Friday, January 23, 2009


Here's my favorite temper-tantrum memory:

The toddler in question was Youngest Daughter. I had taken her to the mall, along with Middle Kid, who would have been thirteen or maybe even fourteen by the time this happened. Eldest Daughter was working at the mall back then, and if memory serves, we were there to see her during her break.

ED and MK took off to do some shopping together, and I stayed in the center of the mall with YD. There was a fountain there and YD loved to sit on the edge of it and dangle her toes in the water. That day, unfortunately, toes weren't enough. She wanted the whole-body experience. I said, No. She said, Yes. I said, No. She flung herself on the floor and began to issue blood-curdling screams which bounced off a thousand hard surfaces to create an incredible, ear-splitting, soul-shriveling racket.

I stood beside her and waited for her to tire out. She was young and lusty, though, and kept it up long enough that a crowd began to gather. I didn't notice; I was fully occupied with watching my precious bundle of joy spew out gigantic doses of toddler rage. I didn't say anything at all, just stood, watching, waiting for the tell-tale hiccup which would presage a collapse into baby-sized sobs, and permit me to gather her up for a calming cuddle.

Suddenly ED and MK pushed through the crowd to get to my side. I glanced around, noticing for the first time all the people watching us, and then shrugged a little sheepishly at my older kids. What's wrong with her? asked ED. She's having trouble with the concept of 'no', I said. She'll be all right in a minute. Okay, said ED. We'll just shop a little more, then. She and MK walked away, the crowd dispersed, and the episode ended happily enough with the expected cuddling. YD gave up on tantrums after that, apparently deciding that a tantrum was too much effort to expend if all it garnered was a standard-issue cuddle instead of a dip in the fountain.

Teenagers have tantrums, too, but theirs are harder to handle. For one thing, the rightness and wrongness of a particular position aren't as immediately obvious as whether or not it's okay to swim in the fountain at the mall. Although tantrums tend to be about self-determination, regardless of the age of the tantrum-thrower, teenagers frequently have a point. They're at an age when they need more power over their own lives, and the question tends to be, how much are they ready for? It's a delicate thing. They shouldn't have to be ready to march entirely to Mom's or Dad's tunes - maybe they're never going to be tidy; maybe they really don't like tennis; maybe they'd rather watch baseball than play it. At the same time, parents shouldn't turn their backs on their kids' futures - maybe you'll want to go to college after all, so let's keep those grades up; maybe you'll want to use those eardrums later, so let's turn the music down; maybe you'd like your teeth to stay aligned, so let's sleep with the retainer in.

Handling teenage tantrums - or, more properly, rebellion - takes honesty, insight, and love. It's the hardest part of parenting, and the most important. We all get it wrong a lot of the time, and sometimes we get it right without realizing we've succeeded until years later. It's so hard not to get drawn into the emotions of the moment, to react out of hurt or surprise or anger. I guess the only thing we can do is to try to give ourselves and our teenagers a break. Nobody's perfect here, but everybody's trying, and hopefully love will win the day.

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