Taming Tantrums, One Breath at a Time*


It’s happened to all of us. One minute you’re casually walking through the supermarket with a cutie in the cart, the next minute you’re trying to keep her contained as she screams because you won’t let her have the Super Sugar Os. (Does anyone else hate the cereal aisle as much as I do?) Your darling has turned darkling, and the entire. Store. Is watching. You feel your own heart start to race, and as you see your child’s face turn into a tomato with tears, you know your own cheeks are flaring red. Panic sets in, and you do the first thing that comes to mind. For some, it’s giving in and handing her the cereal. For others, it’s a quick retreat. And for some, that tiny tantrum is a trigger to something bigger, and they find themselves saying things they know they’ll regret later. What’s the right thing to do?

First of all, there is no clear-cut “right” or “wrong” in parenting. Guiding and nurturing another human being from infancy to adulthood is a grueling, 24/7 job, with confounding factors that constantly come into play. Too often (and especially in this area) we fall into the trap of the “right thing to do,” which is another way to say, “being the perfect parent.” The perfect parent knows exactly what to do in every situation, never loses her temper, tows the line in a gentle yet firm way, never cries, never ever yells, and has perfectly behaved children. She also holds down a full-time job and/or volunteers a minimum of 40 hours outside the home, yet insists with a smile that it’s her pleasure to put a healthy, balanced, home-cooked meal on the table every night. When it comes to parenting, her G.P.A. is a 4.7 on a 4 point scale.

Let’s take a moment right here and be very clear. She does not exist. There is no perfection in parenting. And even if there were, what a horrible thing to do to a child! When we model perfection, not only are we indicating that we expect perfection at all times, we lose every precious moment of learning that comes from making mistakes. When we are able to let go of the concept of being perfect, and instead embrace our glorious imperfections and model how to be human, how to learn from our errors, how to fix things (like relationships, or heirloom china)—that is when we are at our best. When we show how to love ourselves and others no matter what, warts and all, we are teaching our children some vital concepts. Unconditional love, the art of a true apology, and that we have agency in our lives are a few of them.

So, ditch the perfect parent model. What does that leave you with? Well, the model I try to follow is that of the teacher. There is a widely-held belief in the early childhood world that the parent is the child’s first teacher. Or to paraphrase Drs. Dan Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson in their book, The Whole Brain Child, the root of the world “discipline,” is “disciple.” If we see every time we discipline our children as a teaching opportunity, suddenly the world shifts. Instead of that sense of shame that we are somehow doing something wrong as a parent, we see a chance to teach.

What will you teach? What do you want your child to learn in that moment? It may change, depending on the situation. You may want your child to learn healthy eating habits, or that there are better ways to communicate desires. Suddenly instead of being focused on what you should do, you’re focused on what you can teach.

The next question, of course, is how to shift from that moment of, “NOOOO! Not another tantrum! What do I DOOO???” to, “How can I be the parent I want to be right now?” And one particularly effective way to do that is through mindfulness.

I know mindfulness is quite the buzz word these days—I believe there is even a magazine with that title. But the way I’m using it here has to do with simply paying attention. When we practice paying attention to what is happening both around us and within us, we gain the capacity to observe and respond, instead of simply reacting. Taking a small amount of time each day to practice paying attention—whether it be to our breath (the most common), the sounds around us, how the soap and water feel on our hands as we do dishes—creates a kind of space between us and our responses. If we spend the time to learn what it feels like when we’re angry (my heart and breathing speed up, my eyes water, my stomach starts churning), then we also learn how to manage those things (I slow my breathing, I listen to my heart, I place a gentle hand on my stomach). This isn’t to say that you will never feel angry—of course you will! But with time and practice, you won’t feel as overwhelmed by it. You’ll begin to see that emotions in general aren’t something to be suppressed or feared, that they’re simply states of being. And states of being can be changed.

The real magic of this for parents? We give ourselves the space to be the parent we want to be. The ability to take those breaths, those moments, to calm and center ourselves in times of stress allows us to make choices. But most of all, above and beyond all else, we become a model to our children. And as every parent who has heard their tyke utter a swear word knows, they watch and listen to our every move and copy them…often at really inconvenient family gatherings.

Seriously, though, the power of modeling those skills—the taking the breath, the calming and centering, the ability to respond instead of react—how wonderful would it be for our kids to do that at Thanksgiving? And if you take it a step further, if we model the practice to them (or even with them!), we teach that our family values this mindfulness, this

meditative practice. And the benefits from that for us and our children, are numerous--everything from increases in impulse control and kindness, to lower cortisol levels, and even boosts to the immune system have been associated with a regular mindful practice.

Above all, however, love your child. Even through the tantrums and screams and snail trails from their tiny noses, exude that love. Tantrums are a part of life as much as hugs and kisses and tickles. Enjoy each and every moment as much as you can, forgive yourself and your child often, and know you’ll get a whole new day to try it all again tomorrow.

*1st published in the Burlingame Mother's Club newsletter, vol. 42, issue 10

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