I guess I don’t have a particularly chilled nature. That would be an understatement probably. I’ve always been pretty feisty, outspoken, argumentative. I was perhaps a little difficult as a child. I was challenging. I demanded a lot. I was reading by the age of three because I was desperate to, and would throw plonkers if my new words weren’t on the table waiting for me at breakfast time. Everything evens out with kids. I was just in a serious hurry; impatient, insistent, determined, stubborn, persistent (oh god…I’m describing myself now. Are these attributes set in stone then? God help us all.) and I guess I wanted to get off to an early start. I was singing and dancing around the house and making my interest in music very well known to all. On the one hand, apparently I was extremely rewarding. On the other, I caused a fair amount of stress. So I ought not to be at all surprised that I have a very, very full on daughter. Oh hell yes. All two and a half years of her.
Look, it’s no secret that this is the age for tantrums. I had always heard about tantrums as a thing that happened with most children around a certain age, and quite frankly, I didn’t give a hoot. I didn’t care about children and their ways. I didn’t feel much for the parents because I was wholly unfazed, unaffected, unempathetic (I know it’s not a word but I’m having it…sue me), and in general ‘un’ everything. I remember very clearly, many years ago at Tottenham Court Road tube in London, I was dashing from one train to another circumnavigating escalators and corridors when I passed a mother and her small boy. She literally had him at arm’s length; her hand on his head, holding him at bay while he lashed out with feet and arms trying to attack her. It was so public and so embarrassing, and the hundreds of commuters all stared as they dashed past. I recall thinking “holy shit, poor woman. What a hideous child. How did she let it get this bad?” And then I carried on with my carefree child-free day. The incident remains so vividly in my mind even ten or so years later, because this small boy had reduced his mother to an impotent puddle. To me, it was a shocking thing to see a small child take swing hits and kicks at his own mum. She was vulnerable, desperate, out of control and publicly humiliated. What this woman probably really needed was a warm, kind soul, to stop and ask if she needed some assistance with the kid; someone to embrace her and say “this is not your fault and it will pass but let’s get you out of here.” The idea that I would one day have a child who would instantaneously explode and implode and create a level of noise I had not even thought possible, in my very own living room, had not come close to entering my realm of cognition. Even when I fell pregnant with Maple, all these sorts of things didn’t really bother me. I had entered into the world of mum chat and while tantrums began to be discussed, even then I could not possibly embrace the three-dimensional horrendousness of the real life bastard tantrum. Now I can. Incidentally, I’m aware that it might seem slightly awful to have photos of my daughter tantruming. Just for the critics, these photos are all taken from one solo tantrum performance and quite honestly, it took the sting out of the meltdown for me, so I might just do it again!
What are Maple’s tantrums like? Well actually, the word tantrum ought to be used advisedly. I sometimes apply it quite liberally to all contrary behaviour, which is not entirely even handed of me. Actually she doesn’t truly tantrum all that often. But she can be thoroughly contrary, unreasonable, whingey, difficult, stubborn, needy and screamy for what feels like a lot of the time. If I reflect honestly on the day, Maple’s ‘bad’ behaviour might only account for a very small percentage. However, those bursts of totally exasperating frightfulness leave me feeling like I’ve been steam-rollered. Normal toddler behaviour I know, but there’s just something about it that sticks like a sharp needle under each and every nail. But her tantrums? Wow, they are something else. And they largely centre around clothes or having her hair washed and other things but these are the biggies. A day can start like this:
Oz will go into her room first thing all bubbly and chirpy: “Good morning darling Maple.”
“Morning daddy. Can you please take this top off me and help me choose a dress to wear. An Angelina Ballerina dress.” Please note, that she will most likely already be wearing a dress or a tutu on top of her pyjamas because bedtime was just not happening unless we obliged on that score. Now, daddy must start obliging instantly or the happy morning child suddenly turns on the waterworks and it’s on.
So there are a couple of possible outcomes. Daddy says: “Of course Maple, let’s go.” Now he might offer a couple of choices of dress as was advised by the head of Maple’s childcare centre. Experience tells me that if those two choices don’t cut it with Mae, then this whole two choice thing goes to pot. If Oz loses patience with Maple when she doesn’t want to wear anything he offers up, the entire affair disintegrates into chaos, screaming, and the day has begun badly. If Maple goes for one of the choices then we’re all good to go. But what if we’re in a huge rush to start the day, to get somewhere, get breakfast on the go, breastfeed a baby, change a nappy, get the washing out, take a phone call, get to work, and no one has the time right then in that moment to wade through a wardrobe to get just the right pick of dress to satisfy Maple’s incredibly picky taste? Everything falls to pieces. If we say: “Of course darling…” and oblige her every whim, then peace reigns. If we say, “darling, let’s do breakfast first and then we’ll choose some clothes for the day,” then you don’t just get whinging and a gradual decline into toddler-mare, you get instant screaming, falling to the floor, lips go purple, wild hair goes wilder, and the entire morning centres around Maple. As mummy and daddy feel the rage bubble inside them, quite often we dig our heels in, because we don’t want our two and a half year old to win. Note the word ‘win’. Pathetic isn’t it? But sometimes it really does become about refusing to bow to a tiny little girl’s pressure. In the end, we lose in so many ways.
How do I deal with a tantrum when it happens? This article is most certainly not written from an expert’s perspective, offering advice. Hell no. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that I had a clue. I’m in the thick of it right now, feeling my way, more often than not, totally blind. In short, I’m not good at dealing with tantrums. I see red. I didn’t know that anger like this existed. I didn’t realise it was possible to feel this kind of blood-curdling rage towards a tiny wee girl. But it is possible. And it is essential to reign it in. Of course it is. Some days I do this with a fairly commendable level of success. Other days I blow a gasket and send an already crappy situation into an unfathomably devastating disaster. Sleep deprivation really doesn’t help. I never make things better when I see red. Never. I know this. Everyone surely knows this. It merely fuels the fire and worse than that, can build nasty associations for the wee one. I know this. I make the mistake of assuming that my daughter can rationalise things like a much older child or even an adult. I sometimes find myself using convoluted sentences, loads of words hurled together in my exasperation, rather than short, clear, calm statements. In short, I expect too much of her. There is a base line of standard toddler behaviour isn’t there? Toddlers will be toddlers. And I realise I just haven’t quite got my head around that.
A friend recommended that I read “Toddler Taming” by Dr Christopher Green. She claims that it really helped her out and after reading copious positive reviews on Amazon I dived for it. I haven’t read a huge amount yet, because my teeny bub has been ill and any spare time I have seems to be spent trying to catch up on sleep, or, well, cooking, cleaning, writing, admin, playdates…you know the deal. But what I have read thus far is super simple, commonsense. I make so many of the mistakes Dr Green points out. I nit pick Maple over things that very simply don’t matter. If I could stand back in the moment, I would be able to see this clearly. Let it go. Breathe and let it go. And by nit picking, I create an atmosphere of ‘no’ or nagging or inhibiting Mae’s self-expression. We find ourselves in a vicious meltdown cycle. Breathe. Let it go. I tend to nit pick when she has already wound me up beyond belief. Somewhere inside I snap when she has pushed those same buttons one too many times. I think it tends to be when I’m suddenly stressed about getting somewhere on time, or trying to get Zeph to bed whilst getting Mae to eat lunch, or when I’m trying to keep too many balls in the air. So I’m coming to grips with choosing my battles carefully. I’m not good at it, but it seems to be the only way. Parents have different levels of tolerance don’t they? Some parents don’t mind loads of children screaming and tearing through the house, leaving toys everywhere, climbing up on everything, dragging mud in from the garden and generally taking over. I have low tolerance for noise. Tough luck me. Let it go. Breathe. Toddlers will scream. I have low tolerance for out of control mess. Tough luck me. Let it go. Breathe. Toddlers will make a mess. I have low tolerance for things not working to the clock. Tough luck me. Let it go. Breathe. Toddlers don’t have a sense of timing. I have low tolerance for constantly changing the clothes Maple is wearing upon her whim and the mere utterance of the word ‘ballet’ sometimes makes me want to wretch. Tough luck me. Let it go. Breathe. Maple adores the idea of ballet and loves to dress up and change her clothes as frequently as she possibly can. I have low tolerance for meals not being eaten. Tough luck me. Let it go. Breathe. Toddlers will eat and sometimes they won’t.
So what is a day like if I do let these things go? A week ago I had a noteworthy day of bliss. Oz came home from work and I told him so. “Today was blissful.” “Can you remember if there was anything in particular you did which helped make it blissful?” he asked. “Yup. I let a lot of things slide which usually I would bite at. When she wanted to wear a different dress, I let her wear a different dress instead of getting into a power struggle about what she should wear and sticking with the same dress for an entire day. I let it go. And when she didn’t want to eat much lunch, rather than get all worked up about it and try to penalise her for misbehaving in the highchair, I let it go. And when I felt myself instinctively heading towards a moment where I might raise my voice and become cross, I whispered instead or just forced myself to be totally calm. I let it go. I slowed things down and gave Maple more of my undivided attention whenever possible.”
My control freak self just gave in. It was hellishly hard, but the results were unnervingly positive. My daughter was a saint all day. She played on her own. She chatted incessantly to her toys and me and her baby brother. She asked politely for everything and she was loving, funny, happy and slept well. The entire day and night seemed like an unparalleled success. Slowing things down seemed to be key. Good stints of undivided attention rather than having one eye on emails or dinner or whatever else might be going on. Let’s not forget that there is a small baby in the picture too.
But is this always possible? Is it always possible to breathe, slow down and let things go? Toddler Taming talks about discipline being a learning process rather than punishment. I truly like this idea. Dr Green says that Time Out should be used only as a last resort. Everything is dealt with peacefully, calmly and with love and reassurance. No shouting. No raised voices. Toddlers will explode and scream, but rising to the bait is not the answer. Sooooo much easier said than done, but it is obviously true. I can’t rabbit on too much about the book as I have barely made a dent in it just yet, but I can tell that its focus is where I need to be headed. There’s a long road ahead. My daughter is just incredible. Her vocabulary is glorious and she uses it with such delicious abandon, often entirely unaware of the meaning of some of the big words she speckles her conversation with. Her chatter is bubbly and exciting and without inhibition. She adores Angelina Ballerina and anything ballet-related and while I can’t abide Angelina Baller-bloody-rina, who am I to quash this sweet obsession? She is inquisitive and entering the “why why why” world which is enchanting and challenging. She adores books with a passion and has started ‘reading’ them to her baby brother too, which is heart-wrenchingly beautiful to behold. She is headstrong and stubborn and will not be lead if her heart is not in it. She calls her own shots and is desperate to do everything on her own. It can be frustrating as hell but just so magical if I have the right hat on. So I’m getting it wrong, a lot. I’m on a huge learning curve and my feisty character sometimes clashes with my daughter’s and I need to work towards this not becoming the stone which sets the nature of our relationship.