There was a little girl
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed
But when she was bad she was horrid.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When I was little, I found this Longfellow ditty amusing (it’s fun to say “horrid”). It is less amusing now that I am intimate with the child in question: my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
Sylvia has some serious tantrums—piques and wild rages that degenerate quickly and continue interminably. When she’s not upset, she is very good indeed: engaged, cuddly and generous with her toys and affections. She loves books, gets jokes and gives big belly laughs. She transfers easily from solo play to socializing, baby dolls to pirates, singing to skiing. She’s funny and fun to be with.
Then, suddenly, she’s horrid. Her more-than-occasional tantrums—weeks of three a day plus one a night—are long-lived, as in 30 minutes to hours, plural. Last night, she wanted me to brush her teeth instead of my husband, Adam, and we were out a full evening. I’m pleased she’s a strong-willed kid, and I’m generally a fan of honest emotional expression. But I’m exhausted.
The origin of the word “tantrum” is unknown. It apparently entered the vernacular in the early 18th century, roughly when the concept of a developmentally discrete “childhood” emerged in western psychology and pedagogy.
I am unsure how parents responded to their toddlers’ rages before then: Perhaps as demonic possession? After the past month with Sylvia, I’d happily invite an exorcist over.
Instead, I’ve assembled an ad-hoc panel of experts based on their familiarity with the most up-to-date conditions of modern childhood. I asked them how to best address a two-year-old’s temper tantrums; here are their responses.
Expert A, male, age five and five months: “Let them do what they want.”
I see a couple of interpretations here. Perhaps Master A means the child should be allowed whatever activity he or she so desires and the parent should never intervene, thereby avoiding tantrums altogether. This reminds me of a comment fielded by a teacher-friend of mine, also a parent. “I practice non-violent parenting,” the anonymous commenter commented. My friend answered, “Does that mean you don’t hit your kids?” The taken-aback reply? “It means I don’t tell them ‘No.’”
Oh. What about when your child is hitting her brother, or you? Spitting on the babysitter? You really don’t tell them not to do these things?
It’s possible that Master A means, let the child do what s/he wants to do once the tantrum has begun, i.e., don’t try to stop it or change course. This tack is useful when distraction and humor don’t work (they rarely do). So, we step over or around the completely implacable Sylvia writhing on the living-room floor. If she’s disturbing family peace, I move her to her room. If she’s disturbing the peace of, say, fellow grocery shoppers, I mission-abort. We can buy milk later.
Expert B, female, age five and half: “Don’t get too angry with them.”
It’s hard not to get angry. My inner core is practically molten halfway through the day’s second tantrum. I am beyond divining and validating Sylvia’s feelings. I want to scream, “What part of ‘Use your words!’ do you not understand?!” A realist, Miss B recognizes this impulse—and counsels both compassion and practicality.
Sylvia has many words, but not enough to keep pace with her brain’s clarity of intention, or, really, desire. I misunderstand her, and being misunderstood is intensely frustrating—nearly as maddening to Sylvia as grappling with the fact that she cannot control her entire world, however fit she feels for such an office. And she feels quite fit. That I do understand.
Beyond such insights, little is gained by yelling at a screaming child. I can attest to its futility and to the disappointment of the split-second release it provides. A tensely barked “Calm down!” does not encourage calm. Exasperation is a given, but de-escalation requires at least someone to be even-tempered. I guess that should be me?
Expert C, female, age four: “Go to time-out.”
Miss C elegantly bridges Master A and Miss B. Her solution offers a human-behavior two-fer: Actions have consequences, and taking a break can help everyone out. This is the theory, anyway.
The textbook picture of the contrite child in the “time-out chair” and the relieved, yoga-breathing mother in the next room is not the way it always (ever) looks, at least in our house. It might be more realistic if the mother was trying to settle her heaving chest with a shot of vodka or rolling her head against the wall in despair, but the main difference is with the kid.
How do you get a kicking, screaming two-year-old to sit on a time-out chair? And stay there? I really would like to know; I never have understood the logistics that connect a tantruming child to a chair. If Sylvia’s tantrums include hitting and kicking me, she goes to her room, which is a version of “time-out.” Once there, she applies significant strength and cunning to getting out—or through—the door. Granted, a hollow-core door is a flimsy barrier, but it’s more substantial than the air around a chair. It can be closed to create a space at least the size of one deep breath. It can be opened again for dénoument.
Expert D, male, age two and a half: “Eat it.”
Sometimes, the child just needs a snack; low blood sugar is hell. Noted.
Master D also may be reminding me that I just have to tough these tantrums out: Suck it up, Mama—you gotta eat it for now. Two- and three-year-old kids have tantrums. Even those at the far end of a spectrum keyed to the “spirited child” are not necessarily abnormal. I hate the term “terrible twos,” but it is somewhat reassuring that someone else out there gave this phase a thumbs down.
My dad recently forwarded a Mayo Clinic tantrum-strategy list, and we’re already doing everything it suggests. Homeopathy, acupuncture and psychological counseling for toddlers have been recommended to me, too. I’m not ruling anything out, but I think Master D is right. On some basic level, our family just has to eat it.
Note: Master D was looking at his meatloaf dinner when he was interviewed.
Expert E, female, age two and a half: “One.”
Interestingly, as the experts’ years approached the age in question, their responses became shorter and more cryptic, nearly assuming the character of a Buddhist koan. Other panelists giggled when Miss E offered her advice. I did, too. Miss E made a silly face and dropped her fork on the floor. But hers is the answer I keep coming back to—when I’m taking deep breaths, explaining to Sylvia why she can’t dismantle Theo’s Lego X-Wing Fighter, holding the door, holding her.
It’s meditative, like a mantra. And it’s a reminder that at this one horrid moment, I am only in this one moment—that in this one tantruming phase, which sometimes feels like my whole life, I am only in this one phase. It’s a one-day-at-a-time prescription. It’s a don’t-overthink-it injunction. It’s like starting to count to ten over and over again and realizing that, despite my constant multitasking, I am always just starting—or, rather, I am always just engaging with the one thing before me.