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They Can’t Always Get What They Want

12 Apr

Ah, tantrums. Even the word sucks. But it’s got nothing on the experience.

When you have a toddler, they are impossible to avoid. But, rumor has it there are ways to defuse them.

If you’ve got the balls.

Learning to discipline your child, especially when he is so goddamn adorable (note: may not apply to yours), is one of the earliest challenges of parenthood. It’s both difficult and has far-reaching implications. Fuck up and your kid may still be throwing tantrums at 16.

My son is creeping towards the dreaded terrible twos (if we’re talking about what’s in his diapers, they’ve already begun!). For the most part, things have been great: he sleeps well, he’s happy, he’s healthy; we can’t ask for much more at this stage. But lately, as his personality has developed and his mobility has increased at a faster pace than his ability to communicate, his moments of frustration have mounted. With that frustration comes the tantrums. And tantrums are the suck.

He’ll scream and cry, he’ll sit on the ground, he’ll throw things; it’s like having a tornado in your living room. It’s tough to know how to react, especially when this is your first rodeo. So you turn to books, websites, maybe your doctor, maybe even the dreaded Other Parents, just for a little advice. And they all say the same thing: the tantrums are just a ploy, he’s testing you, figuring out how far he can go, what works and what doesn’t. So ignore the shit out of him. Even the grandparents agree with this strategy (at least over the phone. Put a screaming grandchild in front of them and it’s a different story.)

And it sounds right. Spend a few days with a toddler and it’s clear that these mood explosions are designed to do two things: get your attention and get him what he wants. When he gets neither, odds are he’ll resort to a new tactic. Hopefully a quieter one. And non-Columbiney.

The problem is, tantrums aren’t easy to ignore. I misspoke when I said they were like having a tornado in your living room. They are more like having a tornado full of European ambulances in your living room. The flailing and the throwing are one thing, the screaming and the crying are another. Try all you want to ignore the dude, but either your increasingly terrible headache or his increasingly raspy screams will eventually get your attention.

God forbid one of these tantrums happens at Target, where ignoring such an outburst is just plain impossible. It won’t be long before you’ve either hip-checked your kid into the lawn furniture or gotten into a fist-fight with the nosy Other Parents who are quietly judging you from the pet food aisle. God I hate Target.

If you’re already at the end of your rope when a tantrum hits – and what parent hasn’t been there? – it’s not always easy to hold back your own incensed screaming. And throwing your own tantrum never works out well, as it typically results in your kid shifting from artificial tantrum-screams to actual “Holy shit I might be about to die right now” screams, which then leads to your own guilt and results in even more vodka than usual with dinner.

Not only is screaming back bad form, “experts” actually say you should calmly engage the child – address his frustration and explain that the tantrum won’t work. My wife does this, and it’s pretty hilarious to watch her bend down and try to reason with the banshee as he howls in her face. I just put my headphones on and shut my eyes real tight.

Of course, giving in to your softer side (or just plain giving in out of exhaustion or frustration) has its own consequences down the line. If your kid gets wind of the fact that his tantrums actually work? You’re screwed. So the battle of wills comes down to a war between the now and the later. Are you willing to sacrifice your immediate peace of mind for potential long-terms benefits? It’s not easy.

Most of the time even the best parent will be provoked into responding to tantrums, usually with either anger or resignation. The trick is to respond with apathy, i.e., not to respond at all. It’s the difference between longer – but fewer – tantrums (he won’t give in until his throat gives out, but he’ll soon learn that shredding his throat for no reason is a fool’s game) and shorter – but frequent – tantrums (he’ll stop when he gets his response, but the next time he’s bored or hungry or annoyed, it’s back to the well.) And it’s easier said than done.

It’s a tough game to play in that you have to sacrifice immediate results for potential longterm benefits. After all, maybe it’s not a ploy, maybe it’s his personality. Maybe your kid is just a spoiled piece of shit and will use tantrums or their equivalent his entire life. Then you’re S.O.L. But if you want any chance at raising a kid who doesn’t blow up the minute he doesn’t get what he wants, letting him scream his unfulfilled little heart out is the way to go.

It’s not necessarily easy to keep doing whatever your doing while pretending not to notice the miniature noise-machine at your feet but you’ll be better off if you can at least fake it. Again, headphones work. And pain killers would probably help. Whether its you or your kid that gets them is totally up to you.

To a non-parent, this kind of solution sounds easy. “What’s the issue here? I want a better kid then this is what I do, simple as that.” In the actual moment, of course, with the actual child in front of you, crying his little eyes out, it’s a hell of a lot harder to resist the quick fix or the frustrated yell. Not only do you have to put up with a fair amount of screaming, you have to deal with the guilt that comes with ignoring it and the uncertainty of whether or not it will even work.

But at least at the end of the day you can say you tried. And having tried will at least make it easier when it’s finally time to kick the demanding little punk out of your house.

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