children to have them much less often, and by the time they become teenagers we don’t expect to see screaming and kicking tantrums anymore at all. Adults seldom throw a tantrum in the usual sense of the word. They’ve learned that kicking, flailing, and screaming are unbecoming, maladaptive, and unproductive.
What do adults who are very frustrated with a situation and who have outgrown having a screaming and kicking tantrums do instead?
It varies. Some get drunk; that’s unbecoming. Some look around for someone to blame; that’s maladaptive. Some do as little as possible to get through the situation as quickly as possible; that’s unproductive. Others marshal their inner resources and seek support and guidance from family and colleagues. They eschew assigning blame, and take responsibility. They adapt to the situation and produce more worthy results.
I did express my frustration to a colleague and she helped me adapt to the situation. I hope that you’ll consider this article a worthy result.
I would consider this article a worthy result if it helped you think about your child’s tantrums differently. Because when you think about your child’s tantrum differently you will respond to them far more effectively.
What do you think to yourself when your child has a tantrum now?
First of all, I think that I didn’t do anything so terrible to her. I don’t deserve this behavior from her. Second of all, I can’t stand it! How long am I supposed to let her scream and kick?
Mirel sounded really angry. Fortunately, I waited to hear if she had anything else to say. Her lower lip began to tremble. She continued to speak but now her voice was breaking.
Mirel: She’s three years old and she hates me. What did I do so wrong?
Me: What you did, Mirel, is tell your daughter that it’s bedtime. She can see that it’s light outside and she’d like to continue to play with her siblings who aren’t going to bed. The situation is hard for her and she’s very frustrated. Is “hate” too strong a word? She probably does hate this situation, and she’s not very good yet at the idea that “you don’t shoot the messenger when you don’t like the message.” So first of all you’re right, you don’t deserve this behavior from her. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to explain that to her when she’s three. [My addition in 2021: You won’t be able to explain it to your adolescent, either.]
Second of all: when you can’t stand it, and you can’t make her stop it, where can you go until she’s done?
Mirel: What do you mean? I should just let her scream and kick? For how long?
Me: Mirel, what else could you do?
Mirel: I don’t know what else to do. If I give in to her she’ll stop screaming and kicking but then what did I teach her? That screaming and kicking is the way to get what she wants. If I scream back at her louder than she’s screaming at me she’ll probably get scared and she’ll get quiet. But then I’ve taught her that if you scream loud enough you get what you want. What else can I do?
Me: What do you think will happen when you say to your daughter, while she is screaming and kicking, “when you’re able to speak to me with your words please knock on my door, because I’m going into my room now,’ and then go into your room and close the door behind you and find something else that will occupy your attention.”
Mirel: I don’t know. How long do you expect me to ignore her?
Me: I don’t want you to ignore her. I want you to focus elsewhere. If you knew she’d be fine without you for an hour what else would you find for yourself to do? Think about it, make sure something is available for you to do in your room, and do it until she’s ready to speak with you.
Mirel did it. She was conscious of the fact that her daughter was continuing to scream right outside of her bedroom door. Rather than trying to ignore it, she continued to focus, to the best of her ability, on the magazines she had set aside in her room. When her daughter became quiet, and tapped gently on the door, Mirel noticed that 45 minutes had gone by. Mirel invited her daughter into the room, and they had a productive conversation about what she had been trying to express to her mother.
That was two months ago. Last week, Mirel informed me that her daughter still has tantrums. Very seldom, and much shorter than before.
If you’re concerned that your child might hurt himself or someone else during a tantrum, do whatever you need to do to keep him safe while you focus elsewhere. Take off his shoes, hold him in your arms, put him into a safe environment, and then direct as much of your attention as you can onto something else.
When something seems like the end of the world to your child and he’s intensely frustrated over it he’s sometimes going to have a tantrum.
You will help him more effectively when you realize that his having a tantrum is not the end of the world for you.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.