Guiding children

raising children with love and respect

Trying to keep sanity through tantrums

My son doesn’t exactly love to wash his hair. It’s been no big deal and we’ve washed it anyway, as carefully as possible and using different techniques that we’ve agreed upon. He’s been okay with it – until he was 3,5 and decided washing his hair would mean certain death. It started out as an ordinary “I don’t want to” scenario, but, as I claimed we needed to wash this hair just like we always do, it turned out to be a matter of pride. If he didn’t want to, it mustn’t be done.

This is where all good theory comes to the test. – And they all seem to fail.

I tried listening carefully to his worries. Tried calming him, reassuring him. It worked for a while, until the moment where we needed to move on and do the actual washing. I tried suggesting different ways to do it: Leaning backwards onto my arm, or trying the shower, or even the plastic boat we’ve used sometimes, as a mini-shower. No. Screaming.

I tried letting him wash the hair of a doll he likes to play with sometimes. To show me how he wanted it to be done. No. Screaming. Drowning of doll. So I showed him, on said doll, how we were going to do it. Very gently. He screamed.

I washed anyway then, gently. He violently flailed his arms and hands about to the point he had shampoo everywhere, including nose, mouth and eyes.

He was angry, of course, but also completely terrified. He could not get his way. That makes anyone angry.

But then I was handling him without his permission, and that is simply terrifying. Almost abusive, to him. I hate myself when doing things this way. But at some point, I see no other way.

Except backing down. Tempting as it seems, I wouldn’t do that to him, allowing him to gain from bad temper. I would consider it letting him down. Making myself and my judgement untrustworthy, my decisions weak.  How could he trust me if I can’t trust myself? Why should he do what I say, if I change my mind just because he tries to see what happens? No, I must stand by my decisions if I don’t want more screaming trouble next time he just doesn’t want to.

Also, since then, washing the hair has been a picknick!

He said, of course, he didn’t want to, next time.  Again, I listened to him, taking care to repeat his concern, so he was sure I got the message – without changing my mind. So this time, we could calmly agree upon a way not to get shampoo in his eyes. By him looking up at me, and me slowly rinsing the shampoo off backwards, one little golden lock at a time. Counting to three and then pausing, to make him feel okay with every step. Naturally I was happy about this cooperation, praising him on how well he did, deciding on a way and doing everything right. Didn’t this feel much better? Yes, he was happy too. He had conquered the quest of the hair washing. Success at last!

I guess the difference was, this time, he knew it was going to be done no matter what, so the discussion could be more pragmatic.

– Is this a happy ending? I don’t know. What would the psychologists say?

Living close to Tantrum

I feel like a terrible mother every day, at some point.

My youngest son has been in “the terrible twos” since he was 1, he’s 4 now. We have tantrums daily. Sometimes lots of them (when he’s having a cold they seem to duplicate). They are closely related to hunger or tiredness, so preventing them through basic care is always helping.

However, I can’t prevent the strong will involved. And I don’t want to, really. I love his warm heart, his high energy level, his sensitivity and high ambitions. Until they flip and fall head over heels into emotional melt down.

What happens is this:

He doesn’t get his way.

Maybe I, ever so politely and apologetically, need to interrupt him in a monologue that’s been going on for 10 minutes. Perhaps, like yesterday, to tell him we can’t go with that plan right away (building a boat I think it was), because now it’s bedtime.

So he screams his head off, and mine. It goes from slight annoyance to roaring mode in a second. He gets all red-hot and flustered. He trembles and closes his little fists. Stamps and jumps on the floor. Sometimes melting down the floor to wriggle about for a bit. Flails his arms and fists in the air. (Usually not trying to hit, and when he actually does, he doesn’t hit hard. If I hold my hand out, he hits that. He’s not mean, but very upset. Feeling pressed and prepared to defend himself. I don’t attack though.)

If we need to go somewhere, and need to carry him with us at this stage, he will fight for his life to get free. Grabbing hold of everything he can reach, wriggling and wrestling. And yes, still screaming.

Usually, as you can see, it’s better to stay where we are and let him cool off.  Although when we need to go to work and daycare in the morning, there simply isn’t enough time. Other times it’s a matter of discretion – keeping him away from critical eyes and ears, but also not wanting to disturb other people too much.

He does so much better when not confronted or stuck. When given some space and time to deal with his emotions by himself. All he has to fight then, is the feelings inside him, the disappointment, the pride.

I’m sure these inner conflicting emotions are not  easy on him. He can scream at himself, too, but in a lower voice. Then he acts out pieces of imaginary conversations with himself. Processing the whole thing as a third party and imagining alternatives I guess. This is clearly good for him.

When left for himself for a couple of minutes he can come out again, a happily smiling little ray of sunshine and full of stories to tell. Later there is usually a little hug and a whisper “I’m sorry I yelled before”, and I love him and forgive him, again and again. But never really myself.

– What can I do to make this easier on all of us?

When he was younger he could throw things to the floor. Every meal was a slight volcano of food and drinks flying about, and not only by anger. Even when happy, he likes to throw things into the air. When plates and glasses broke, we got angry with him and he stopped. When things have broken later, even by mistake, he’s been clearly upset, trying to hide the evidence and quickly saying “I’m sorry”.

– Have I accomplished anything here? Because I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

I don’t want to scare my son into obedience. He gets scared when we get angry with him, raising our voices and looking intimidating. Angry too, but scared.

The calm before the storm

Usually my son really is very kind and thoughtful. Several times a day he hugs me so tightly that his whole bode shivers, even if he takes care to hug gently. He is a happy kid, laughing and jumping about, carefree as they can be, most of the time. Deeply concentrating other times, on his painting or building blocks. He is always gentle with smaller kids and animals. He follows instructions very ambitiously when he understands them. He never throws tantrums like these with other people. He loves to help out.

This is where most of his frustration comes from, when he can’t do everything he wants to. Either his motor skills doesn’t allow it, or I don’t. Like when he wants to carry a tray full of glasses, or pour the boiling water from the pasta.

When he refuses to let these things stop him, he usually gets hurt, or break something by mistake.  This makes him anxious, sad, almost terrified – because he knew it was not allowed, but he wanted to prove to the world he actually could do it. Then he didn’t.

Terrible fall for the big mind, and huge but fragile pride, of a toddler.

Handling the Storm

Most times, me screaming back at my screaming child really doesn’t help at all. It gets him into panic mode. He is very sensitive to stress, I figure. Adding stress to a conflict is like pouring gasoline into a fire.

What I’ve tried to do is staying calm and reassuring through the tantrums. Counting to ten, and remembering to breathe, deeply, is a good thing.

We’ve also tried finding creative ways to release anger, eg by throwing soft things outdoors instead of the opposite way around. Or distract him from anger by tickling him, or “catch-me”, with me hunting him with kisses. It’s popular and can sometimes get his mind off the conflict-track.

I keep listening, trying to see what he wants through the tears and the screaming. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding behind the outburst of tears. Him trying to help. Him misinterpreting my words. Him needing just a little help, or extra time, to get going with something important to him. If we can reach an understanding we’re okay.

I try not to get limited by the prospect of a Tantrum. Try to stay positive. Prepare for the possibility that I may need to carry him off in case of a crisis  but usually we can return in a couple of minutes.

I use Time-outs sometimes. Now he uses them himself, walking away when he gets angry.

– Have I accomplished anything here?

Sometimes it’s I who need the Time out, not to loose my temper, telling him I need a break and locking myself in the bathroom for a minute. But this makes him very stressed, banging and kicking at the door, screaming, making my minute in silence the opposite of calm.

And I get it, I’m his comfort zone. If I walk away, I abandon HIM. That’s scary.

Calming down

When he was a baby or toddler it was easy, almost cute, with the little fits. I would hold my arms out for him and he would dive into them, sobbing. I could deal with most of his emotions by just hugging him, letting him cool off in my arms. Nowadays, he still searches for me when upset, climbs onto my lap and wants to be close. I think all the emotions scare him.

This is fine when disappointed in any regular way, but when he’s in a tantrum he doesn’t want too much closeness. He needs to cool off a bit first. Also I don’t want him to relate positive attention and intimacy with the tantrums – we are close at other times, and always when making up.

I’ve tried to hold him down a couple of times, before settling with the cooling-off-by himself method. I heard it was a recommended method to calm down a child in a tantrum. It didn’t feel good or work well. He would fight and fight against my arms, not cooling down at all – but turning more and more into flat out panic mode. Screaming with his eyes rolled up, not seeing me.

Something feels terribly wrong in the concept of  “child-raising-through-wrestling”. I can see the need for it sometimes, perhaps with children with special needs. But it doesn’t feel good. I never held very tight, but I did hold on for long. According to theory, the child would calm down in a couple of minutes, and then relax so you could let go. Not mine. 20 minutes I held him once, letting go as soon as he seemed to relax the slightest. I think it was just to catch some breath, but I took the chance, as it all felt so wrong.

I think the holding down was causing more terror than the tantrum itself had done initially. And with terror comes more stress, less reason.

Calming down is necessary before you can make up, find a solution or understanding. You can’t reach each other when upset and defensive. Calming hormones can be triggered by comfortable body contact; gentle strokes, soft massaging of arms and back, hugging. Sitting on your lap and rocking a bit back and forth, humming softly often takes them back to a comfort zone close to you. It can make you both calm down and feel better again. Sometimes this feeling is worth so much more than words of apologies or explanations. At least to begin with.

Theory and practice

The older brother was a quieter kind. Of course there was, and still is, differences of opinions. Of course mistakes have been made and sometimes outbursts of frustration have occurred, but not like this. I’m thinking maybe some of the good-looking theories about parenting are created by people thinking all children are like those, quiet ones. With them, theory works fine.

It’s easy to have an easy going child. It’s easy to slip into smugness, thinking you must have the solution in your own parenting, that those with more troubled children seem to lack. But perhaps you are just not as challenged. For now.

And perhaps challenge is not all bad. It forces you to think outside your own box, think creatively and be a bit humble to the task of parenting. I mean – what if we don’t know the answer? What if the child really is right?

What if it all seems easy because he just don’t object as loud? Perhaps he’s been run over and hurt too, but digested it inside? What if he’s scared into silence? What will all emotions do with him as he grows?

So I keep trying to use a flexible and caring approach: democratic deliberations and diplomatic solutions, and stick to my No’s in important questions. Every day there is something that I can’t back down from. My little hot headed son should learn to deal with it, sooner or later. I hope. Or I will go nuts.

It feels like torture every time a child is throwing a tantrum. It hurts us, and it hurts them. It’s painful to be a parent of a child with a strong will and hot temper sometimes. Hard to know what to do, and how to do it right.

We never know, in every single moment, what is the best, or even the right thing to do. But we’ll have to give it our best shot, because our children are looking to us for answers.



  1. Loved your post! Love and care is key to everything, so true.

  2. AP

    We have a four year old who is in his “terrible 2s” too! I can very much relate to everything you’ve outlined in your article. Thank you very much for your honest sharing.

    To start off, it helps when we stop punishing ourselves for sometimes reacting in an upset manner to their tantrums. It’s okay to be upset. Catching ourselves raising our voice and “overreacting” is just an interpretation of our behaviour on our part. To accept our responses as they are is the first step towards being able to change them. It’s okay to raise our voices. It’s okay to express how we feel. What we sometimes do is we react to tantrums without explaining why we do so.

    One approach that worked for us in addressing our boy’s tantrums and outbursts of anger was to clearly distinguish between him as our son and his behaviour. So we would say, “We love you always; we sometimes don’t like your behaviour when you do such and such, because you make us feel scared that you will hurt yourself or whatever the case may be”. After a while we noticed him relating to himself as being loved, and his behaviour as two different things. Is this a tantrum-killer? No. I think tantrums will go away just as they came with them growing older. But some traits are based in personalities and they will stick. We would like to avoid reinforcing those that may be purely age based.

    Psychologists say that between 3 and 8 children already decide whether they are cool or clumsy, smart or not so, or the leader or follower at school. Whatever the case may be, we are all in this together and it’s a learning process. Someone said that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. What we want is not a robot, far from it, but we get carried away with our own issues of the day so that far too many times the continued pressures we get from our children seem like additional failures of ours to deal with things.

    A similar approach can be seen in adults, especially in workplace, giving or receiving feedback. Usually the way we used to react to getting feedback from our parents and later through school and socialising with our friends and peers carries over into adulthood. Giving a best shot is indeed a great answer to a lot of situations when we feel we should behave one way but we “can’t help” but behaving angrily. Acceptance that we are excellent parents and clearly stating on every possible occasion to our children that they are loved and that we act they way we do is an expression of our care for them.

    Don’t worry, you will not go nuts. I salute you for your courage and success so far in raising your boy with such profound considerations that you shared with us.


    • Thank you, too, for sharing your thoughts and experiences! I think you are right, that trying to hide our emotions are neither realistic nor trustworthy when in a conflict, and they need us honest I guess. But still with some balance and self control I think. Because, what with sleep deprivation and hormones and general life crisis, there seems to be a flood opening with emotions that would be unfair to actually release upon a child, or anyone. (I’ve gone out into the woods to shout sometimes!)
      It’s also a good point to separate the person from the act. Even though I try and do so, I’m not sure the little child gets the difference? But I hope he will, soon. He’s been sobbing at times, saying he’s a bad boy, or he can’t do anything right. It hurts so to hear that, that’s the very last thing I want him to feel. Of course I say he’s not, and he can do lots of stuff. I also prove him wrong the first chance I get, by suggesting him to help out with a chore he likes to do (maybe chopping bananas for a smoothie, mixing a juice or stirring some sauce) where he gets my full attention and approval. That works wonders to get him happy again. I try and point out how good he is, lots of times when there is no problem. And in a conflict trying to make it clear what the problem was, how to solve it and then pointing out how good he usually is.
      The problem with parenting seems to be, it never ends! When you think you’ve said it all, wisely and well, then they go tired or something and everything turns crazy again! But that would be life I guess, and I do love it! 🙂

      • AP

        Simply beautifully put! I love life too and I am so grateful for every little moment of sobbing, yelling, smiling, and hugging. Having just put my two to bed, the place already feels empty… Sometimes a sense of guilt washes over as if we could turn back the time, be wiser, calmer and quote something from the books. But no need to resist the wave. Get wet. If anything, I know that to repress it never works. Let it wash over you and admit you’re doing the best you can. Whether the little one will understand or not, that very question is the construct of our own mind which made us feel guilty in the first place. So turn it around, admit the best practice and let it all be said in front of the little man as if you were posting it here for all us “grown-ups” to see. They will know even if it takes a few years for us to realise this. Here’s to crazy! Cheers!

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