Sunday, January 22, 2012

Keeping my cool during tantrums

I'm not 100% sure, but I think that Wednesday may have been the worst day of Marko's life. There was that one day when he was a week old and had a stuffy nose and John had just gone to work and wouldn't be back till Friday ... and that one day when he'd been sick for a week and I exploded a Pyrex dish in the kitchen ... but those would be the only two competitors. I have never seen him throw a fit like this in his life.

I see now what other parents are talking about when they say "tantrums." They don't mean, "five minutes of protest." That was Marko's old norm. This was an hour and a half of ridiculous screaming mayhem. It looked like he was auditioning for The Exorcist. And there was no particular thing that set it off, or anything he wanted, or anything that would cheer him up again.

It started with him being a bit tired and cranky. No wonder, he hasn't slept through the night in about a week. So I was thinking it might be time to try for a nap. I picked him up and carried him into the bedroom. That made him a bit crabbier. I sat down in the rocking chair -- again, bad news. There was wiggling and squirming and protestations of "not tired." But I knew that he was, and was pretty confident he'd be out in ten like he usually is in that mood.

Only he wasn't. First he wouldn't let me sing any lullabies (but screamed if I stopped trying new ones). Then he got really, really, avidly into pulling my hair ... not his usual fiddling but full-on yanking. Between that and the thrashing around, I figured he needed more room to move, so I laid down in his bed with him. That made him more angry and the fussy yells increased. He yanked my hair more fiercely. Then he started trying to kick me in the stomach.

Since I have no intention of letting him kick his baby brother or sister, I said calmly, "I don't like being kicked," and moved off the bed. That's when he went from "crabby protests" to "violent screams." He was truly livid, thrashing and screaming incomprehensibly. I quickly realized that I couldn't even get in range of him without getting hurt, so I left the room. Sometimes that helps him calm down when he's upset. This time, not so much.

I could give you the play-by-play, but it isn't a pleasant tale. I tried everything physically possible, and a few that weren't really (the stroller walk in 30-degree weather actually calmed him down a bit, but we couldn't keep that up). In the end I think he calmed down because he was ready to, rather than from anything I did. Even then, the rest of the day was pretty shaky.

What made it worse for me is that I was coming into the whole thing already not feeling so hot. I'd slept poorly and not enough, just like he had. And I had a splitting headache. And I was having way more braxton-hicks contractions than I like. So the whole time he was throwing his fit, I was thinking, "I can't deal with this! I already feel bad! The only thing that will make me feel better is to relax, and he won't let me!" I started out fairly calm, but after the first 20 minutes I was stewing with my own batch of rage.

It just felt unfair that I have to take kicks, pushes, and hair-pulling from him, and I can't do any of that stuff back. And I'll confess, I wasn't exactly gentle with him each time I hoisted him into his crib, or moved him off of my lap when he was hurting me. I felt like he didn't deserve to be treated nicely because he didn't treat me nicely. Childish much?

So I've been reflecting on how to handle stuff like that better. If, as I think, it's a "terrible two" thing, or just a symptom of his age, it's going to keep happening and I really, really want to handle it better in the future.

Here are a few of the things I came up with, which I think will help me keep a peaceful attitude during an awful day:

1. Occasionally it helps to try to do something else (like read a book) during a stressful patch. Almost all of the time, it's really better not to. When the kid is melting down, it's time to put down my book, end my chat conversation, pull the plug on the sink of dishes, and just accept that it won't happen right now. Trying to accomplish something else while Marko is crabby usually leads to me getting pulled in two directions and feeling angry at him for not letting me get the other thing done.

2. It is not my job to MAKE him stop crying. It's hard for me to accept this because usually I can. But sometimes, I won't be able to, and that doesn't mean I'm a failure. It just means he's not open to being comforted. The time he spends throwing a fit depends on him, not me, and it will not be the end of the world if it goes on all day. It isn't personal. It isn't about me.

3. Conversely, it WILL be the end of the world if I give into my feelings of rage and punch my kid in the face. So that's my goal: not to fix the tantrum in him, but to fix the rage in me. If I maintain calm and do not hurt him, I win. I'm a success. His feelings aren't a reflection on my parenting, but my treatment of him is.

4. I have to focus on being gentle with him at all times. Yelling and yanking him around are somehow what seem to come naturally at times like this. But have you ever known a kid to suddenly dry his tears and give a big smile just because you yelled at him? Or seen a kid who was jerked by one arm out of the grocery store, who suddenly calmed down and said, "Thanks for hurting my arm, Mom -- I feel better now"? Of course not. It usually just escalates the situation.

It feels so unfair to have to absorb his rage and give none back. But isn't that what Jesus did for us? When we were still sinners, he died for us. We never could have learned how to be like him unless he had shown us first, when we didn't deserve it. If I'm mean to Marko till he learns to be nice to me, he'll never learn because he has no example to go on. I don't want to teach him that yelling and harshness are okay.

Of course that sounds like a really high goal. No yelling and no angry, rough touching. And, in fact, given my temperament, it might be impossible. Except that NO words and NO touches are also an acceptable option. I can't give back a gentle answer 100 times out of 100. But I can walk away if I have to. I prefer to keep myself available, and for short tantrums I always do. However, walking away when I'm being screamed at or lashed out at is perfectly reasonable. All it teaches my son is that I have respect for my own boundaries, that he can't hit at me and expect me to stick around and get hit.

On Wednesday, after the first hour, I realized that I absolutely could not continue to be a good mother. I wanted to scream, to kick, to cry, just like he was doing. (Have I mentioned before I'm empathetic to a fault? I can't be around angry people and not feel angry, or sad people and not feel sad. Normally it helps me be a sympathetic mom ... today it was really causing me problems.) So I put his crib mattress back into his crib (it's usually on the floor), put him inside, and left the room. I figured he would at least be safe in there, and I could get the distance I needed.

He just stood in the crib and screamed incomprehensibly for about five or ten minutes till I got back. But just knowing that he was safe and I was not near him was a huge relief. In less than ten minutes, I was up to facing him again.

Some people will say you have to be always ON when a child is unhappy, trying to console him. And if he'd been wanting and accepting my comfort, I probably would have been. But there comes a point when you realize what you're doing is doing the child no good and you a lot of harm, and when you reach it, there's nothing wrong with walking away for a bit.

Well, Wednesday did eventually end, thanks to Daddy rocking him to sleep (I don't think he would have accepted me, so thank goodness John was there). And he hasn't thrown a fit like that since. On Friday, he took a nap and woke up screaming. He wasn't flailing or raging, just plain, simple screaming, which he often does when he wakes up. (Nightmare? Night terror? Teething? Who knows!) I tried to put my ideas into practice. First, I reminded myself that it wasn't my fault he was screaming, that it wasn't my job to stop him from screaming, but just to hold him and rock him while he either calmed down or had a good cry. Second, I relaxed as much as I could and thought about growing tomatoes. I didn't try a million things, because I knew he was sleepy and would probably react badly to being talked to or jostled around. I didn't try to puzzle out the causes too much. I just worked out tomato-staking methods and rocked.

After awhile, he started to pause a bit in his screaming and close his eyes. Would he go back to sleep? No, but he slowly calmed down a lot. So I quietly asked him if he wanted something to eat, and he managed to say yes. I went into the kitchen and got him a cookie (because it was what I had readily available, and because I wanted to give him something he wouldn't argue about ... I am not in the habit of randomly giving him cookies, but it seemed more important to help him pull himself together, so sue me) and sat down with him on the couch. He looked at me, smiled through his tears, ate his cookie, and eventually let himself be coaxed onto the potty, which I'm sure helped him feel better.

The rest of the afternoon was great. It wasn't ruined by 20 minutes of screaming. Maybe it just wasn't as big a deal as Wednesday's fit. Or maybe my calm helped keep his upset feelings from escalating. I have no idea. I do know that I felt a lot more peaceful about this time than the previous time. And that's the goal!

Any other tips for not completely going loony while dealing with an angry child? I need all I can get, because I have no guarantee that this won't happen again!

10 comments:

Meredith said...

Oh wow. That sounds absolutely crazy-making, Sheila.

I suggest you buy a quality pair of ear protectors. My mom says she used to put them on when I was screaming like a maniac, and the sight of my red, hysterical face became comical. A toddler is hardly going to interpret the purpose of the headphones, and they make life more pleasant for mom. And if you start to giggle because your toddler looks absolutely ridiculous, maybe it will rub off on him! It can't hurt.

Anonymous said...

Some of these techniques--like thinking about tomatoes--might help you cope with labor as well.

Sheila said...

I am pretty sure giving birth to him was easier. ;)

Mostly kidding.

Tiffany said...

I remember these days. :) With Henry around this age, I used to dread the weekends because they inevitably involved several category 10 temper tantrums. And he could climb out of his crib by this point, hence he was in a toddler bed, so no reprieve there. As well, while in the throes of these tantrums, he would actually try to break and destroy things if I made him go to his room.

So I would just hold him. My arms would ache at the end of the weekend from holding his limbs taut while he tried to thrash around, but it worked. Eventually, he would tire of it, and I'd pounce with a distraction.

It's rough, but just remember, he WILL outgrow it. Hang in there!

Alaina said...

You're definitely on the right track. Keeping your calm and realizing that the tantrum is not directed at you specifically is the best thing to do. Oftentimes, I take a deep breath and remind myself of those things before attempting to engage the screaming toddler. Many times I will just put my kids in their room to settle down. Or put on some music very loud to break through the crying and turn their attention outside of themselves. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Momsomniac here...

I haven't been able to comment (the captch recogniztion isn't workingfor me), so this is a test....some tips coming if this works...

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am going to comment as Anonymous, but this is Momsomniac.

Kindly let me know if I left a comment that resulted in being blocked (here or email me at dbmcneill@live.com)and accept any apologies that are in order. I can't get any captchas to work with my identity. I think it's a glitch, but want to take care...you are always so thoughtful and kind.

Anyway...here goes...

C was, for a long time, the Tantrum Master. Apparently, adoptees are kinda known for their tantrums. C'd go on for 2 hours or more, sometimes several times a day.

At first, knowing he'd been traumatized by the transition to our family, and as adoption specialists had recommended, we tried to love him through it. But then our oldest started throwing them as well (after all, it was getting his brother hugs), so - that wasn't going to work.

C ended up needing speech therapy. It was wonderfully successful and it did help cut down on the tantrums (imagine if you couldn't get anyone to understand you 90% of the time - FRUSTRATING), but that was not the sum total of why he was having such vicious tantrums, so it didn't end them completely.

I learned to put C down somewhere safe and soft, keep an eye on him, and just go about my business. Every now and then I'd ask him "How's that working out for you? Eventually, hugs were in order. But it could take a LONG time to get there.

It was a challenge at first, but knowing he was working through complex emotions in the best way he knew how, just leaving him alone & giving him some time to get it out made it easier.

When THAT failed and I started to freak out, I'd videotape the tantrum. This almost always gave me the emotional distance I needed to stay in Mommy mode instead of going down with him.

Worst case, I'd sit down, close my eyes, and say the Lord's Prayer. Over and over and over.

Most likely it will be a rare event for you - let's hope so! Best of luck to you.

I won't comment again without your okay, but did want to jump in here, since this is a road I know so well, and I am pretty sure the captcha thing is a glitch (?).

I hope today was a better day.

Sheila said...

Oh, dear, I certainly haven't blocked you! No idea what the problem is. I hope other people will let me know if it has happened to them. You could try commenting with Name/URL. That's what I've done when my comments haven't gone through on others' blogs in the past. (Just the other week it was saying that I "didn't have permission to view the site" -- even though it was a public blog.)

Thanks everyone for the sympathy. Things haven't been quite as bad again, mainly because I've headed off minor upsets early on because I'm afraid they'll get worse if I brush them off like I've been in the habit of doing before. Bedtimes, though, have been a huge frustration, and the same techniques help -- mainly just trying to be less goal-oriented and a little more zen about it.

You know, I was tempted to videotape him, just for the sake of demonstrating for posterity (my husband? myself later?) just how bad it really was. But it seemed heartless, so I didn't. However, there's a lot to be said for being heartless rather than getting TOO emotionally involved. A little distance does help.

Momsomniac said...

You can always delete the video. : )

I didn't think my nasal twang had put you off quite yet. : )

'Akaterina said...

I feel for you Sheila. Evie is going through this phase of wanting to test her limits. I ask her to do something she screams "no", and does the exact opposite. Or she does things she knows is wrong on purpose when I am cooking, taking care of Brian, etc. I know part of it is two-year-oldness and part is wanting attention which I cannot give at that moment. Trying to teach a toddler to be patient is like trying to heard cats - impossible.

I must admit, when I get *really* mad, I go either into the bathroom or my bed room for a moment to calm down. This helps to avoid yelling at her. While we do spank, I try to use it as an absolute last resort (generally because I don't believe in spanking in anger). So we do time-outs (in the living room) or time alone, where she can bring one toy or one book and sit quietly on my bed till I am done what I need to do or until I am ready to talk with her (generally the later).

Since my darling daughter has a very head strong personality (stubborn as a mule) and we both tend to butt heads, I find just separating ourselves for a few moments helps. If she throws a fit, she knows that she can only do this is the designated area (we have a corner in the hall way for tantrums at home). She stays there till she is done, and then she can get up when she apologizes.

Kids will be kids and being a stay at home mom, at least in my opinion, can get very stressful when you are around the source of stress 24/7 (kids, house, etc). While it is not always practical to do a mommy's night out, I do find that if I can have 20 - 30 minutes without needing to do housework or deal with the kids, it can make a huge difference. I have started making nap-time my rest time too. I read a book or take a nap with them. Since I started doing this, I have found the days run a lot smoother. If you can't do it because Mark won't nap, encourage quiet play for as long as you can. When Evie was by herself (before Brian was old enough to play) this was usually about 10 minutes - but it is worth having 10 min of no worries.

Good luck!

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