I am not a child expert, but I am learning to be an expert when it comes to my own child. I spend a lot of time analyzing my three-year-old son Indigo’s behaviors and habits so that I know exactly what will make him tick and how to prevent a total meltdown.
As a mother, I practice mindful parenting. I let Indigo know that it’s OK to show his emotions and that I value his wants and needs, likes and dislikes. I create structure and healthy habits for him. But sometimes, I react instead of respond to his tantrums. I overcorrect situations in order to ensure his health and happiness.
This year after the winter holidays, Indigo started throwing tantrums so epic that even my mother—who raised four kids and has worked in childcare for 30 years—was surprised by them. He was inconsolable, violent, and filled with rage. None of my reliable tricks to solve toddler woes—removing him from a triggering situation, redirecting his attention to something else, even holding him while he cries it out—were working.
What Didn’t Work
It was hard to stay calm and not tantrum along with him. I found myself having knee-jerk reactions to every whine and scream he emitted. When he was calm, I was on eggshells, waiting for the next outburst of massive proportion. I found myself practicing pranayama, particularly four-part-breath, nonstop in order to quell my own emotional outbursts (it never worked, but I kept trying, anyway).
Whenever my kiddo erupted into tears over something (like me cutting his noodles into smaller pieces) I automatically reacted by trying to talk him down from the heightened emotions he was experiencing. It was a hellish, never ending cycle of torment for both of us.
After one particularly awful day, I locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed. I felt like I just wasn’t cut out for this whole motherhood thing. I even wondered if my then two-year-old needed to see a child psychologist. Was it normal for toddlers to get so lost in their own rage that they could barely breathe? What amount of hitting and punching was normal toddler behavior? I wondered how other parents could get their kids to meditate and practice yoga with them. All my kid wanted to do on a yoga mat was try and tear it apart with his teeth before dumping crackers all over it.
Suddenly, I remembered the advice given to us by his pediatrician when he turned one:
“Let him be angry, and let him know that you are there for him without trying to solve his anger.”
My sobbing subsided and I exhaled.
Don’t React, Respond
Respond to him. Don’t react. Let him self-regulate. Give him a safe place to let go of stuck energy, just like you give yourself during your bathroom sobbing sessions or during time on your yoga mat.
Why didn’t I connect these dots sooner? I wondered.
Because you’re too burnt out from this year, and you are grasping at straws to make things better, the voice in my head replied. I had been reacting, and it wasn’t working. I needed to try responding to his needs by giving him the chance to figure his own shit out.
The next morning Indigo ran around throwing sporadic tantrums. I sat on the dining room table where he could not reach me to avoid being hit. After the third or fourth tantrum within the first hour, I noticed something. His tantrums would move from rage screams and sobs while throwing toys across the room, to running and crying, to lying on the floor and gasping, to wiping away his own tears and breathing normally, all within a span of five minutes and all without any help or interference from me. Over the course of the next few days, his tantrums became fewer and fewer, and they resolved themselves more quickly each time.
It turns out, my kid just needed space to feel.
What a radical concept.
His hitting and screaming were the only cues he could think of to tell me to give him space. And, once I started acknowledging that he needed space to work through his own emotions without my involvement, the hitting, screaming, and gasping breaths didn’t happen as often. When they did, he would apologize and give hugs instead. I felt like I had discovered something monumental in parenthood. It was such a huge relief.
A couple of weeks ago, we began to open up our bubble to our vaccinated family members. My aunt came over to watch Indigo while I showered and had a virtual therapy appointment. My son, who hasn’t interacted with many people over the course of the past year, was not so thrilled about me not being in his line of sight at all times. He began to tantrum, and my aunt tried to calm him down by talking to him and trying to distract him. That made him tantrum even more.
“Auntie!” I called from the bathroom, “Let him work it out by himself. Trust me! Trust him!”
Two minutes later, he was fine.
I walked out of the bathroom to find him reading a book with my aunt, exhaling out the rest of his tears.
We all need space to feel. We all need react, not respond, to the challenges in our lives. We all need to work through the hard things on our own timeline, and much of the time we need to do this without outside interference. Whether we do it on our mat, on the bathroom floor, or in other safe spaces, is up to us.