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I can't do it: A story of tantrums

05 May 2020
This touching tale from parenting coach, and all-round child-rearing genius, Alice Hanscam shows us how to handle it right. Now where do I get a Yoda cat…
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A story to share… and oh, how I love stories!

In my care a four, seven, and thirteen year old. The two older ones at the table, totally focused on homework and projects. The 4-year-old–Mr. N I’ll call him–immersed in Lego on the floor. Me? Preparing after-school snacks.
Mr. N, tending toward having things ‘just so’ in life, couldn’t get his Lego plane to look just like he wanted. The whine was the first sign:
“Aaaaliiiccce! I can’t DO it. It doesn’t LOOK right…” Here we go…something that we’d done before and I’m sure would do again.
Me: “You sound frustrated!”
Mr. N: “I can’t DOOOOOOOOOOO it!” Escalating rapidly.
Me: “Can I help?
Mr. N: (Now flopping on floor), “NO. NObody can. I can’t DO it…”
And his half-constructed plane is thrown across the floor, busting all to pieces, and the wailing and screaming that followed was to be admired for its intensity
Okay…so here is where we all find ourselves at some point in our parenting journey–and most likely quite often, depending on age and stage of kids. Here is where I’d like to say how calm and matter-of-fact I felt as I let Mr. N know it is time to take a break and calm down. This is where I’d like to tell you how easily he complied by gathering himself up and snuggling on the couch and quickly pulling himself together to go try again.
I’d like to be able to say that. But the reality? It looked a bit different.
I felt my temperature rise…the words going through my head: “Argh! Mr. N is doing it again! Throwing a tantrum over the littlest thing! And the other two kids are trying to work. When is he going to learn? How can I get him to STOP???”
I did have the where-with-all to act-as-if I felt calm and matter of fact. It helped that I had a 7 and 13-year-old watching me intently, and role modeling for them was important to me. Take whatever works to (pretend to) do it well! I do believe that really was my first PAUSE.
Me, with clenched teeth and an extra firm tone of voice–the best I could do in the moment:
“Mr N, you are having a hard time. Your screaming is making it difficult for the girls to do their work. Time to go downstairs until you are calmer and ready to try again.” Sounds good, right? It was–even if I did feel angry, myself. Self-control–a strength!
Mr N had no ability to pick himself up and head downstairs–too busy wailing and flailing. I picked him up working hard at containing MY anger. Thank goodness for the two sets of eyes watching my every move–another PAUSE of sorts. Off we went down to his room in my house screaming away. I plunked him down and said, “When you have calmed down, we can try again.”
And here is where I can honestly say I did well.
Mr N is screaming and flailing and I found myself sitting sideways in the doorway. I knew from previous experiences that closing the door just added to the turmoil via kicking…and I knew for certain my visible nearness helped him feel connected–even in the midst of doing anything he could to push me away.
Connection is key.
I sat myself down and averted my eyes. I kept Mr N company–quietly and respectfully. I stayed connected and available. I paused. Okay, so I plugged my ears for awhile, as well. And breathed. And wished for him to calm down SOON so we could move on…
Thirty minutes later (yes, thirty minutes–I had quite the time to PAUSE in that doorway!) as his screams had turned to sobs, I found I could interject (you know, in-between sobs when they try to catch their breath?) “I hear you are working at calming down. When you are ready, we can head back upstairs and try again.” Mr N knew he could have my lap if he wanted (he didn’t), he knew I wouldn’t leave…and I respected his choice to pull himself together ‘on his own.’
Then something magic happened.
Truly magic. Down the stairs came my kitty cat–“Mew, mew, mew.” I swear to you, she came down to check on Mr N and all the commotion–she really was! And I used it: “Yoda kitty! You are worried about Mr N! You are here to see how you can help.” And I picked up my fuzzy little kitty and plunked her in the room with my sobbing little friend. Mr N wrapped his arms around Yoda kitty (Yoda was not one to be snuggled, yet this time? She obliged…) and breathed in her soft fur.
Mr N, “Yoda, I love you. Yoda, I’m sad. Oh, Yoda…”
And he totally calmed down. Within a minute or so he said, “I’m ready to go upstairs!” I said, “You worked hard at calming yourself down and Yoda kitty came to help!” Off we went, Lego plane was gathered up and re-built, snacks were had, and all was peaceful. Really!
Tantrums. They are tough. What worked for me?
  • Acting as if I had other eyes a-watching me.
  • Knowing that Mr N needed time and space to gather himself and respecting his way of working through it all.
  • Staying near and available.
  • Pausing–maybe not initially, but in the end, my staying near Mr N gave me the gift of a pause so I really could feel calm. And in turn, this gave Mr N the PAUSE he needed to feel the same. Kitty cat included.
There’s my story for you. One of many. Maybe I’ll share the 13-year-old tantrum of my daughter’s another day.
Really, this is a journey we are all on–it is meant for our growth as much as it is our children’s. Respect this. Welcome every challenge and conflict as an opportunity to become a better you. Always appreciate the parts that ARE working for you–for what we focus on grows. Know you have lots of good company along this journey as a parent!
Me? I am forever grateful to Yoda kitty. She has managed to change the tune of many upset moments. Mine as well as others! Mr N? He is now 12 and builds incredible Lego planes–he shared the fleet of planes he created recently. You know what he said? “Alice, I don’t care if they look just right anymore. Look what I built, just for fun!” And he was glowing.
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Find more suggestions for dealing with tantrums and other tricky parenting situations from Alice (and over 50 other top parenting experts) in the Family5 app
About the author
Alice is a PCI certified parent coach and has 40 years' experience helping families to thrive. She has published two parenting books, with a third on the way. She is the mother of two grown-up daughters.
This post originally appeared in Just ask Alice on 05 April 2019