Monday, August 2, 2010

Weekly Column: Talk Around The Tantrum

Apparently, I’d said something wrong.

My four-year-old was fighting tears and preparing for flight, while I tried to figure out what I’d said to upset her. It could have been my irritated tone of voice or my own frowning face, but whatever the case, it hadn’t been directed at her. I’d been expressing my own anger at a situation completely removed from my child, and hadn’t tempered my tone or held my tongue. She’d done nothing wrong, but she thought she had; she’d already begun steeling herself for punishment.

When she feels an intimidating emotion – embarrassment, sadness, anxiety, shame, anything uncomfortable – she gets mad. It’s her first line of emotional defense. She stomps away, untouchable, to work through her feelings in private, and I know I should let her have that safe place to handle emotions. But it’s hard for me to let her go.

That day, it was too much for me: it was my fault she was upset. It was my uncontrolled frustration that had made her feel targeted, and it should have been my place to assure her of her innocence. My husband and I both tried to calm her down, show her that she wasn’t in trouble because she’d done nothing wrong, but she was quickly disintegrating into a melt-down.

Direct approaches weren’t going to work.

We left her alone for a few minutes and tried to come up with a way to back her out of this unnecessary defensiveness. All I wanted was her snuggling in my lap while I reassured her with an apology, but I knew she would fight that. If I could just get her to listen to me, without knowing she was being spoken to…

Then I remembered something I’d read once: a way to let the child overhear something, rather than making them sit through a ‘lecture’ they’d otherwise ignore or refuse. To sneak the information to her while bypassing her defensive barriers.

I peeked into her bedroom. She was lying face down on the bed, giving a few kicks and tear-avoiding whines: she was not going to let herself cry. Her little sister was playing on the floor, watching with a concerned expression on her sweet little face.

“Why she kicking, Mama?” my two-year-old asked when she saw me.

I squatted down beside her and began explaining. “She’s kicking because she’s upset. Mama was angry about something and your sister thought I was angry at her. But I wasn’t, and I should have used nicer words. I’m very sorry that she’s sad, but she’s not in trouble – she didn’t do anything wrong.” By now, my two-year-old’s eyes were glazing over with lost understanding but I pressed on, hoping her big sister was hearing me. “I hope she’ll forgive me, because I love her very much, and never, ever want to hurt her feelings.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my big girl’s face watching the discussion. She wasn’t kicking anymore, but she was still hiding on her bed. My toddler, concerned with my long speech, held her arms out and offered me a hug. We squeezed each other and I said, “Thanks, baby! That makes me feel better. I think I’ll give your sister a hug in a few minutes, when she’s ready.”

And, like magic, my four-year-old was hiding a smile on her now-calm face. I hugged her, apologized, and explained.

Then, we moved on with our day. Me with a new trick under my belt, and her with her re-gained confidence – both of us happy to have avoided a melt-down.

[Online version here.]


  1. Brilliant! I'm so glad you're such a thoughtful mama. You really saved the day!

  2. Great idea. I'll have to add this one to my mommy tool box.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?