Why I grow roots when my toddler tantrums

We have a new contender for Most Challenging Kid in our house.

I’m relieved about the switch over. That is to say, it’s sweet to preference Jo for a change. I never thought I’d say this, but Jo is just so reasonable. And even when he’s unreasonable, he and I have been there and back so many times that we just know how it goes.

Alternately, Cal is developing into his own little power pack of a person. Compared to Jo, I hardly know him. When Cal is happy, it’s a dream. He waves at every person, airplane and truck.  He scritches his nose up, closes his eyes into little slices with a grin, and cackles like a heavy smoker. He walks like Godzilla, flinging his soft pink arms around. But let me give you a word of advice about Cal: don’t take away his keys. Or rather, if you choose to take away the keys so you can open the front door, get ready, because he’s going to cue up his gutteral misery scream and then when you put him down he’s going to throw himself onto his face on purpose, scratching violently at the floor.

We had quite a morning.

I sort of remember this with Jo, but I think that he didn’t tantrum this much at this age. What I do remember was tiptoeing around all day trying to avoid the equivalent of taking away the keys. It sort of worked but I got pretty anxious, constantly scanning for anything that might induce 1 year old upset. I eventually learned the style I use now, which is not to tip toe, but to tell it like it is.

I know you wanted to go swimming, but we’re not swimming today. You can tell me how mad you are about that…<insert scream/fling/scratch/kick> …Yep. I know you’re mad and disappointed. You really want to go and we’re not going swimming.

And, as you may have heard, I got some new ideas through this rad parenting class in the last year. I took the class cause I was at my wits end with Jo, and I remember thinking how awesome it would be to use some of the things I learned with Cal. But at the time, Cal was a smiley, sleepy, doughy infant without a tantrum in sight. Suffice it to say, these days I’m getting to try some of the stuff I learned with Cal. Here’s what works for me.

  1. When I notice Cal is amping up, I briefly check in with myself and decide if I have the energy to do this whole shebang. If not, I give him keys or my phone or let him play in the car while I sit there since I don’t have to be anywhere just then. Or I hand him to someone.
  2. If I do decide I have the energy, I tune into Cal and imagine myself growing roots deep into the ground. I literally do this. It helps me feel stable and calm. (No one I know would ever describe me as stable or calm. I am neither. This is where the roots come in. They help me lean more in that direction.)

    Photo by Kim Seng
  3. I get down on Cal’s level and make sure he can make eye contact with me whenever he wants.
  4. I let him rip through his tantrum.

I did this after we got back from the grocery store today. I tip-toed as long as I could through the produce section. Gave him my phone in the canned vegetable aisle and then thankfully the butcher shop had a ceiling fan. When the butcher asked me what I needed, I actually said “5 lbs of ground beef and a valium.”

On the drive home, I knew without a doubt that we were headed straight to trantrum-ville. I decided that I did have the energy to listen to him. Before ye olde melt down, I managed to get in a phone call with a friend while unloading the groceries, but then I needed the keys. For the door. I’m guessing my friend could hear me saying I needed to go over Cal’s bloodcurdling scream fest. I hung up the phone. And got down on the floor.

It probably took about 6 minutes all told. He screamed and flung himself. He scratched at his snotty face. He looked at me sometimes. I talked to him a little bit. At this point, I had already given him the keys back but it wasn’t really about the keys anymore. He needed to freak out. So I let him. After about 3 minutes of him screaming and me listening and imagining my roots growing ever wider and deeper, I had an impulse to open my arms. When Cal is upset, he usually pushes me away, so I’ve gotten used to being near but not touching him. I had my arms open for about 3o seconds while he cried and looked and considered. And then he walked over and sat in my lap and kept crying. He slowed down enough that he said a word. One of his Cal words that I can’t understand. He sputtered down into silence. Then I offered him some smoothie. He drank some. And it was over.

We spend the next half hour before naptime chatting and eating yogurt and granola. The storm passed.

This is only my 2nd or 3rd experience of what this looks like with Cal, but I must say, it WORKS. When I have the energy, I like handling his tantrums this way because it’s how I like people to handle mine. If AJ tries to distract me from feeling upset, it pisses me off. I get distant and cold when he tries to talk me out of it or give me advice. The best times, always, are when he just listens. And I blubber. And everything crescendos into tears. Only then can I really move on. And then I actually do feel better.

30 thoughts on “Why I grow roots when my toddler tantrums

  1. OOf I could have used your open but patient arms this morning. Just wanted to fight fight fight. And I’m just going iin circles. Getting home last night and just asking A to listen while I whent there and back to Mars & crazy-town. He didnt need to do anything but just not tell me being upset isnt working.


  2. Thank you for this! My two year old has become the tantrum king! I feel bad when I just let him carry on with one but feel a bit better now to know that is a good way to deal with it.

  3. Ma’am,

    Two words – awesomely calm.

    I think I’m going to grow my own roots facing the antique of my 2++ year old drama prince.


  4. This post came at the perfect time. My 19mth old daughter is really showig how strong she is as of late. She’s been taking it out on her brother and myself, not so much my husband as hes at work and doesnt get yhe brunt of it.. I am at the end of my rope and just want to cry all the time. I will try this from tomorrow as she sounds very similar to your Cal.

  5. what a wonderful story about what it means to really listen to our children. I love the metaphor of growing roots, I need to remember that!

  6. This is great. Gives US an option whether to ride it out or not. And yes, most of the time I DO have the energy to let him experience his emotions. Just every now and then it is good to allow ourselves the opportunity to check out. LOL. BTW would you mind sharing what course it was that you took? I am always interested to expand my toolbox.

  7. Growing ROOTS, yes, what a visual marvel. Especially since trees are my go to home. My boys are grown, past the full blown tantrum mode, but wow, this well written account of you in the moment make me easily remember. I too, would just sit on the floor, give myself a hug and then open my arms, they would be there…empty…for up to 5 min, but then they would be filled with one or both of my boys, and the storm would pass, as you say. I feel like this is going to help so many moms, in the moment, thank you for sharing, sincerely.

    1. The thing I love the most about your comment, Carrie, is that you would give yourself a hug FIRST. I think this is the biggest part of parenting this way. You have to take care of yourself, check in with yourself before you do anything else. How old are your boys now? They survived to adulthood?! Do you think parenting in the way you did has contributed to their adult identity? Those of us with littles need to hear from people with you who have gone through this and still remember the grit of what it was like!!!

      1. 🙂 No, they are just 7 and 5…and they still have a tantrum now and again but for the most part it isn’t that “everyday” grind that it was when they were 4 and 2…that was on another level entirely. The stop everything, find a safe distance from them, let the wave of emotion crash over them, hope it didn’t drown me in the process, kind of level. Because I am not also sleep deprived like I was then, have made a pact with myself that I am equal (in need) to my boys, and can see the benefits of all this work coming to fruition, I am willing to continue the work. Does that make sense???
        Sorry if I made you think, I have it all figure out, nope, or that my boys are amazing adults with an incredible emotional IQ, nope to that too. But, your writing this really took me back to the trenches that I have wandered in and I appreciate this knowledge you have bestowed on me, from here forward I am giving myself a hug and growing roots!

        1. I did assume your boys were adults now but not that you had everything figured out. Even so, its really helpful to hear from people who are further down the line. That this gets better and that kids who rage like this turn into relatively reasonable 7 year olds…

  8. Somebody once told me they are the terrific twos not terrible and this totally resets your mind on why children behave they do at two. I work with children and it’s totally true, peolple make terrible twos terrible because they dread it before it even happens, my own children have never had issues,tantrums screaming fits, not sure qhy but maybe my mind set helped. Easier said then done but try think of them as terrific and not negative.xx

    1. i don’t really think of any age as particularly bad or amazing. i just deal with what’s happening in front of me. glad to hear the labeling helped you. just to dig into this a bit–your kids have never had issues or tantrums? i’m sure you have some less than terrific experiences with them–could you let us know where those are? would help in terms of relating to your advice.

  9. Thanks for sharing! I have a 16 month old girl and I know I have this to come…. It was good to read your different strategies in different situations. It’s given me more confidence to be honest with myself about what I can handle and when…

  10. I am a grandmother to a lovely just turned 4 year old Oz. He has his moments and until recently never had a full blown tantrum when out alone with me. I am disabled and very unsteady on my feet but had forgotten my walking stick. We went to buy coloring pens and a new drawing pad at his favorite toy shop. He began to melt down when I refused to buy a train that he wanted. At the cash register it escalated and we left without buying anything. Outside the shop he dropped to the ground in front of me and began to scream. I stepped around him and began down the sidewalk. He shot up and ran to get in front of me again and dropped to the ground but this time with his arms around my ankles. I was able to go around him again but this time he got in front of me and was head butting my legs with his arms around my ankles. I had to grow roots to keep from being knocked over by this furious little boy. Looking to my right I could see that we were in front of the picture windows of a coffee house we frequent. Of course the customers couldn’t help notice our drama as it unfolded. I decided not to make eye contact. What I did do was to keep a constant calm conversation with him, about his being angry and disappointed, about how he mustn’t cause me to fall down, and how I needed him to hear me. This went on forever – actually about 10 minutes – I gradually got around him to a corner window where I could brace myself against the wall. He was becoming exhausted and needed some way to feel safe again so I got him to focus on a bench just over the way and we went, with his agreement, to sit and cuddle. After a time he was calmed down enough, and my heart beat was back to normal so we went into the coffee house and had tea. Been trying to remember if his mother – my daughter – had melt downs like this. She must have done but that was 30+ years ago and my memory is getting sloppy. I always knew I would never hit my child and I never did. That tradition continues with my grandson. Time feels different now, I try to breathe more and take time to be in his moment and not hurry him beyond what he can cope with.

    1. Yowza. That was a serious one. And in full sight of God and everyone.
      It so interesting what you mention about not remembering if your daughter tantrum-ed like this. I ask my mom all the time for details about my childhood and she remembers so little and only the good things and it drives me nuts! Though I hardly know what it’s like to look back on parenting small kids after 30 years has gone by, and if it’s anything like my recollections of my births, its harder and harder to remember the really difficult parts.

      1. I am trying to keep these stories for my grandson’s future! I have pondered on how this melt down happened and my daughter reminded me that they only take him to that shop for TRAINS, so his expectation was clearly that he could pick out a train. Well, we know what happened and from his perspective it was so wrong of me to refuse! The more time I spend with him the more I am in awe of him, his quick wit and joy spending time with me. So lesson learned by me about taking greater care in not setting him up for a melt down. I know he is learning about what he can and can’t expect and he will have many moments of disappointment. Each day will teach us together about good times and bad times, we just remember to be loving through it all.

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