I See Red – Toddler Tantrums


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.

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18 Responses to I See Red – Toddler Tantrums

  1. Robin watson says:

    What a great read for a Saturday morning. I really was quite surprised how the lady and her young boy resonated with you all these years and the arc it brought to this very insightful piece. Looking forward to the next.

  2. Anna Foley says:

    barbs, I so hear you on all those fronts, and love your honesty in it all. I still struggle, and something that is said in most of the things I have been learning along the way is before reacting, take that breath (as you mention) find your ground within yourself, allow yourself to drop within. My kids easily go off centre with the hustle and bustle of the day, and I notice its more when I am off centre that my buttons are nudged by them. the more I ground myself in each moment, the more I can truly be there for them. As I write this I feel it is a great reminder for me, as in the background I hear violetta going nuts with andrea, the path continues, its not an easy one, however undeniably rewarding. love to you, foles

  3. Amity says:

    This is such an echo for me of exactly where I was with my 2 about 2 years ago. Hugely feisty number one child with a ballet penchant, Small baby, sleep dep, hormones. Toddler taming is a great help and broke the devastating shouting, smacking, crying, apologizing, losing battle repeating cycle that was making me feel like the lowest form of shitty parent. It gets better in many ways particularly as verbal communication improves but also more complicated as they grow older and they learn to read their parents like an open book. I am finding, the tantruming here has given way to a more subtle kinds of drama and I have recently had a light bulb moment regarding the breath taking link between the full moon, my cycle and obvious undesirable emotional output and the rise in anxiety in the 4 year old Mabel leading to pooping of pants, and bed sharing for a week in each 30 days (and any other time there is a rise in domestic stress which has been fairly acute of late) but I know now that there is nothing wrong with my child, she is not a problem child she is after all an extension of me without the power to bring her emotions under control in the way i am finally learning to do for myself at 33. I merely need to redirect the projection of my angst and not sweat the small stuff like the total refusal to wear anything which is not pink and the many many uneaten home cooked presentations on pink plastic plates. There are so many bigger amazing things about my kid and i am better all the time at starting with gratitude as a basis for my approach to her but it didn’t come easily. I think and hope that it is easier with boys. Currently the 2 and a half year old in this house screams at the top of his voice as if he is being slaughtered in order to draw my attention to his demand for more home made natural yoghurt on top of his organic hand mixed muesli (#kidstodaydon’tknowthey’reborn!) “mumma, I need bigger yog-ot now pleeeeeeeeease! Fankyooo” and this is a tricky as he gets. The answer is almost always to simply keep the food coming. Sorry to hijack your blog with my essay. I just want you to know that we are in such similar boats, it’s comforting and supportive to me and so thrilling to read such open honest stuff about parenting. You are so awesome and your kids will be too.

    • Sweet Mother says:

      Honey, this is just beautiful to read. A huge contribution to the conversation. I feel everything you’ve written. Maple definitely responds to stress in the home and I notice that if I’m not coping very well, she acts out. My mood has a huge impact on her and sometimes I really forget this. I’m also aware that when I get angry, I become a truly formidable force and I need to tone this right down. Love you and wish you were closer so we could share all of this. Thank you for your emotive eloquence. Love M x

  4. Melissa Stoffregen-MacDonald says:

    Oh wow!!!!! You are describing my life/ feelings/ household of nearly a decade ago! But (I had a son aged 3 and baby daughter…..reverse of your two) At the time, it was all consuming and everything is magnified when you are somewhat sleep deprived. Having wee ones with you all the time is both wonderful yet relentless…..nearly a decade on, things are somewhat easier – and I realise reading this, that it has been a very gradual process. And dare I say it….I actually really miss those days.

    Your feistiness and need for order and tidiness (are you German too???) is something I very much relate to!!! I promise you though, it is ok to let your standards drop sometimes and let a few things slide to enjoy moments with your babies

    Years ago, I was forced to let things slide and let the “reigns go” not by choice, but due to illness. At the time it was mildly hellish for all of us…but we got through it. At the other end, I realised that the world still turns if Lucy doesn’t have the right bow in her hair and the beds remain unmade. My husband learnt a new appreciation of what my life was like when he took on full time care of our two children so I could focus on recovering. My children realised their own capabilities when they pitched in and helped – they became amazingly independent when we allowed them to be.

    I imagine your wild haired poppet will make an amazing independent woman who will achieve anything she wants through shear will! (you will be exhausted, but she will do great things and you will be proud!!)

    Let her scream, carry on and do her nana….just don’t “buy a ticket to her performance” – walk away, stay (outwardly) calm and ignore……..Then praise positive behaviours and give your attention to the good stuff! Sometimes we are so busy, that we don’t draw attention to the great behaviour, but we react strongly to the behaviour we don’t like. Basically, all these little people want is our attention- good or bad!! Make a point of praising her when she is happily doing something or helping/ being kind/ sitting still etc. (They are like dogs – they need positive feedback to keep doing what we want!)

    My Lucy at the age of 3 had such a wild tantrum (in the crystal and crockery section of David Jones of all places)- flailing arms, screaming, the whole fucking catastrophe- that security approached me to ask what I was doing with this child! They thought I was trying to kidnap her as I was making a hasty exit without breaking $75,000.00 worth of Ladro, Krosno and Wedgewood! I swear! I nearly bloody gave her to them!

    Every mother has been there…and if they say they haven’t, their kids are either heavily sedated or they are lying!!!!!!!

    • Sweet Mother says:

      Stunning contribution to this blog. I am in awe of you dealing with raising two sprogs through illness. Incredible hun. What a power house you must be. Cried laughing at the image of your daughter losing it in David Jones. Horrendous. Please continue to pop in your valuable insights whenever you get a free second. Love M x

  5. Faye Brown says:

    That’s such a great post! I can relate to a lot of that already with Harry. You wouldn’t change your kids, and I love that fact he’s spirited, determined and physical but its exhausting! And he’s just starting on the tantrums and we’ve only got him to worry about! Good luck with your two x

    • Sweet Mother says:

      No you wouldn’t change your kids but in the thick of it you think you might if the opportunity presented itself! Love to you xx

  6. Helen Goodall says:

    Miranda, firstly it’s amazing that you have created this, and have found the time to write such insightful and entertaining accounts of motherhood. I’ve really enjoy dipping in and out of reading your blog, especially having known Mae for the first 2 years of her life and knowing what a feisty young girl she is, confidently using words such as Avocado and Butterfly long before any of her peers had mastered their own names! It certainly is a journey and so different depending on the temperament and character of the child and mother. I recognise that boiling anger and it has really shocked me how that can stir a frightening desire to inflict some kind of pain on this tiny person who you are entirely devoted to and mostly observe with such overwhelming love that your heart wants to explode.
    I find there are phases of tantrums- the odd week where Isaac (2 and a half) is just off kilter and anything will be catalyst for drama, followed by even keeled time where I forget quickly that there was anything else. How much these phases are down to my parenting or mood and how much they are a reflection of what he is going through I cannot say, but I know that if I can maintain a calm response to everything then there is much more likely to be a quicker calmer outcome than confronting him head on. His response to a stern or angry tone is either to shout back or even more infuriatingly giggle his head off, so I no longer go down this route.
    The only major public humiliation I have experienced at his expense was a time he launched himself out of his pram in Waitrose tipping the whole thing over and running off past the tills. I chased him down and with Sahara (5months) in a sling and when I grabbed him he took us all down. On reflection I was idiotic to have gone out at this time, the weather was grim, he hadn’t slept, we didn’t even need anything, I just wanted a destination; what did I expect?
    I’ve discovered there are fake tantrums that can be diffused through humour or blatant refusal to acknowledge that I have anything other than a delightful happy child in front of me. I have also discovered that whenever you think you’ve got something sorted as a parent the next day or week or month a new phase or challenge will present itself.
    I was considering your reflections on noise levels and sleep deprivation and know that I owe much of my capacity for dealing with even the regular energy levels of my 2year old boy to my amazingly calm and undemanding 5month old little girl. I do not take this for granted; she is my little angel and often her presence itself brings out the caring sensitive side of Isaac.
    Keep up the good work Miranda, you are an incredible mum, I miss sharing all these experiences first hand with you but your vibrant writing is a wonderful window into your world.

    • Sweet Mother says:

      Incredible Helen. I concur with all of it. I can just imagine Isaac giggling his beautiful wee head off when you’re remonstrating with him! Your Waitrose incident sounds like a comedy sketch, though I’m sure it didn’t feel too funny at the time. Thank you for this wonderful contribution to the conversation my darling. M

  7. Sweet Mother says:

    Thank you!

  8. Jen says:

    Well, isn’t it lovely to share the joys of tantrums. We had our first/worst public display the other day at lunch… something we have not had to endure and came as a little surprise to be honest. Since Willa was born in January, we have had some lovely and relaxed lunches out with friends – pub lunches too, so felt very lucky. Willa sleeping in the buggy beside us and Polly happily devouring her Sunday roast and then playing away on her favourite iphone/ipad app while we finished our food… I thought we had this amazing little family who were ever so well behaved. Then Polly turned on us, screaming as loudly as she could (Willa no longer sleeping), in a smallish pub. And boy do I try and fight it – which is totally the wrong way to deal with it I know, but I am also a stubborn little brat when it comes to winning the fight. So, rather than breath and ignore it, I took it on and made it all so much worse. Ended up giving in to stop the screaming when I realised the guy behind the bar had swiftly turned up the music to drown it out.

    Wow! I will still be going out for pub lunches, but have learnt my lesson that I will not try and make Polly do anything that causes her to scream that much when I want a quiet lunch… But does that mean she WINS????? Or is it ok every now and again, to preserve sanity, to let her have her way, and avoid the performance? Who cares, I want peace at lunch. She can learn when we are at home, or somewhere that is already noisey.

    I have no idea what I am setting myself up for in the future, but I guess time will tell.

    My other worry now though is Willa – is she sitting back watching this behaviour simply waiting for her turn???

    I can’t wait to see how Mae and Polly get along now they have grown up – it’ll be interesting… to say the least.


    • Sweet Mother says:

      Yep I hear you Jen. I do find myself at times, playing a very childish game with Maple as I gun for the last word. So pathetic. What actually happened in the pub to prompt the tantrum? x

  9. Azrina says:

    Hi! I know it is sad, but it is sort of heartwarming to know that I am not the only one ‘at war’ with my toddler.
    My firstborn is 1 year and 10 months old, the second one is 3 months old.
    I am learning to select my battles and to calmly addressing him when he melts down. Being a person with a well known short fuse, this is a challenge by itself.


    • Sweet Mother says:

      Oh Azrina, I hear you loud and clear. My fuse also has a reputation for being on the short side. Some days I seem to manage my daughter’s ‘challenging’ behaviour so much better than others. My partner is reading a book called “The Manipulative Child” and has started to implement some of the techniques it suggests, so I need to start following suit. Check it out, I think it might be worthwhile. Thanks for your contributions here. M x

  10. 3LittleBirds says:

    I really like this post. I am currently dealing with an extremely difficult 3-year old, my third daughter. My older two were regular difficult, but this child had colic as an infant and has continued to be a real stressor on me. When she throws a tantrum, I can walk away, but she will just not quit. She has screamed for 2 hours before, and routinely screams for 30 minutes. We’ve tried just about everything- I have a degree in early childhood education, so I took quite a few psychology and behavior courses- but nothing is working. It started to get so much better once she was able to speak and communicate her wants/needs, but in the past 4-5 months, I feel like it’s hopeless. We don’t give in, she occasionally gets spanked (which I hate and don’t want to use anymore). Nothing is working and I feel so depressed. I’ve spoken with her pediatrician about it and she said that she is an extremely strong-willed child, not to give in, make sure she’s in a safe place when she carries on, and let her go. That’s hard when I have 2 older girls to care for and the screamer follows me through the house.

    • Sweet Mother says:

      Oh thank you for stopping by. Experts and other parents can give you all the advice in the world but it is so difficult to put into practice with the noise and chaos happening right in front of you, and with other small people who need you. I’m feeling your world of pain and as I do not profess in any way to be an expert on such matters, I just send you a huge virtual hug. All strength to you. One day I imagine your daughter’s strong will, will pay off! Hold tight. M x

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