Are you struggling with toddler or teenage tantrums?
Believe it or not, whether your child is 3 or 13, tantrums are shockingly similar and can often be a message request for the same thing: connection.
We’ve talked about the opposite of assuming, what I call benevolent curiosity before. I’ve waxed on about the importance of maintaining the spirit of curiosity we have in those early baby days as our kids grow. The last time I posted, I promised I’d share a story of my own foibles that helps to illustrate why curiosity, not assuming, is so important.
This gem is about how I got out of my own triggered way to forge a better relationship with my kids.
I should start by telling you that my oldest has always been extremely vocal, almost creepily insightful and in touch with her feelings from birth and she has NEVER been afraid to share said feelings and move quickly to resolution. So, imagine my surprise when I, who had spent a glorious few years feeling like mother of the year because my kid was “so well behaved” was suddenly flummoxed by my second born who threw wicked tantrums seemingly out of the blue.
I was certain there was some diagnosable issue with him because I couldn’t make the tantrums stop and I also couldn’t totally figure out why they were happening in the first place. I mean, I was a “good” mom, obviously, as my first born was a magical people pleaser and never bothered anyone.
Surely then, my second one’s behavior must be because he had problems we had to solve with outside intervention. He was this easy baby who became a giggly, sweet toddler then transformed into a preschooler who was smiling one second, screaming and writhing on the floor the next. Had to be something wrong with him? Right?
Spoiler: It wasn’t him.
It was me. I felt those tantrums in my body as a strong message of personal maternal failure. I was triggered every time they showed up. Because of my reactions to his trantrums my focus became stopping them. Nothing else mattered.
During one particularly bad episode my little guy was surly and mean with explosive bouts here and there for about two or three days. When I hit my limit of patience, I yelled and punished and wrung my hands in frustration with “this kid”.
Even when I did what I thought were the right things, very little changed. All the things that had worked with my oldest, or new things I read about in books or saw on parenting websites seemed not to work. I inquired about what was bothering him. I said I noticed he seemed not himself so maybe he was upset. I tried to name his feelings like the Doctor in that book said I should do. I asked if I could help him figure out why he was not himself and even how to feel better.
I did all the things I thought were “right” to no avail.
Turns out, the things might have been right, but the timing was wrong.
The problem wasn’t the strategies. They were solid for helping kids solve problems and feel better. The issue was that I was trying to use these strategies to stop a behavior that was triggering to me, not to actually address what was underneath the behavior. My son was trying to tell me what he needed with his actions, but I wasn’t listening because he wasn’t saying it in a way I could hear over my own noise.
I assumed his motivations. For me it was, I’m throwing a fit because you’re terrible at this job, mom. For you it might be, they’re spoiled, or they have no respect for me or they are purposefully not remembering the thing I told them a thousand times to do. Whatever assumptions we make, all curiosity goes out the window as we move our focus only on stopping the thing that is bothering us in the moment. We move from seeing behavior as communication to seeing the behavior as the problem to be solved.
Eventually, when I got out of my own reactive way and could see my son’s behavior wasn’t trying to tell me I stunk as a mom, or that he was a personality disorder in the making, I was able to see that the tantrums were communicating a need.
My guys tantrums were a plea for connection. I know, intellectually, that when kids have tantrums they need something from us, but what we know doesn’t always match what we do as parents. We’re human after all. In this case, I was feeling frustrated because I thought I knew how to connect with kids in order to communicate effectively.
See, I could connect with my oldest simply by sitting and chatting with her over a dolly tea party or snuggling and listening to music together. Every time we did these things, she easily shared what was bothering her and we got down to business moving through it together. For my second, the connection wasn’t as clear cut. He needed different things from me so that he could communicate in his own way.
A funny thing happened.
After a few weeks of my preschooler’s behavior had me teetering on the edge, I finally threw my hands up and stopped trying all the things. Instead, I let go and followed his lead. In moments of full blown tantrum, I held him until he chilled. I didn’t try to figure anything out, just helped him soothe. In moments where he was open to leading me out of a tantrum, his lead, as always was toward playing. So, play I did.
After a particularly active morning that included plenty of physical release, as we lay collapsed in the center of our makeshift wrestling ring/ racecar track, my little guy blurted out that he was worried about staying with a new babysitter. A few weeks earlier, we had begun transitioning into me leaving the house more for work and I had given him the heads up of some changes coming including a new baby sitter. After a few days of responding only to his cues instead of trying to “figure him out” in the moment, he felt connected enough with me that he was able to tell me he was nervous about those changes.
It was then I realized my earlier mistakes.
I had been trying to figure out what was causing the tantrums instead of just recognizing them for the message they were sending, “mom, I need you.”
Once I gave him what he needed, the connection he got through play, we were able to address the underlying anxiety that made him feel off-kilter and reaching for more connection in the first place.
In that moment of calm when he shared his thoughts, only then could I go back to all the skills I had been trying in vain to use up until that point. I empathized with the nervousness about change, admitting I was feeling it too. I helped him feel safe with the new sitter by answering his questions about her and about my new schedule. I also assured him that when I got home those first few days, he could weigh-in on the new sitter so he could make sure all was well. Turns out the reassurance was all he needed. No sooner were the words out than he jumped on me and started giggling again.
Flash forward to days ahead where he was calm with me leaving and even had fun with the sitter.
This is when I learned that my curiosity has to extend to the child, not just the behavior. I knew going forward if his cranky/tantrum behavior returned he was seeking connection. I couldn’t go right in for the feelings like I could with my oldest. Instead, I had to give him what he needed to feel safe enough to open up.
His personality hasn’t changed much in all the years we’ve been doing this. He needs time to open up and often he acts like a total jerk in the few days leading up to that opening. His trust comes harder than my oldest, and his style for communicating is more multi-sensory than either of my other kids. As a full fledged teenager, he’s moved from wrestling and race cars to playlists and shared memes for connection first, then communication about the deeper stuff follows later.
I had to learn that rhythm too.
Here’s what’s changed over the years. I’m not triggered by his sometimes undesirable behaviors anymore. I can release them as his way of communicating what he needs. I can also have firm boundaries around what I need. Like, “hey buddy, you can act like a sullen jerk, but not to me”.
As a result, he’s broody, not explosive or tantrum-my. When I notice he’s disconnected and not himself, I don’t freak out like I used to. I simply check in to tell him I’ve noticed something that might mean something, and remind him I’m here when he’s ready.
I did my own work.
I live in a fairly peaceful house full of teenagers because I built a strong foundation once I realized I needed to start the building on myself. I grew my toolbox so that I could continue to identify my own triggers and calm my own nervous system when things go awry. This allowed me then to create a safe place for my kids to work their stuff out however they best need. Ideally, they get to a place where they can do it without disrupting the entire household in the process.
When it all works, well, that is the key to our happy home.
If you’ve got a kid with tantrums, or silent spells, get curious about what they’re trying to tell you. Figure out how to connect with them in a way that feels safe for you both. Examine your stuff so you can help them with theirs.
Start with connection, then you can move to solving a problem. The secret to communicating well with your kids isn’t in what you say, it is in how you listen. Learn them. Accept them. Stay curious. And proceed at a pace that feels safe for you all.
You got this. I know it!