The first step is to penetrate the clouds of deceit and distortion and learn the truth about the world,
then to organize and act to change it. That's never been impossible and never been easy. ~Noam Chomsky

Friday, April 1, 2011


We've glimpsed what's around the corner at age 2, but today I actually turned the corner and got a full on toddler tantrum experience.

And I'm at a total loss. I thought I knew what a tantrum looked like. It's the kid kicking on the floor of a Target toy aisle screaming that he wants an toy, right?? Or the mom hauling her 2 year old out of B.arnes and N.oble by her arm while she flails around screaming, right??

I've babysat through minor tantrums I guess. I remember toddlers whining and screaming when they don't get their way. I've smuggly told J "just distract, we just distract or ignore. Tantrums are no big deal."


So here's what happened this morning. And I need advice from experienced mom.

Ariam was in her highchair for a mid-morning video (she watches a video while I take a shower or while I do her hair.) I had given her a pair of kid's headphones to listen to because we're practicing for a long airplane ride next week.

The headphones have been really exciting to Ariam. She loves them and is fascinated by them.

After a quick shower I heard her calling to me so I checked on her in the kitchen. Video was ending. I didn't want her watching more (we really try to limit to 1 video each day) and I didn't want her just playing with the headphones so I asked her to give them to me. She got very grabby and toddlerish. Lots of yelling "mine mine meeee!" and holding the headphones tightly. I really didn't have the patience to coax them out of her hands (probably preferable) so I pried her little fingers open and took them. Put the whole video/headphone system up high and took the tray off her highchair.

She wasn't please. That is the understatement of the year. She did not want to be taken off the highchair or told she couldn't have the headphones. I encouraged her to come help me get ready in the bathroom (she likes to pretend she's putting on makeup or cook with my drawer of hair products.)

Nothing worked. She was very angry. She stood in the kitchen crying and whining and screaming a little. So I just went on my way and finished getting ready in the bathroom.

Fast forward 15 minutes and she was a hot mess. NOTHING I tried worked. There was no amount of coaxing or encouraging I could give to pry her away from holding onto the edge of her highchair and screaming in hysterics.

It took 20 more minutes of holding her, trying to read her books (she would hit them and cry and scream), trying to put her in her crib (she was having none of that) to get her to calm down.

What finally worked was a bottle and some rocking. She was so very very insulted by the whole thing. She looked so angry and defeated and I know she couldn't even remember what she was upset about. She just wanted to hit me and scream and flail. While snot and tears and spit poured out of her and mingled all over the place.

Ick. It was all very awful and I guess a true look at a real tantrum.

So what do you do about these? Do you head them off at the first glimpse? In hindsight this was so much work that I wish I had just redirected her and helped her find a way to be happier after taking away the headphones. At the time though I was seriously patting myself on the back and planning to post on facebook something like "just used a 15 minute tantrum to blow dry my hair!" Smiley face smiley face.

In the middle of full blown tantrum do you try to hold a child even if they are hitting you and flailing? It seemed like she neither wanted to be put down OR held.

Is it ok to give a child a bottle (something you know they love and see as a reward) just to make it stop?

Wow. Seriously. I am exhausted and it is 10:46am. I rocked her until she was tired and put her down for a morning nap. She hasn't taken a morning nap in 5 months at least. I hope she'll sleep. I know I would want to if I had just screamed my lungs out for 40 minutes.

Is this our new norm????? What on earth????


  1. Oh, yeah. I'm a card-carrying member of this club, fo' sho'. Hence my increased # of wrinkles, ability to drink 3 glasses of wine w/o feeling a thing and the consequential extra 5 lbs. *sigh* Sorry it was such a rough morning. Send her over here and she and Noemi can duke it out. :)

    The early interventionist/special educator/behavioralist in me would say that one should NEVER reinforce a tantrum with a highly desired item, such as a bottle.

    BUT the parent of a child whose brain does not work that way due to high levels of blah, blah, blah from too much trauma in her little life would say that sometimes the cycle of the "tantrum" (which may not actually be a tantrum at all, speaking developmentally) needs to be broken so as to regain connection. Sometimes grief, trauma, whatever is triggered and it has little to nothing to do with will/control.

    Sometimes it's just too dang hard to know the difference at this age, but I can say that Noemi's meltdowns have a different shrill when they come from a difficult place, rather than a developmental, "I am exerting my independence" place. In such circumstances, connection and attunement for children who lacked it at one point far outweigh reinforcing a behavior that can be undone tomorrow.

    So yeah, in moments like that I whip out the bottle and get her little brain calmed down. Sometimes she gets so high so that I have to bring her down--she's not capable of doing it herself. Sounds like that's what you knew that you needed to do and that it worked. You're a good mamma. :-)

    Hugs to you. And no, noon is NOT to early for a glass of wine.

  2. We have had a few MAJOR, MEGA meltdowns recently. I'm as much a rookie at all this as you are, so got no solutions! But I do make a rule for myself, which is that I will never, ever, ever let a tantrum be a way for them to get whatever it is that they are tantrumming about. So, if they are going nuts because it's time to go home from the park (ahem, for example) we dont' stay any longer at the park. BUT, when the meltdown goes crazy I totally do other stuff I know will help calm them down - for us that's singing. But I sing to them ALL the time, so it's not like a tantrum is the only way they're going to get that. There comes a certain point when they have gone beyond all reason where they need HELP calming down, I think. I think the problem only comes in when the 'emergencies-only' calming methods become the norm. (For those of us who aren't dealing with RAD and so on, I mean - I'm guessing things look different when kids are dealing with intense, active trauma day after day).

    After typing out this long comment, I think what I really wanted to say was: I'm so sorry you had such a STINKY morning. Hope it got much better by the time you are reading this. May your wine this evening be plentiful, and may she nap like a champion.

  3. Congrats - it sounds like you handled it really well actually. I would think of a bottle as more comfort than reward, and it sounds like A got to a place where she needed that comfort.

    Like Julie, I see a difference between a garden variety toddler tantrum and a trigged and in trauma mode tantrum and they require a different response. For standard tantrums, my son (29 mos old) responds really well to a no nonsense, I'm mommy and I'm in charge approach. For trauma trigger tantrums (which can start as regular tantrums and then mushroom), I often sit on the floor and try to soothe him, and yes, I'll often encourage him to drink some milk from his sippy cup. (If nothing else, it interrupts the screaming.) It is comfort with a touch of distraction and hey, it often works. If he is hitting and flailing around, I will sit by him and rub his back if he refuses to be held.

  4. Wow. Sounds pretty epic!

    I second the "don't reinforce the tantrum with something good" advice. Also, we've found that tantrums last longer the more we try to intervene. Here's what we do:

    As soon as Ayden shows the first signs of a tantrum, we jump in with a response. We make sure that we calmly SAY something about what is going on: "I know you want to play outside, but it is raining so we can't go outside right now. Do you want to play with your cars instead?" More often than not, the suggestion of something else pushes him over the edge, at which point we just repeat again that he can't have what he wants and then we walk away and let him have his fit. This entire exchange is as unemotional (yet kind) as possible. If he is in a place where he could hurt himself or someone else, we just move him to an open area of the floor and walk away. Usually it's pretty short-lived and when he has calmed down, we enthusiastically encourage him to play with us.

    Sometimes it just escalates. At that point, we put him on the floor of his bedroom and tell him that when he is done crying, he can come out and play. Then we periodically (every 5 minutes or so?) go in and ask him if he wants to stop crying and come play. If we hear him stop crying, we encourage him to come out and play.

    Eventually he stops, but sometimes this can last 30+ minutes. Through the whole thing we just stay calm, and reinforce that when he is done crying he will be immediately welcomed back.

    There are a few exceptions--we try to err on the side of grace. If we have reason to believe that he might be sick, teething, tired, etc then we spend a little more time trying to sooth or distract him. But even then, sometimes he just needs to scream his angst out.

    Also, if it has stemmed from a developmental frustration (ex: he is trying to put his train tracks together, but doesn't have the motor skills to do it), we try to give extra grace and address that issue even while he is throwing a fit. But in that case, we encourage him to use words to express his frustration ("next time, ask mama for help") than to just scream.

    ALL of what I just said is for a non-adopted child without potential attachment issues or past trauma. I wonder if any of that is playing into this? Ayden's tantrums have gradually gotten worse, and I wonder if Ariam's sudden jump in angst might be more than just normal 2's?

  5. Julie - I really never understood what you were talking about with Noemi. Now I get it. This was no normal tantrum. This was tantrum turned rage turned inconsolable traumatic emotional breakdown. I just kept looking at Ariam and thinking "I have never seen this in my life." It's very different than not wanting to leave the park (oh yeah, we get a lot of those little meltdowns.) It was just unfiltered rage. I think it was rage at me for not having come to help her pull out of her tantrum earlier. She was so upset that I had gone on my way and finished in the bathroom. Thanks for some really good thoughts you guys!

  6. ugh. or should I say, geesh. I'm sorry that A got to that point this morning. It's so hard to watch your child work through those emotions, and so hard to know how to respond effectively when things are that out-of-control. Unfiltered rage--check. Inconsolable traumatic breakdown--check. I'm here. I get it. I'm on your team. xo

  7. I am so excited to have re-found you!
    Not so excited for your welcome to the world of tantrums.
    Zeni has had some doozies that sound much like the one you described- so pissed and upset and really shattered that she doesn't even know what she is upset about anymore. I always think it must be so scary for her.
    My usual MO is to tell her I understand why she is upset ("I know you want to play with the markers but you just drew on the table and you know that is not ok so I am putting the markers away for now, would you like to do X instead?") Then if it continues to escalate I ask her if she wants me to hold her, if she says yes then I do, but if she hits me then I put her in her crib and check in every 5 min. or so. If she says no then I tell here where I will be and leave her alone.
    Just remember to BREATH!
    There's this parenting (strategy? thing?) that I like called the Circle of Security, they say parents should always be bigger, wiser, stronger and kinder than the kids and this means getting space for yourself and staying in charge of the situation, I try to keep that in mind...
    Good luck!!

  8. These sorts started with Matthew at somewhere between 18 months and 2 years old. He's totally done with them now. I'm not sure we've handled them well over the years.

    I think you have to figure out how to handle them over time, depending on what works for A.

    M is particularly offended if something is taken out of his hands. He likes to prove he can do something and doesn't like it when we've removed that option for him. Of course, sometimes he uses that against us to force out the issue for quite some time. But he really does need to feel the accomplishment of doing the right thing, so we try hard to encourage that, within reason. I simply won't sit and wait in a game of wills for my children to do something they need to do. There has to be a time limit, and I keep it really short.

    But I think what you've hit on is that likely A needs help learning how to regulate herself in times like this. Even this young, we teach our kids how to take deep breaths, which really helps them.

    I personally think that once you've reached this toddler defiance stage, distraction really doesn't work. Maybe there's something in the Toddler Adoption book that will help?

  9. I would really recommend the book "Raising Your Spirited Child". The author has a chapter on "spill-over" tantrums, when the child is "emotionally flooded" ie unable to get control of their overwhelming emotions. She talks about common triggers for different personality types and strategies for preventing, reacting and following up.
    My kid is SO NOT spirited in the sense of this book but I've used the tips successfully in her just-turned-two tantrums.
    Sucking is a primal soothing mechanism; my daughter still resorts to a soother but when she gets older I'll try juice boxes or popsicles. Naming scary things makes them less scary, and articulating a plan is the first step in implementing a solution, so I tell her she's having a flood and needs a chill-out. She wants me there but not touching, so I usually put her in her crib and sit beside her and tell her we can snuggle in the armchair when she's ready - she tells me in a hiccupping voice when it's chair time.
    Also, "Parenting your Internationally Adopted Child" talks a lot about the chemical impact that early trauma has on the brain - the kind of unwinding you describe is like a non-traumatised infant, so your child may now feel connected enough to you to be restarting her clock on emotional regulation. That would make it sensible to respond as you would to an infant.
    These are exhausting for everybody; I wish you both luck in finding strategies that work!

  10. In my enthusiasm to share these titles I've found valuable I forgot to say that I think your assessment is sound, and I wish I could have Facebook-style "liked" a bunch of the comments above mine; your peeps know some stuff!

    (And I should have written 'strategies that work FOR YOU' 'cuz suggesting toddlers are all the same would only p*ss them off and that's not what we're after!)

  11. In my oh so humble, completely unprofessional (okay, fine, I'm basically a rookie too) opinion it depends on the nature of the tantrum as to how you handle it.

    One of my daughters has these incredible raging tantrums that are born of frustration and anger and a whole lot of emotions that neither of us are fully capable of expressing. She'll get going and there is literally nothing we can do to comfort or stop her. So she goes to her bed. Because she can't hurt herself or anyone else in there and it's a comfort spot to her where she is safe to rage. We also repeatedly tell her "When you've calmed down some and want me, I'll come in okay?" We've done this since she was about 18 months old. And without fail, she'll rage herself to basically exhaustion and then she'll want to be held. I think it's a combination of needing the space to have those feelings and her, personally, not really wanting/needing us there until she's ready.

    On the other hand, that same child (who is 3) will have epic tantrums just because I said no. Those aren't born of emotions - those are straight up toddler cranky mood tantrums. And for those, she goes to time out. When she's done, she gets talked to about how we don't hit/throw/scream and told that she is still loved. She also gets a hug. But then she has to apologize to everyone in the house for disrupting their day with her bad attitude. This has been going on for about six months and it seems to be working for us. She has to own her attitude without really being "punished" for it.

    Honestly though, your instincts on what Ariam needs are going to be your best guide. If the tantrums are related to the complicated emotions a child her age can't express, she does need the freedom to express those but she also needs to NOT be rewarded for that expression. Unfortunately, until she's verbal enough to express them some other way, they'll probably continue to be ugly.

    And now, I'll shut up. Because I really don't know anything either.


Some of my very dearest friendships have been made through writing this blog and reading blogs written by other adoptive families. Comments help to facilitate and grow relationships and I welcome any written with positive intentions.

Anonymous negative comments will not be posted. If you want to say it, please put your real name to it! Thanks. :)