About a year ago, we did a short parenting course to prepare for toddlerhood before it hit. Something I remember our leaders emphasising was that tantrums were absolutely unacceptable at any time, even during the so-called “Terrible Twos”. Their children (now teenagers) never had tantrums, because they were never allowed to start. There was one occasion when their toddler daughter “went to stamp her little foot”, but they, “nipped it in the bud immediately.”
Despite the course, our best intentions and one remarkably serene parent – Lily does have tantrums. Often they arise from frustration, such as when she can’t quite manoeuvre the head of her rocking horse (“Porsey the Horsey”) into range of his “grass” cushion. Sometimes they are triggered by irritation at having an imaginary game of “I’m at the beach” or “I’m going to school” interrupted for dinner or bath-time. Lately she has been really asserting her independence, and a brief but intense eruption can arise when we’re in a hurry and I try and put her knickers on or lift her into the car instead of letting her do it herself. And of course, there are factors such as tiredness and hunger which I’ve become better at recognising.
Quite often the tantrums are minor, and call for only a brief distraction before Lily is her sunny self again. Sometimes they are intense and involve a lot of wailing and clichéd lying on the floor. There are times when her tantrums really push my buttons, and I struggle to retain my own composure.
I tend to refer to tantrums as “melt-downs”. It seems appropriate for the way Lily’s face crumples, tears erupt, and her little body appears almost to cave in on itself like an ice-cream melting. My Dad would call them, “throwing a wobbly”, which is also apt for the trembling lips, flailing arms and stomping feet. Whichever way you look at it, a tantrum thrower is a person out of control.
In all the time that I’ve known him, Jeremy has never had a melt-down or thrown a wobbly. Of course I’ve seen him frustrated, but never out of control. I’m a little ashamed to say that melt-downs are more familiar territory for me. There are moments when I feel the overwhelming need to let off steam.
Recently, I had coffee with a lady in her 60s. Let’s call her Florence. Conversation turned to Lily’s tantrums. Florence looked at me with a mischievous gleam in her eye and confessed, “I had a tantrum today!” She explained that she had been feeling quite stressed for the past few weeks, and the pressure of having to make a big decision, was taking its toll. So, with nobody else home, she gathered her equipment: a cracked mug, a chipped soup bowl, a few plastic bags, a ladder. She placed the mug inside a plastic bag, tied a knot, and climbed up the ladder onto her roof. Then, channelling all of the frustration, disappointment and anger into her hands, she gripped the bag and flung it as hard as she could onto the bricks below. She then secured the soup bowl into her second bag and repeated the procedure.
I listened, eyes wide, mouth agape to a tale that seemed completely at odds with the diminutive, grey-haired lady opposite me. I pressed her for further details, shrieking with glee at the idea of this perfectly orchestrated tantrum. But when I asked her how it felt to throw her dinnerware off the roof, she shook her head sadly. “It was most unsatisfactory,” she conceded. “Bits of mug and bowl broke through the plastic bag, and it made a big mess on the ground which I had to clean up.”
I think sometimes there can be a dark, guilty pleasure in having a melt-down, in letting go and losing control. Of course we feel ashamed for voicing thoughts that shouldn’t be spoken, crying and howling and acting in a completely undignified manner. But then afterwards what’s said is out there, and we’re puffy-eyed and hoarse and a little abashed… but feeling somehow cleansed in a scrubbed-red-raw kind of way. Perhaps, by definition, tantrums can’t be planned.
I’m not advocating regular tantrums. I think the need for children (and adults) to practise self-control is of utmost importance. We’re working hard to teach Lily better ways of expressing herself. Tantrums are ugly. They are selfish. They demand a reaction. They are a pretty obnoxious way of making our needs or desires known. But perhaps occasionally, once in a blue moon… when we’re really stressed or frustrated… it’s forgivable to throw that chipped mug off the roof. Even if we’re not the only one home.