Every kid has tantrums differently.
Remember the scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart uses every last iota of his strength to continue talking in congress until he collapses in an exhausted heap at the end of his filibuster? That’s my kids when they tantrum. They don’t just get ticked off, upset or irked; they have nuclear meltdowns of atomic rage and become bent on spreading their radioactive blast of dissatisfaction across the universe until everyone can share their foul mood. My oldest once smashed the front picture window in our living room, a feat of supernatural demolition to make even the brashest rock n roll drummer stop and take note.
The nice thing about tweens is that they are beginning to be more aware of their emotional faculties; the bad news is that they still aren’t masters of it. You may find that your kids don’t even know why they are upset. Kids are like an emotional reservoir of angst-slowly filling up until the damn bursts. A broken toy here, a bruised ego there and the waters rise. Seemingly, the most insignificant event will tip the scale and the flood doors open. Before you know what happened, you will have several weeks of hurt feelings erupting and your child wants to continually kick your shins until they get another cookie.
The culprit for this magical transformation is the amygdala, that little reptilian node in the brain that triggers our fight or flight response. Even though it is almond sized, my children’s’ amygdalae seem to launch incredible hulk like metamorphoses of brute strength. I like to think that my experience is extreme and that not every parent sits on the floor holding back their child from wonton destruction for extended periods of time but if you’ve been there, my heart goes out to you. It’s the perfect combination of frustration, hopelessness, tedium, embarrassment, anger and shame to make you wonder why you ever wanted kids in the first place.
On one such glorious occasion Laura, who I like to think of as my more even keeled kid, went berserker. Laura is also my strongest child both mentally and physically – one time she calmly watched the doctor sew up her severed Achilles tendon while enjoying the hospital’s free applesauce. I don’t know what set her off on the day in question but off she went. I live in an apartment so once the kicking and screaming started, I brought her outside to cool down without disrupting the lives of my neighbors on all sides. I blocked her attempts to reenter the building and warned her that if she kept screaming, she would lose her voice. “It will be your fault” she retorted with a blood curdling disdain that any heavy metal vocalist would envy. And as all parents know, it is always all our fault.
I expected the melee to continue for a while until, like with Jimmy Stewart, exhaustion would eventually win out. But Laura tried a new tactic, one I hadn’t dealt with before; she bolted. She took off defiantly down the sidewalk and I followed. I caught up with her and tried to rein her in but we scuffled to no resolution. This was not going well and I felt my patience decreasing and my frustration increasing. I needed a break. Soon. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned as a parent is when to check in with myself before acting regrettably.
Then an idea hit me, what if I let her go? Could I trust that she’d be all right? Would she stay safe and not run into traffic? Was I shirking my parental responsibilities? I could see the newspaper headline “World’s worst dad lets daughter run to her doom”. I locked eyes with Laura and said something to the effect of “Please go take care of yourself. Walk around the block, cool down, get your anger out and come home when you are ready”. I swallowed my sense of dread, hoped for the best and let her go. I watched her run, slow down, survey me with confused eyes and then take off again.
Back inside I served dinner to my other two children who had been waiting during the whole ordeal. As I sat there and ate, my mind wandered through all the worst case scenarios that could happen to Laura. It was only a matter of minutes that passed but it felt like many uncomfortable hours. Eventually I thought I’d better go back out and find her. Just as I left the table, the door buzzed and Laura came back in.
“This is for you” she said handing me a piece of stained white paper. At first I thought it was garbage that she had picked up in the yard but then noticed writing on it. I looked in her face; her eyes were calm but still red from crying. “I didn’t have a pen or pencil so I used dirt”. I looked at the wind battered page and there, smudged along the top were the words “I love you dad”. Laura took her place at the dinner table as if nothing had happened and I quietly hung my new favorite piece of art on the refrigerator.
That day my tween shifted from an out of control toddler to a young adult who was learning to take care of herself. I have since framed the mud scrawled message and keep it on my desk. It is part battle trophy and part reminder of the fragility of human emotions where in the worst of times, we come back to the ones who support us in a loving way.
John Lundquist lives in Minneapolis, MN where he is a part time co parent of three astronomically cool daughters including twins. He enjoys films, traveling, bicycling, cooking and canoeing. He often blasts hard rock music and laughs at his daughters’ indifference to his tastes.