We’ve all known them, and perhaps also been them – the children who, when denied a toy, turned out of their favourite trike or innocently poked in the eye, see red. They (we) stamp their feet, clench their fists, scream like the Incredible Hulk on a bad morning. Eyes bulge. Hard items are thrown against walls, foreheads. Terrified neighbours peep over the hedge to see if a real-life psychiatric ward escapee has taken you hostage, just like on telly.
Intervening tends to make you come away bruised and shaken, but the initial impulse is still usually to contain the child’s rage, limit the damage to the furniture and your face, keep the racket down. It’s mortifying to have your little one wig out in the queue at Safeways, and incur the glares of other shoppers whose shopping list dos not include being thwacked in the knee with a can of coconut milk by a two-year-old screaming for a lollipop.
The good news, as anyone with older kids tells you, is that it’s just a phase, and they grow out of it. I think it’s largely true, but a part of me wonders if they do grow out of it, or if it just goes underground; if they learn there are better ways to express their anger, or that expressing emotion is condemned by society.
My nephew is, as I hope my sister won’t mind me writing, one of those kids who is intelligent, engaged, funny, playful and creative most of the time…but there are those moments when, shall we say, you approach him at your peril. It’s getting rarer these days, as he grows out of it, or his mum learns ways of diverting the storm before it really hits full power. One of her many parenting insights has been that these conniption fits always seem to have a very basic trigger – hunger, thirst, overheating, tiredness.
Recently at our parents’ house, he started getting wound up, and it looked as though he was going to hit his full, cyclonic level of peace destruction, when he – quite of his own instigation – went to the fridge and ate an avocado. Belly full, tantrum abated. Genius!
His being slightly older than my own son, who is also not shy of the odd hissy fit, might be what equipped him with the initiative to get what he needed – food, and possibly even a more specific kind of food based on what his body lacked. Hey, why not credit him with as much wisdom?
All this has got me thinking. Those difficult moments of childrearing, when you have a baby screaming blue murder while the toddler wees deliberately on your handbag, and the dinner’s burning and you’re about to boink yourself silly with a rolling pin out of sheer frustration (can you tell I’ve had a hard summer?), those are the moments when enlightened parenting theories are about as much use as a frozen pea in a landslide. The tantrum (whether his or yours) always seems to have its roots in a primal need, water, blood sugar, or – though it’s not always possible, much to all our loss – another person to muck in.
And it may be more subtle: a cuddle. A bit of attention. Praise. Being listened to. I freely admit that I am just as immature in my need-expression as Caveboy’s. In fact in some ways I’m worse; I sigh, roll my eyes, stare listlessly out of windows, make reproachful little comments. Those are my invisible tantrums. I dare say they are much harder to understand for the people in my life (namely, long-suffering Caveman) than a good ole yell.
Knowing that tantrums, whether visible or otherwise, have as their touchpaper the most ordinary of needs makes the firestorm transparent, easier to handle, faster to quell. Though God knows I could do with remembering my own advice when Caveboy is screaming as I drag him away from a concrete mixer at lunchtime, or when, indeed, I am doing the dishes viciously, in a silent strop.
Please, remind me. Keep reminding me. Just think of the innocent, defenseless crockery.